Editorial: Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office owes public answers about Kelly Garrison’s murder

Kelly Garrison's murder by her former husband in Georgia, which left her 2-year-old daughter orphaned, raises a frustrating string of unanswered questions about what more law enforcement could have done to protect her.
Kelly Garrison's murder by her former husband in Georgia, which left her 2-year-old daughter orphaned, raises a frustrating string of unanswered questions about what more law enforcement could have done to protect her.
Published April 9 2018
Updated April 13 2018

A Hillsborough County woman who had been terrorized by her ex-husband moved out of her apartment, obtained a court order, left her job, fled the state and still wound up dead. Kelly Garrison’s murder by her former husband in Georgia, which left her 2-year-old daughter orphaned, shows how difficult it is to remain safe from a determined predator. It also raises a frustrating string of unanswered questions about what more law enforcement could have done to protect her.

Garrison’s nightmare is chronicled in her own words in a petition she filed for protection from Kelley James McDonald Jr., whom she married in 2011. Five years into their marriage he was threatening and trying to control her. Garrison wrote that McDonald, 39, had put a tape recorder in her purse, hacked into her bank accounts and email and showed up unannounced at Corbett Preparatory School in Carrollwood, where she worked as an elementary teacher. Their daughter was endangered at times by McDonald’s actions. Garrison, 35, wrote that he twice left his gun within the child’s reach. As she was packing her belongings to move out of their townhouse, she wrote that McDonald told her, "I’ll get you back for this when you least expect it. You just wait."

Their divorce was finalized in October, but the threats didn’t stop. He tampered with her car, stalked her and called and texted dozens of times a day. Late on Dec. 30, when Garrison walked into her apartment after visiting a neighbor, McDonald emerged from the darkness, slammed her into a wall and started choking her. She broke free only because the neighbor heard her screams, burst in and pulled McDonald off of her. A warrant was issued for his arrest and Garrison obtained a court injunction ordering McDonald to stay at least 300 feet away from her and to surrender any firearms to the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office. Then McDonald disappeared.

Four months passed with no arrest. Earlier this month, McDonald showed up with a gun at the home of Garrison’s sister in Georgia, where Garrison had been staying since February. Authorities say McDonald fatally shot his ex-wife and her sister before turning the gun on himself. He also injured a 16-year-old girl in the house.

How hard did authorities look for McDonald? It’s not clear. The Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office says it pursued McDonald "consistently" and enlisted the help of the U.S. Marshals task force. Citing closely held investigative techniques, sheriff’s spokesman Danny Alvarez wouldn’t elaborate. "Anywhere he left a mark that was public, we would go look for him," Alvarez said.

That’s deeply unsatisfying given the case’s tragic outcome. Garrison did everything she could to escape her ex-husband. Many victims of domestic abuse return to their abusers, continuing the cycle and endangering themselves. Garrison left. She sought help from the police and the courts. McDonald still got to her. Law enforcement surveillance isn’t a top government secret, and a community alarmed by the murder of a mother by a documented abuser deserves more answers.

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