Officers kicked their way into a St. Petersburg apartment last summer and found the latest casualties of an endless epidemic.
Justin Page was facedown on the sofa, pills scattered around him, a note to his son nearby. In the bedroom lay his girlfriend, Ashley Chiello, who had been bludgeoned. Her blood was spattered everywhere.
Five weeks later, in an apartment just 100 feet away, police found two more bodies.
Jeremiah Mells had been shot with the 9mm pistol at his feet. On the couch was his fiancee, Johnesia Simmons, whom he had shot in the head.
In the Tampa Bay area, more than one in five murder victims were killed in domestic violence incidents from 2013 to 2017, according to state data. Last year, five husbands killed their wives, then themselves, over a span of just eight days.
The St. Petersburg murder-suicides that took place 39 days apart last summer saw two abusers take different paths toward the same fatal outcome.
Page had a documented history of terrorizing women. Mells did not.
In both cases, friends and family say the signs were there all along.
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Chiello, 30, met Page online in late 2016. The 38-year-old man was married, though separated. He started staying with Chiello at her stepmother’s house in St. Petersburg.
Victoria Chiello, 55, became worried at the sight of empty pill bottles and liquor bottles in the couple’s bedroom.
“I think you’re making a mistake,” she told her stepdaughter. “I don’t have a good feeling about this.”
Page and Chiello eventually moved into their own place in the Gateway area of St. Petersburg, and Victoria Chiello grew even warier: “The more involved she got with him, the more strained our relationship got.”
If the women spent time alone together, Page would call or text, demanding his girlfriend come home. Victoria Chiello believed he was isolating her stepdaughter.
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The couple broke up around Christmas 2017, yet continued to live with each other before getting back together last spring. Soon, Chiello was trying to excuse away two black eyes, according to witnesses who spoke to police.
Near midnight on June 4, Victoria Chiello woke up to the chimes of her cellphone. It was a text from her stepdaughter:
“I am very sorry that I have been taking things out on you lately. Justin found out I was cheating on him … so you can imagine how bad things have been.”
Victoria Chiello figured it wasn’t urgent. She went back to sleep and replied a few hours later. Ashley Chiello never responded.
Officers visited Victoria Chiello on June 7, hours after they had entered her stepdaughter’s apartment.
“I remember hearing the words, ‘I’m sorry to tell you, but Ashley’s deceased,’ ” she said.
Sometime before that morning, police said, Page beat her to death with a metal TV bracket, then killed himself by overdosing on cocaine, methamphetamine, morphine and prescription pills.
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IF YOU NEED HELP CALL:
• The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
• The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
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Experts see predators like Page over and over.
Most are men. They usually have a history of domestic abuse and access to weapons. They isolate their victims out of extreme jealousy. It starts with threats and stalking, then escalates into violence. Alcohol and drugs often fuel the cycle.
A phenomenon called “humiliated fury” can turn domestic abusers into killers.
“These are not necessarily powerful men,” said Neil Websdale, director of the National Domestic Violence Fatality Review Initiative. “The vast majority of them are often ashamed of who they are, as men, as providers, as lovers.”
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Such abusers are often grappling with chronic illness, unemployment or debilitation. They become dependent on their partners, deepening their perceived humiliation.
That pattern sounded familiar to Page’s ex-wife, 38-year-old Christi Cool.
For years, she said, he interrogated her about past relationships and behavior, threatened to derail her career, cut off her ties with family and stalked her.
Psychological torture turned into punches, shoves and cuts, she said.
Cool traced the escalation to Page’s personal problems. At an early age, he was diagnosed with hereditary spastic paraplegia, a condition that turned his gait into a rigid shuffle.
Seven years ago, illness cost him a job, she said. The year after that, he suffered a seizure behind the wheel that led him to fatally strike a woman with his car. He served four months in jail, records show.
Disabled, on house arrest, Page downed vodka and prescription pills, she said.
“He wasn’t working,” Cool said. “He was sure he was going to end up in a wheelchair. I was going to leave him. So everything was fear.”
Still, they married in 2016. “I had honestly started to think I wouldn’t get out of it alive,” Cool said. “And I started to think that didn’t matter, just so I could be done with it.”
Dec. 15, 2016, was the worst night: Page trapped her in their bedroom, wrapped his arm around her neck and threatened to kill her and cut her into pieces with a knife, according to a court petition she filed days later.
She got a protective injunction in January 2017. They divorced that June.
Cool never reported the episode to St. Petersburg police. She didn’t want to take him away from his 6-year-old son.
Would Ashley Chiello still be alive, wonders Cool, if she had pressed charges?
“The bottom line is, this wouldn’t have happened to her.”
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Simmons, 22, and Mells, 30, met three years ago, outside her old home near Campbell Park. Mells had been visiting friends in the neighborhood.
Her mother, Johnnie McLeod, 38, was skeptical of Simmons’ new relationship. Mells had too many years on her daughter, and she believed he was selling drugs.
The couple was raising Simmons’ 3-year-old, Tazarious “T.J.” Lane Jr., and a chihuahua mix named Dino. In January, they announced their engagement on Facebook.
