May 10, 2009
Letters left by abused woman foretold her death at husband's hands
'If something happens to me ...'
By Mike LaBella
If something happens to me within the next 7 days, please make sure you look into my death. My husband has threatened me with a gun on several occasions, even pointing it at me in front of our children."'
That is how a letter written by Ellen Abruzzese begins. It is dated Sept. 17, 2007, and was discovered in her car after the Haverhill High graduate was shot to death last month by her husband, who then turned the gun on himself, police said.
For years, relatives and friends of Abruzzese had their suspicions about her husband. He allowed her little contact with them after the Abruzzeses and their children moved to Virginia in 1998. They suspected he listened in on her phone calls.
Police discovered he installed an elaborate device that secretly videotaped her activities in their home when he was not there. He berated their children one moment and lavished gifts on them the next.
He kept guns in their home.
The worst fears of Ellen Abruzzese's relatives and friends became reality on April 20, when her husband took both of their lives.
Family and friends say that from the beginning of their marriage 20 years ago, William Abruzzese, 58, formerly of Worcester, controlled Ellen (McCarthy) Abruzzese's life. Ellen Abruzzese's brother James McCarthy, 50, a longtime resident of Haverhill and now of Andover, said he and other members of their family are telling their sister's story in hopes other families will recognize the signs of marital abuse and help their loved ones escape such a life.
McCarthy plans to start an organization that will work with other groups in the region to help abused women — encouraging them to break free and informing their friends and families of how to spot an abusive relationship and how to find help.
They always wondered
Her license plate displayed the letters "IMWNNG".
Whenever James McCarthy talks about it, he breaks out in tears.
His little sister Ellen Abruzzese, 42, a member of the Haverhill High Class of 1984, was a breast cancer survivor. She proudly displayed the license plate on her car after beating the disease and continuing the life she had built in Henrico County, a suburb of Richmond, Va, with her husband and their four children — two boys, ages 10 and 20, and two girls, ages 17 and 18.
There, she was a respected secretary in the public School Department, a devoted mother and loyal friend. Her husband taught students with behavioral problems in their homes and worked part time as a mortician.
But problems lurked in the background that McCarthy, members of his extended family and his sister's childhood friends had long suspected.
While a student at Haverhill High, Ellen McCarthy dreamed of marrying and raising a family. But that dream was put on hold for a while after graduation.
After a year or so working at a bank in Haverhill, she attended Plymouth State College for one semester then joined the Army Reserves, with the intention of getting an education.
She was just 19 when she met William Abruzzese, a reserve officer who was 15 years older than her.
"She found him charming," said her mother, Joan McCarthy of Bradford. "The next thing I knew she was pregnant and they were getting married."
They were married on May 7, 1988, said McCarthy's childhood friend, Deb Rogers-Thornton of Plaistow, N.H. She said that when she first met William Abruzzese, she found him to be "rude and obnoxious."
She said he also displayed odd behavior, such as precisely lining up the kitchen silverware and setting the kitchen chairs in a particular position to line up with the flooring.
James McCarthy said his two other sisters didn't like Abruzzese and urged their sister not to get married. Ann (McCarthy) Costa of Paris, Maine, saw the early warning signs when visiting her sister Ellen while the Abruzzeses lived in Marlborough.
"He was studying to be a mortician and had lost his teaching job in Everett after having an improper relationship with a student," Costa said, adding she was worried because he kept a gun in their home.
"He told Ellen he had the gun because the child's father had threatened him," Costa said, referring to the father of the child with whom William Abruzzese supposedly had the relationship.
Costa said William Abruzzese was demeaning when he spoke, that he never asked but instead ordered, and displayed signs of "very obsessive compulsive behavior."
"We tried to tell her, but she'd say he's her best friend, her soul mate," Costa said. "She didn't want to admit she had chosen the wrong guy."
Then came the signs of him keeping his wife at a distance from her family.
Packages and mail Costa sent to her sister were never received.
"Whenever they went anywhere, he always had a post office box, and they always had an unlisted phone," Costa said. "We became estranged from her, and I'm sure that's what he wanted.
Keeping her to himself
A year or two after having their first child, the Abruzzeses moved to Florida.
"He wanted to keep Ellen away from her family," said Joan McCarthy.
It was during a visit to Florida that she sensed there was something wrong with her daughter's husband.
"I remember getting up in the morning, and he was screaming at her and she was crying," McCarthy said. "I asked her about it, but she didn't want to talk about it. She pretended to be happy and didn't want me to know anything."
A line from Ellen Abruzzese's letter that was discovered after her death reads: "He has put me down over and over again — also in front of the children. Nothing I have ever done has ever been good enough for him."
Joan McCarthy said William Abruzzese was loud and bossy, and did mean things to his young son.
"He'd threaten to hit him. Then he'd laugh about it, thinking he was being funny," she said.
