Debbie Fossett was the strong one.
She survived cancer.
She saved her younger brother from drowning in a raging river.
She helped out her daughters financially, doted on her granddaughter and kept things running smoothly at work. She tried to protect those near to her from harm or pain.
Protecting herself was more complicated.
Dear God, she typed on her computer.
What am I supposed to do? I care about this man. I love him. But where do I draw the line between sacrificing for him and allowing him to abuse me?
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A veteran dispatcher for the New Port Richey Police Department, Fossett, 47, was no stranger to the world of domestic violence. She often fielded calls from distraught lovers and probably had heard all the warning signs of domestic abuse.
On Dec. 12, 2003, she listed many of them in a computer file titled "Reasons to stay with Harvey/Reasons to break up with Harvey," refering to her boyfriend, Harvey Gene Davis Jr.
He accuses me of doing bad things I haven't done. He makes me cry. He's too jealous. I can't socialize with old friends. I'm not as close with my family now. We argue way too much.
It wasn't always that way. The couple first met in 1994 after one of Davis' prison stints. His criminal history included convictions for heroin trafficking, battery, grand theft and driving under the influence. He returned to prison after he and another man robbed a Hudson bank. When he got out in mid 2001, he and Fossett reconnected. Davis moved into Fossett's home.
No one understands what drew Fossett to such a man.
"Debbie was a really nice person," said New Port Richey police Chief Martin Rickus. "She was one of those people who always found the silver lining in everybody."
Even Fossett struggled to explain the attraction.
How did I get hooked up with someone who can't even make normal everyday decisions in a logical manner? It was a chance meeting, of two old souls, who were destined to love each other. But back then, the best thing was how easy he was to get along with. He would agree to anything that was of importance to me.
Marsha Allen, Fossett's mother, didn't approve of Davis from the start. She told her daughter so, and Davis as well. She didn't like his criminal past, his manners, the way he carried himself or his drinking.
"We didn't want him around," Allen said last week. "I knew he was cruel. He was always drunk. He always had a beer in his hand."
Fossett told her mother not to worry.
"He'll never hurt me," Fossett said, according to Allen.
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The abuse started verbally, Fossett wrote in a Jan. 11, 2004, letter, which was one of several personal computer files made public through court records. Nasty insinuations about me and his brother. His brother, who is worse of a loser than him. This happened at least weekly. Then there was the brow beating me with my past. I had made the mistake of trusting him with my intimate thoughts, and with information about past relationships. These things were thrown up in my face.
Eventually, the abuse turned physical. Things were the worst when Davis drank, which was often.
Am I right to risk my job, my livelihood, for a man who will hit me when I don't answer him soon enough? Yeah, he'll say he was joking. But he wasn't. He was mad. Whenever I don't answer him soon enough he gets mad. He'll say it didn't hurt me. Well, it did. It still hurts.
Allen never knew that Davis abused her daughter. Neither did Fossett's colleagues at the Police Department, where she worked for 18 years and had served as the lead communications officer since 2001.
"She kept her home relationships separate from her work relationships," said fellow dispatcher Ann Cook.
But Fossett's computer musings signaled trouble. One expert said Fossett's situation sounded like a textbook case of domestic violence.
"It's almost classic," said Sharon Maxwell, director of the Institute of Family Violence Studies at Florida State University.
Fossett seemed to realize that the relationship was unsafe. Yet she grappled with the best course of action, still wanting to help heal the man who was intelligent and loving when sober.
On Jan. 1, 2004, Davis' birthday, Fossett wrote a letter to him on her computer. It is unclear whether she gave it to him.
You keep wanting me to reassure you that I love you, Harvey. Love isn't the question. While I will always love you, I don't think I can live with you in a personal relationship. My body and my pride have suffered so much. I hurt inside and out.
Yet, on Jan. 11, her resolve wavered.
I know what I need to do. I need to tell him it's me or drinking. Well, I've done that. He chooses drinking. And I let him stay anyway. I let him stay because I know he can't function without me looking out for him.
