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Caitlin Fears of Ashland hopes a Saturday rally will be a wake-up call for the community to stand up against domestic violence. - Bob Pennell

A voice for the dead

One Ashland woman is leading a rally Saturday hoping to end what some are calling "open season on women and children in the Rogue Valley."

Seven homicides have been attributed to domestic violence in 2011 in our community, said Caitlin Fears. The crisis is impacting everyone — but not everyone is taking an equal share of the responsibility in effecting change, said the 27-year-old.

"It is our responsibility to stand up," Fears said.

Fears said while women tend to "pow-wow together" about the problem of domestic violence, men tend to avoid dealing with it whenever possible.

"We have a passion to help," Fears said. "But the problem is men. They don't say anything because it makes them uncomfortable. And that's cowardly, basically."

If the issue sounds deeply personal for Fears, that's because it is. A domestic violence survivor, Fears was a close friend of Jessica Bethany — one of the seven victims killed this year. The others were Tabasha Criado and her four children on July 18 in west Medford, allegedly at the hands of her husband, Jordan Criado; and Bonnie Sue Payne, whose boyfriend, Mitchell Alan Below, is accused of strangling her to death in their west Medford apartment on March 4.

Bethany's ex-boyfriend, Jeffrey Wheeler, 36, is accused of stabbing her to death and setting her apartment on fire while their 10-month-old daughter was inside on Sept. 4. Wheeler faces charges of murder, arson and abuse of a corpse for stabbing Bethany multiple times in the neck, partially burning her body, then leaving the natural gas on and setting a fire in her East Pine Street apartment after Bethany had a date with another man. A Jackson County grand jury later indicted Wheeler on additional charges of two counts of criminal mistreatment and one count of reckless endangering because the acts were committed while their child was in the apartment, authorities said.

Fears said while some walked away from the "drama" surrounding Bethany's relationship with Wheeler, she did not.

"It's a long journey," said Fears. "And it's painful — watching that vortex that happens to women."

Fears said Wheeler followed the classic abuser pattern. First he destroyed Bethany's self-esteem, then he put the 32-year-old mother in fear for her life, Fears said.

"She got very isolated," Fears said. "But because I'd been there before, I didn't leave. I pestered her. And I stood up to Jeff."

Court records show neither Bethany nor Wheeler took out restraining orders against each other.

Bethany began to find herself again after the birth of her daughter, Fears said. She distanced herself from Wheeler, and tried to get a restraining order. Wheeler's travels between California and Oregon made it difficult for Bethany to supply the court with an address so he could be served, she said.

Fears said Bethany called her the day Wheeler was headed back to Central Point.

"I heard a fear in her voice that I'd never heard before," Fears said, adding she was out of town at the time.

"She told me her plan, who was going to watch out for her. That was the last time I spoke to her."

When Fears heard Bethany had been killed, she was devastated and angry.

"She was so close to getting away," Fears said, adding those who blame socioeconomic levels or allegations of drug and alcohol abuse should realize they're not relevant to the issue.

"We can have funerals and we can have fundraisers," said Fears. "But we need to end this. There are children being left behind."

People trusted Wheeler because he was a peer counselor at OnTrack, or they felt sorry for him because he was an addict, Fears said.

"This is not about money and it's not about addiction," she said. "This is about men who are abusive and have a misogynistic way of thinking."

While Bethany's family and close friends still are trying to absorb their loss, the shock waves from this latest fatal domestic violence incident have reverberated across the county, said Gerry Sea, coordinator for the Jackson County Council Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Statistics show that the risk of death for a woman, or suicide for a man, are highest in the first three months after a woman leaves a domestic violence relationship, Sea said.

A scenario like the one described between Wheeler and Bethany can be a deadly one, particularly when the man has a history of being abusive, and the woman is taking back control of her life, Sea said.

Most people are naive about the facts of domestic violence, Sea said.

"People think it's easy to leave. But the abuser is using power and control tactics. They might hide it from their friends and their colleagues, but it's going on all the time," Sea said.

None of the victims are to blame, Fears said, adding she knows this tragedy is bigger than even the loss of Jessica Bethany.

"This (rally) is for the seven people who have been murdered in the Rogue Valley," Fears said. "These are not crimes of passion. They were killings done by men who had hate in their heart."

Dee Anne Everson, director of United Way of Jackson County, said she hopes to see Rogue Valley men take a more active role in turning the tide on domestic violence.

"We live in an incredible community," Everson said. "But this has been a devastating year of violence against women and children. And it's going to take every single one of us to stop what feels like open season on women and children in our community."

Some men are speaking out. But more are needed, said Medford police Detective Sgt. Mike Budreau. While the vast majority of abusers are men, their nonoffending brethren tend to stay quiet even when they suspect.

They decide it's a "family problem" and to "let things work out at home," he said.

That decision can have lethal consequences, he said.

"We men need to man-up on this issue," said Budreau. "We men need to be able to provide help."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email sspecht@mailtribune.com.

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