On Halloween night 2008, Deanna Walters and her two-year-old daughter, Martina, were herded into her estranged husband Robbie’s 18-wheel truck. For the next four and a half days, Deanna endured a horrifying cross-country trip, suffering relentless brutality at his hands.
Robbie severely battered Deanna during the journey from North Carolina to California and back to Oklahoma, where a highway patrolman finally stopped them. Despite the severity of her injuries, police did not arrest him.
Presented during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, PRIVATE VIOLENCE emphasizes the stigma domestic violence still carries for its victims, telling the stories of two women: Deanna, a victim turned survivor, and Kit Gruelle, a survivor who advocates for justice on behalf of Deanna and other battered women. Highlighting the complex, frustrating realities of the abuse women suffer every day at the hands of intimate partners, as well as the difficulties of prosecuting domestic violence cases.
The most dangerous place for women in America is their own home: One in four women experiences violence there at the hands of an abusive husband or boyfriend every day. Moreover, 1,700 American women are murdered every year when they leave or try to leave abusive relationships, and 48% of the women killed in domestic violence homicides are murdered after they leave or are in the process of leaving.
Women in abusive relationships face the grim reality that leaving is a dangerous prospect. Not only are they choosing to uproot their lives, and the lives of their children, but leaving may result in the direst consequences.
In Deanna’s case, police took her and Martina to a hospital, where she finally revealed what had happened on the cross-country trip. But Deanna found it difficult to press charges because the abuse happened across state lines, and while she was badly beaten, she wasn’t harmed enough to satisfy the law.
A North Carolina prosecutor explains to advocate Kit Gruelle that because Deanna had no broken bones or internal injuries, her abuser might only face charges of “misdemeanor assault against a female” and 150 days in jail. However, the attorney suggests that a federal prosecutor could pursue kidnapping charges against Robbie, since there is “a clear case of him transporting a woman across state lines with the purpose of terrorizing her.”
Kit knows intimately what women in Deanna’s situation face. A survivor herself, she’s been an advocate for women for more than 25 years, following the accidental death of her abusive husband. Only his death freed her from a cycle of violence.
“People asked me why I didn’t leave,” she says. “He was trained by the U.S. Marine Corps to hunt people down and kill them, and he told me that he would hunt me down and kill me. That’s why I didn’t leave.”
Motivated by her own experiences, Kit has advocated for hundreds of women and built an extensive network of professionals across the country to help support women in violent relationships. In addition to following her work with Deanna, the documentary shows how Kit provides support to other women and their families, including a woman who is in prison for killing the man who beat her so badly, for so long, that he blinded her in one eye.
When U.S. attorney Kimlani Ford sees the horrifying images of Deanna after her abuse, she recognizes the potential to prosecute Robbie for violation of the federal Violence Against Women Act. “It seemed if we didn’t do it, no one else would. Something had to be done,” says the prosecutor. The kidnapping charges brought against Deanna’s estranged husband, not the violent assault, carry far harsher penalties in federal court.
At trial, the defense creates the impression that Deanna took the trip willingly, and never tried to escape her abuser. Despite her status as a victim, Deanna is forced to defend her actions to keep herself and her daughter safe. PRIVATE VIOLENCE reveals the flawed system that she and many women face when taking legal action against their abusers.
“After Robbie kidnapped her, and almost killed her, she had to listen to the police, the DA and even her own family ask her why she didn’t just leave him,” Kit says. She then points out that it was because Deanna had left the relationship that her husband kidnapped her and nearly beat her to death. Many battered women face this dilemma and must wonder how their abuser will retaliate if they leave.
“There were lots of ways I thought of getting away,” Deanna admits. But she also had to face the possible consequences of her escape, and wanted to do nothing that would place her daughter in jeopardy. “I thought he would see it and kill me, and I was worried what would happen with Martina.”
Deanna’s fears were not lost on Kit, nor was the importance of her testimony. Robbie was convicted of interstate domestic violence, in violation of the Violence Against Women Act, and kidnapping. He is currently serving a 21-year sentence.
Today, Deanna is a survivor, renting a home in the mountains of North Carolina for herself and Martina, and attending college full-time. Kit continues her work advocating for women who are enduring similar struggles and training others to do the same.
“I’m always astonished and moved by the people who want to come into this work, because it’s not easy,” says Kit. “You see things that you couldn’t make up…and witness victims shedding that skin, and finally leaving the violence behind. It’s just wonderful. It can be heartbreaking and frustrating, but it can be unbelievably uplifting.”
PRIVATE VIOLENCE is Cynthia Hill’s fourth feature documentary. Her other credits include “Tobacco Money Feeds My Family,” “The Guestworker,” “February One” and “A Chef’s Life.”
PRIVATE VIOLENCE is directed & produced by Cynthia Hill; cinematography by Rex Miller; edited by Tom Vickers; composer, Chuck Johnson; special advisor, Kit Gruelle; co-producers, Malinda Maynor Lowery, Rex Miller; associate producers, Jenn Cromling, Un Kyong Ho; executive producers, Cindy Waitt, Gloria Steinem, Regina K. Scully, Julie Parker Benello, Wendy Ettinger, Judith Helfand, Lilly Hartley. For HBO: senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.