Editor's Note: This is part one of a three-part series.
He followed her to the church prayer room.
There, he pushed her to the floor and held a .38 caliber semi-automatic pistol 12 inches from her face.
He pulled the trigger.
The gun didn't go off.
Six men pulled her husband off her, and he was arrested. Frisking him, police found 41 rounds of ammunition in the man's pocket.
She was alive.
Tears still come to her eyes as RuthAnn Hirt Brooker talks about her brush with death. Parts of her spiral into domestic violence have been blocked from memory.
Others are so vivid they never cease to haunt her.
Although she left her abusive husband more than a decade ago, the pain lingers.
"I'm finding out who I am, and that in itself is so rewarding," she said. "That fear is no longer allowed in my life."
Disturbing domestic violence
Thousands of women suffer the same fear, pain and shame Brooker endured for years. Last year there were 369 domestic violence incidents in Erie County alone, according to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation.
The first in a series of serious domestic violence situations occurred last summer in Lions Park. There, a young man shot his girlfriend on the shore of Sandusky Bay before turning the gun on himself.
Later that summer, another woman barely escaped with her life as her ex-boyfriend shot her in the back and rammed her car off the road as she drove to work one morning on U.S. 250. She was able to drive herself to the police department for help. Her ex-boyfriend killed himself in a hotel parking lot moments later.
This year has not been without its fair share of violent domestic situations.
In February, a Norwalk man drove a truck into the Milan hotel room where his ex-girlfriend and her son stayed, police said, because his efforts to reconcile their relationship failed.
Then in March the peaceful atmosphere of Berlinville was shattered when a man strangled then shot his estranged wife in the presence of their daughter. After barricading himself in the garage and saying his final good-byes via cell phone, he turned the weapon on himself.
Months later a Bellevue man choked his estranged wife, wrapped a chainsaw chain around her wrists and dragged her to a Chevy Suburban where he shot at her, police said.
Just last month a Vermilion man was arrested after he tried to kill his estranged wife when he pressed a loaded 12-gauge shotgun to her temple, sheriff's deputies said. She pleaded for her life.
The law enforcement community and women's advocates are concerned about these cases.
While the number of domestic violence cases remains steady, the violence is intensifying, noted Linda Mitchell, executive director of Safe Harbour Domestic Violence Shelter.
"It feels to me like the violence has gotten a lot worse," she said.
Erie County Sheriff's Capt. Paul Sigsworth agreed domestic violence has become a grave concern as the vast majority of homicides or attempted homicides are between two people who once loved each other.
"Some of the batterers really believe they have a right to do this," he said. "They treat their spouse as property. It's sad."
No one is quite sure why there's an upswing in the violent nature of abuse, but sociologists have often said that when the economy worsens, tension and frustrations increase in the home.
Nationwide the statistics are no better.
"The violence against women is outrageous," said Stephanie Avalon, a victims' advocate of 20 years who works with the Battered Women's Justice Project. "We have lots and lots of women killed every year."
Despite ever-increasing resources for battered women, the violence continues.
"It's still quite surprising how isolated battered women may be," she said. "This is a huge problem, and no one thing is going to address the issues."
Spiral into domestic violence
Domestic violence abusers see no boundaries. Women from all walks of life become victims.
"These women love their abusers and always have that hope that he will change," Mitchell said. "I've even heard women say, 'That would never happen to me.' It's so slow, it's so gradual, that sometimes they don't even know it."
Brooker, 45, said her descent into domestic violence began as a child. Growing up she found herself making the wrong choices and turning to men for attention. That led to her first marriage at age 18.
Her marriage was rocky at times -- her husband sometimes raising his hand to her -- but Brooker stuck it out for seven years and had two children.
"I got to the point where I couldn't take it anymore," she said.
A neighbor then drew her attention. That man would be the same one who tried to kill her years later.
"His attention was all-consuming, and when you're feeling lonely, it's really easy to fall for that," she said.
Brooker excused his controlling ways.
"I figured I could love him enough (and it wouldn't matter)," she said.
Brooker said she thought she deserved the abuse, almost as a penalty for leaving her first husband. The abuse escalated.
"I was a prisoner in my own home," she said.
Brooker was banned from leaving without a cell phone and a recording device, to document any conversations she might have with other men. That could be as small as saying hello to someone at the grocery store.
When Brooker returned home, her husband accused her of doing or saying the wrong things.
"He wouldn't give up until I broke down and apologized for doing nothing," she said.
Brooker had enough after her husband, in a fit of rage, grabbed her by the throat and threw her across the room.
After that she got out and sought help.
He didn't want to let her go without one final punishment. He was convicted of aggravated assault and carrying a concealed weapon and sentenced to two years in prison for attacking her at church.
The couple's divorce was finalized in 1997.
Brooker finally began the healing process.
Recent volatile domestic violence cases in Erie County:
* July 2007: A young couple died at Lions Park in what police ruled a murder-suicide. Larry Barnett Jr., 25, fired one shot, hitting his girlfriend Rachelle Baskey, 24, in the head. Seconds later he fired a second shot, killing himself.
* August 2007: A Milan woman narrowly escaped death as her ex-boyfriend followed her to work one morning and shot her in the back with a .32-caliber revolver. Jennifer Warren drove her mangled car to the Perkins Police Department and ran inside the lobby screaming for help. Moments later the shooter, Daniel Summers, 41, crashed his truck on U.S. 250, stepped out of the vehicle and shot himself in the forehead.
* February 2008: A Norwalk man, Joel Deleon, 32, is accused of driving a Ford F-150 pickup into a room at the Super 8 motel on U.S. 250 in Milan. The truck nearly hit his ex-girlfriend, Teresa Old, and her son, sending debris flying. According to reports, Deleon was upset about a breakup and failed attempts to reconcile with Old.
* March 2008: A Berlinville couple died in a murder-suicide. Moments before Tom Jensen, 43, shot and killed his wife, Melanie, their 14-year-old daughter covered her mother's body with her own and pleaded for her father to stop. Then, after a four-hour standoff at their home on Ohio 113, Tom said his last good-bye and shot himself.
* June 2008: A Bellevue man is accused of wrapping a chainsaw chain around his wife's wrists, dragging her with it and then shooting at her with a shotgun. According to reports, Ronald Dority, 43, went into his wife Beth's Castalia home, found her sleeping in bed and attempted to choke her moments before dragging her away.
* July 2008: A Vermilion man, William "Bill" Barthel Jr., 55, is accused of going to his wife Shirley's home and threatening to shoot her to death with a 12-gauge shotgun. According to reports, a struggle ensued with Barthel dragging the woman by her hair toward the road. She broke free as sirens could be heard in the distance. Deputies said they had to shock Barthel with a Taser to subdue him.
Source: Area law enforcement reports
Signs that point toward a battering personality
* Jealousy: He may say this is a sign of love
* Controlling behavior: He may say he is concerned for your safety
* Quick involvement in a relationship: If he needs someone desperately, he will pressure you to commit
* Isolation: He tries to cut you off from all other resources and friendships
* "Playful" use of force in sex: He may show little concern if you want to have sex or not, or may demand you have sex
* Verbal abuse: He may say degrading things about women or curse at you
* Past battering: If he admits he has hit a woman in the past, you may be next
* Breaking or striking objects: He may do this to terrorize you into submission
* Any force during an argument: He may try to physically restrain you while arguing
Source: Safe Harbour