Window blinds had to remain closed, or else William Abruzzese would go "crazy," James McCarthy said. "He had his own little refrigerator in the kitchen, and if anyone touched it he'd go into a tirade."
When the Abruzzeses moved from Florida to Virginia, sometime around 1998, Rogers-Thornton kept in touch with her friend Ellen by phone and e-mail. During their weekly talks she would often ask how things were between Ellen and her husband.
"She'd say it's OK, or things are good, or that he's being a jerk," Rogers-Thornton said. "Ellen portrayed her life in as positive a light as she could. It is amazing that in her situation she was able to touch as many lives as positively as she did," she said, referring to co-workers and others describing Ellen as a person who was supportive and pleasant to be around, despite her downtrodden home life.
Always his way
William Abruzzese controlled the household finances, would not allow his wife to have a credit card or her own checking account, and often used money as a form of control over his wife, family members said.
James McCarthy said he recently learned that whenever his sister planned a trip home, her husband would come up with some excuse why she could not go.
"Whatever he wanted he bought, but whatever my sister needed she had to buy," McCarthy said. "Her friends told me that when they questioned my sister as to her husband's behaviors, she would tell them that 'his bark is bigger than his bite.'"
"She kept her troubles from her friends in Virginia, and especially from her family," he said.
William Abruzzese manipulated his wife by dumping more of the household bills on her, said Rogers-Thornton.
"Ellen told me that he'd say things like, 'You want cable? You want the kids to have cable? Then you pay for it,'" she said.
Another line from Ellen Abruzzese's letter reads: "He uses the kids as he used me. He dangles money over them just as he did me."
He also kept close tabs on her, often appearing without notice at her workplace in the School Department offices, or at the house of a friend she was visiting, friends and relatives said.
"Bill had 21 years to build his wall of control, and looking back, it is easy to see how he slowly put everything together, how he secluded her more and more," Rogers-Thornton said. "Over time his methods became her 'normal.' She was making strides to get away from him as the children were getting older and the break would have been easier. Unfortunately time was not on her side."
Friends suspected William Abruzzese was listening in to his wife's phone conversations. James McCarthy said friends often heard clicking in the background as Ellen talked with them on her home phone.
"Sometimes you can just tell when someone else picks up the line," he said. "They got really good at changing the subject fast."
It went far beyond that, said Henrico County Police Investigator Thomas Holsinger.
"We discovered that in 2006, he (William Abruzzese) mounted a camera system in the house so he could monitor his wife," Holsinger said. "It was triggered by a motion detector and was connected to a VHS recorder in a closet."
Holsinger said Abruzzese also kept at least three guns in his house — one rifle and two handguns, one of which was a .357 magnum.
Things fall apart
On Tuesday, April 14, William Abruzzese pleaded no contest to charges that between August 2007 and February 2008 he had submitted fraudulent work vouchers to the Henrico County school system amounting to about $6,000.
Prosecutor Paul Cushman said Abruzzese had forged the names of parents whose children he taught at their homes, or was supposed to be teaching, and that a complaint by one of those parents led to an investigation. William Abruzzese was indicted on Jan. 14 of this year on three felony charges of forgery of public documents. After his no-contest plea, essentially a guilty plea, he was to be sentenced on June 12.
Cushman said his sentence could have ranged anywhere from probation to 30 years in a state prison, plus fines.
On Thursday, April 16, Ellen Abruzzese called her friend Rogers-Thornton to say she had spoken to a lawyer and would be filing paperwork seeking a divorce and custody of the children.
"She sent me a text saying his plan was to kill himself if he was going to jail," Rogers-Thornton said.
"She called me again on April 18 to wish me happy birthday," Rogers-Thornton said. "I asked her if Bill knew of her plans (for divorce) and she whispered that she could not talk because he was there. It was our last conversation."
Rogers-Thornton said William Abruzzese was facing a kind of "perfect storm."
"He was getting weaker, she was getting stronger and the kids were getting older."
Ann Costa and her sister Jane McCarthy said Abruzzese was determined to "control every aspect of their sister's life, from the minute they met, and never let her go."
Her final day
On Monday, April 20, around 6 a.m., Ellen Abruzzese had finished serving breakfast to two of her children.
She went upstairs to get ready for work. Then came a loud crash — "like glass frames falling off the wall," said Holsinger, the Henrico County police officer.
James McCarthy said three of his sister Ellen's children — the 10-year-old son and his 17- and 18-year-old sisters — ran upstairs. They found their parents dead in the master bathroom.
One of the children called 911 and the others ran next door to their neighbor, who was a police officer.
Police recovered a .357-caliber magnum from the scene.
Although the investigation has not concluded, Holsinger said the evidence all points to one thing.
"He did kill her and he took his own life," he said of William Abruzzese. "There is nothing to indicate it would not be that."
That morning, the permit to carry a weapon that William Abruzzese had obtained in June 2007 arrived by mail at the prosecutor's office. Abruzzese sent it as part of the requirement of his conviction in court.