“He adored her, and she adored him,” brother Jason Mells, 32, said of the couple.
Jeremiah Mells had lived a life of chaos.
In the years before he met Simmons, he racked up a string of theft, trespassing and minor drug charges. He was also named in a handful of domestic violence-related police reports — sometimes as the victim, sometimes the aggressor. He was never arrested, but an ex-girlfriend was, for punching him in the mouth in 2016.
He also struggled with money, said his brother, who helped pay the bills after Jeremiah Mells totaled his car.
The relationship took a toll on Simmons, according to journal entries her mother shared. On June 2, 2017, she wrote:
“I feel so hurt, broken, not good enough, played, low, confused, stupid, etc.”
Still, in interviews with the Tampa Bay Times and with police, neither family said they ever witnessed or learned that Mells was abusing Simmons. Nor were there any police or court records that Mells had done so.
The first documented sign of abuse was the last: Mells shot Simmons around July 13, according to police reports.
Then he kneeled on the floor beside her, pointed the handgun at his right temple and killed himself.
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Simmons may have been trying to leave Mells.
The night before officers found the couple’s bodies, co-worker Konstance West said, Simmons told her she was planning to break things off. McLeod had told her daughter she should.
“A lot of times, what triggers the killing is the threat of the relationship ending,” said David Adams, co-founder of Emerge, a Massachusetts-based counseling program for men who abuse women. He described the killer’s mentality this way:
“Life isn’t worth living beyond the relationship for me, (and) she shouldn’t live either because she’s ending my life by ending the relationship.”
Roseanne Cupoli, chief program officer at the Spring of Tampa Bay, a domestic violence shelter in Hillsborough County, said leaving is the most dangerous time for someone in an abusive relationship, particularly for women. Abusers sense a loss of power and act to curb it, Cupoli said, and it may not stop after a partner leaves.
“Their abuse tactics might change,” Cupoli said.
For his part, Jason Mells thinks his brother and Simmons agreed to die together.
Stability in their lives was slipping away, he said, and he thinks that pushed them over the edge.
“If you knew him … you would be like, ‘Damn, life got him.’ ”
McLeod believes her daughter wanted to be free of Jeremiah Mells.
“She probably listened to me, and it went wrong,” she said. “It went wrong, all wrong. I’m so sorry, baby girl.”
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The couples lived, and died, within 100 feet of each other in one of the city’s larger, more nondescript apartment complexes at 411 77th Ave N.
They did not appear to know each other. Their neighbors didn’t know them, either, or at least not well enough to talk about them. Several residents declined to speak to a Times reporter who visited the July crime scene.
It has 433 units scattered across several large buildings easily visible as one drives along Fourth Street N.
It was called the Vibe at Gateway when the murders took place. It was sold in August and renamed Harlow at Gateway.
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Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that homicide is one of the leading causes of death for women age 44 and under, particularly those of color. Half were killed by their male partners.
The surviving relatives of Ashley Chiello and Johnesia Simmons are snarled by grief — and by unexpected responsibilities.
McLeod is the only caregiver for 3-year-old T.J. His biological father died in a 2016 car wreck.
She hasn’t been granted legal custody yet, she said, depriving her of the ability to apply for child care services.
Does the child understand what happened? All T.J. knows is that his mother is “in the sky.”
Page’s 6-year-old son is now in the care of his mother. Page abused her, too, according to police. She declined to comment.
Deb Schwallie gave birth to Ashley Chiello. Now 56 and living in Detroit, she last heard from her daughter on June 4. That was the same day Ashley last texted her stepmother.
Both mothers wonder what they could have done differently.
“If he was that mad, if he was that upset … why didn’t he just take his car and drive into a wall or something?” Schwallie asked of Page, crying.
“Why did you have to take my child with you?”
Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Justin Trombly at [email protected] Follow @JustinTrombly.
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IF YOU NEED HELP:
If you are in an abusive relationship call:
• The Florida Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-500-1119. It provides help 365 days a year in three languages: English, Spanish and Creole. The deaf and hard of hearing can call a TTY service at 1-800-621-4202. For online information go to: www.fcadv.org
• The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233. The TTY line is 1-800-787-3224. Help is available 24-7, and call if you fear your phone is being monitored. The website www.thehotline.org/ offers a live chat features and tips for preparing to safely escape an abusive relationship.
If you are trying to escape an abusive relationship call or visit these shelters:
• St. Petersburg: Community Action Stops Abuse, aka CASA, can be reached at (727) 895-4912. The TTY line is 727-828-1269. Those who live outside Pinellas County can call 1-800-500-1119 or 1-800-621-4204 for TTY services. For more details visit: www.casa-stpete.org.
• Tampa: The Spring of Tampa Bay is at (813) 247-7233. Services are provided in English and Spanish. For more information go to: www.thespring.org.
• Dade City: Sunrise of Pasco County is at (352) 521-3120. Help is available 24-7 and TTY services can be found through the same phone line. For more details visit: www.sunrisepasco.org.
• Spring Hill: The Dawn Center is at (352) 686-8430. Translation services are available for 150 languages. For more information go to: https://www.dawncenter.org.