It's a mistake many victims make.
"People cannot change another person, even though we want to," said Esta Soler, founder and president of the Family Violence Prevention Fund in San Francisco. "The only person who can do that is the person who is being violent."
Maxwell, the FSU expert, said abuse victims sometimes use letters to communicate with their abusers. An abuser controls his victim by restricting her contact with family and opening her mail, so the victim figures the abuser likely will read her personal journals as well.
Drinking also plays a role in domestic violence, Maxwell said. Alcohol doesn't cause domestic abuse, she stressed, but it usually leads to more extensive violence than if the abuser weren't drinking.
On May 7, Fossett made her first _ and only _ public cry for help. At 4:14 a.m., she called for police after Davis awoke her by holding down her arms and spitting in her face. Davis told Fossett he was going to kill her, according to an incident report.
But when a New Port Richey patrolman arrived 11 minutes later, Fossett chose not to press charges. Davis volunteered to leave and was issued a trespass warning.
That incident, Maxwell said, should have been a red flag. When a victim musters the courage to call the police, officers should lean toward an arrest whether or not the victim requests it, she said.
"The solution should be that we don't put the burden on the victim," Maxwell said. "This is a crime."
Chief Rickus couldn't agree more. He said that some of the agency's officers had been concerned about Fossett but felt awkward about intruding on her personal life.
Looking back, he said, he wishes things had been handled differently.
"I think there was a lot of kicking themselves in the pants after this happened," he said. "In hindsight, more than likely, an arrest should have been made. Hindsight's 20/20."
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Most battered women are killed when they try to leave their violent partner. That doesn't mean they shouldn't leave, but proper safeguards need to be in place before they make a move, Maxwell said.
Fossett broke the news as she, Davis and her daughter's boyfriend were driving together the afternoon of June 28. As they had so many times before, the couple fought about Davis' excessive drinking. Fossett said she had had enough, the daughter's boyfriend said.
She told Davis she wanted him out of her home by the next day.
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At 1:55 the next morning, the eve of Fossett's 48th birthday, Davis spoke with his sister on the phone.
"Come over," he said, according to court records. "I need you."
Sonia Davis got dressed and drove to Fossett's Beechwood Drive home. Her brother was in the driveway.
Fossett was dead, he told his sister. He had choked her, he said.
Sonia Davis looked through the front door. She thought she saw Fossett sitting in a living room chair. Upset, Sonia Davis decided to leave. Her brother chased her in Fossett's Nissan Xterra, but she got away.
At 2:55 a.m., she called the police.
New Port Richey officers found their colleague slumped over in a tan recliner. She wore a red and pink paisley night shirt. Tattooed on her left shoulder was a name.
No one else was home, and Fossett's vehicle was gone. Investigators went looking for Harvey Davis and found him about an hour later when he came speeding into his sister's driveway in the Xterra so fast that he crashed into her home.
They charged him with driving with a suspended license, as well as violating his probation for a 1998 robbery.
They interviewed Davis later that morning, asking what had happened to Fossett.
"I have no idea," he said. "I did not hurt that woman."
It took detectives four months to build their case against Davis. They arrested him on Nov. 9 in Orlando, where he was in prison on charges of armed robbery.
On Nov. 16, a grand jury indicted Davis, 42, on a first-degree murder charge. He has pleaded not guilty and was being held at the Jackson Correctional Institute in Malone.
His attorney did not return a call for comment. The case likely won't be resolved for months, or years. Prosecutors will seek the death penalty.
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Allen, Fossett's mother, grieves for the daughter who died with a dark secret.
"Her job was always protecting everybody," Allen said. "That's what's so sad about this, is that she bore all of this alone."
CALL FOR HELP
The following domestic violence hotlines are answered 24 hours a day:
+ Sunrise of Pasco County Inc., Dade City
+ Salvation Army Domestic Violence Program of West Pasco, Hudson
+ Florida Domestic Violence Hotline