James McCarthy, along with his two brothers and two sisters, later attended services for their sister.
He said she and her husband were both cremated. But at the request of their oldest daughter, their urns were placed in different rooms at the funeral home."Quite frankly, we wanted it that way anyway," he said.
An expert's viewpoint
The murder of Ellen Abruzzese is the kind of tragedy that has become all too familiar to Suzanne Dubus, executive director of the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in Newburyport
She said statistics paint a disturbing picture. Less than 20 percent of domestic abuse is reported to police and 87 percent of the victims are women. Like other women in an abusive relationship, Ellen Abruzzese did not report her situation to anyone, likely because she feared her husband's reaction.
"One of the things is, the batterer has power over his victim," Dubus said. "It's easy looking in from the outside, but when you're stuck in this kind of relationship for a long time, when he says you're going to lose the kids, she has no reason to doubt he has that kind of authority and strength. It's only when they begin to tell their story that it becomes real."James McCarthy is now on a mission to form an organization called the Hugs Unlimited Foundation Inc. Its goal is to support victims and their families, from encouraging them to recognize abuse to giving them ways to deal with it.
McCarthy said he hopes to work with other organizations in the region that help abused women."I'm dedicated to providing education about domestic violence, battered women syndrome, low self-esteem and the effect of domestic violence on children," he said. "We need to offer the proper support to women so they have choices that allow them to leave their abuser. And we need to recognize the signs of an abusive relationship so we can be proactive and intervene in liberating the victim."
Dubus said it would be a powerful thing for men who have this as a cause and a mission to come together and tell their stories to other men."For so long women have fought this fight," she said. "It can't just be women."
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These quotes were taken from a letter written by Ellen (McCarthy) Abruzzese chronicling her married life. The letter was discovered after her death.
"When I had the children I was not allowed (except minimal) contact with my family."
"If I threatened to leave he (would) take a part from the car so that it would not run."
"He refused to participate in any of the children's school activities."
"Only in the last year did he even acknowledge the kids' birthday — because he could buy them more expensive gifts that I — and he loved to show them I could not. He has always used money as a weapon."
"He uses the kids as he used me. He dangles money over them just as he did me."
A second letter written by Ellen (McCarthy) Abruzzese was discovered after her death. It was written to her family and friends and described what she learned over her 20-year relationship with her husband:
Never allow anyone total control over your life.
Never allow anyone to call you by profane names that some men call women.
Never allow anyone to request sexual favors before you are allowed to attend a loved one's funeral.
Never allow someone who claims to love you to bully you or to threaten you, or to refuse to pay household bills when you get a raise, even though they make much more money than you do.
This is just one of thousands of stories like this. I picked up this article because it hit a nerve with me. I had been subjected to almost all of these behaviors. At the time i thought that it was my paranoia.(his term) Men who abuse are not acting as they do because they love you or want to feel secure, men who abuse behave this way because it is a learned and accepted form of power and control. I remember one woman i knew saying " I wish my husband was jealous like that". I remember thinking, "lady careful what you wish for". There are lots of things abusers do that are not always blatantly abusive. Many women, including myself don't see the abuse until it escalates to a point where it is physically violent. This i found for myself at least,began when i started to catch on to the not so obvious things, and began to try to take back control of my own life. People always say the same things, why don't you just leave? Why did you get with a man like that, if he was abusing you? Well here are some answers. First usually you cant just leave, yes there are shelters and numbers and hot lines and police and counselors and clergy and the such, but rarely are you in a place safe enough, or alone enough to make calls. If you do make calls it is usually impossible to truly follow through. In my case, i was threatened from the start, that if i left he would take my children from me. If i called the police he would make them see i was the one out of control. If i humiliated him again, i would die. There is always something that has occurred to the victim, that makes it very clear he can and will do it, and not only that,but get away with it. Abusers are skilled in crazy making activities,They are excellent at making the victim look either, crazy or just being vindictive. Women are prey and these men are skilled at the hunt. They know exactly what to look for and whom will be the best hunt. You are seen as a thing, a possession, belonging to them and no one else, and to lose that would be war. They put on an all line offensive, cutting off any and all contact to those that may be truly able to help. And lastly understand that they are masters of deception. As to why i would be with someone like that, They never treat you badly until they have you tangled in their web. They are usually everything you always wanted. And if you had bad relations as a child, they usually seem to make up for the damage inflicted by others. That is where it all begins. So, in my opinion it is very necessary to begin educating our children at a very early age. Teaching self esteem. self control, kindness, honesty and above all, that we are separate beings, here for our own lessons and that controlling an other's life is not love. That jealousy is not love, that control and abuse are dangerous. And above all else men and women are not to be treated as different people,one to do woman's work and one to be the man. Equality among the sexes and mutual respect are necessities. This is the only first step we can take to change the consciousness of what Domestic Violence really is.