Domestic violence victims often live in fear their abusers will hurt them again. So why do so many abusers get off scot-free? The 5 On Your Side Investigators uncovered how more than half of domestic violence cases in Cleveland get dismissed.
Watch Sarah Buduson's full investigation tonight on News 5 at 11 p.m.
Prepared to kill
Vaneejsha Reese, 24, said Allen Crawford, 27, abused her many times over the course of their romantic relationship.
But she never imagined he would try to kill her, especially since he is the father of her three children.
Until he did.
On Sunday, July 21, 2019 Crawford broke into her sister’s apartment in Willoughby Hills prepared to commit murder.
“He had a bookbag full of utensils which was the knives, the lighter fluid, the lighter, the tape,” she said. “He knew exactly what he came to do.”
“I’m just thinking to myself, ‘This is my last time seeing daylight”, said Reese.
A chilling attack
After Crawford broke in, he held Reese and her sister, Alycia Barney, at gunpoint.
She said he bound them with duct tape.
Then, Crawford took out the contents of his bookbag and laid his weapons in front of them.
“It's like he didn't know what he was going to do. He didn't know if he wanted to stab us, he didn't know if he wanted to shoot us, he didn't know if he just wanted to burn us,” she said.
He decided to use them all.
Use the slider bar to see Vaneejsha Reese before and after the attack.
She said Crawford repeatedly bashed her head with the gun.
He poured lighter fluid everywhere, including all over her and her sister.
“After the lighter fluid, he asked me, 'Was I ready’?”, she said.
She said Crawford then took his knife and stabbed her six times, puncturing a major artery in her neck.
“I turned over to my sister and I apologized to her and I told her I love her as I was being stabbed,” she said.
Crawford then turned to Barney.
Reese said she blacked out when she saw him stab her sister.
Finally, he set them on fire.
“I thought I was going to die,” said Reese. “Honestly.”
A fight to survive
Crawford left the apartment. Barney broke free, put out the flames, and called 911.
Here’s an excerpt from her call:
Dispatcher: “What was on fire?”
Alycia Barney: “I was on fire. I was on fire.”
Dispatcher: “Is there anybody else with you?”
Alycia Barney: “My sister. I think she’s dying.”
Barney wasn’t wrong.
Reese arrived at MetroHealth Medical Center barely clinging to life.
“When I got there, they didn’t think I was going to make it,” she said. “They [doctors] kept telling my dad ‘We’re going to hope for the best, but we don’t know if she gonna pull through’.”
Later that day, Crawford made his own 911 call.
Calmly, Crawford told the dispatcher, “I’m calling to turn myself in. I know what I did was wrong.”
He told the dispatcher there were two bodies in Barney’s Willoughby Hills Apartment. He eventually surrendered to Cleveland Police.
A history of violence
Reese said Crawford was always abusive.
“The first red flag, was, like the blaming. All the time,” she said.
“It was, like, the manipulation,” she said. “Like, if I go to the mall with my mom, I’m cheating. He would take my phone and just do what he wanted to do. Always looking through it. Telling me who I can and can’t be friends with.”
She thought about leaving, but “it was already too late because I was pregnant with my first, with our first child.”
In 2015, a Cleveland police report says Crawford attacked her while she held their oldest daughter, then just 11-months-old, in her arms.
“He was punching me while I had her in my hands,” said Reese. “I ran out the front door, called the police. They took pictures and everything.”
To Reese, the 2015 incident now seems like a missed opportunity to hold Crawford accountable. After that attack, prosecutors charged Crawford with domestic violence in Cleveland Municipal Court.
However, Crawford was never convicted – never even went to trial – because the case against him was dismissed.
“The system, to me, with the domestic violence cases, is lazy,” said Reese.
5 On Your Side Investigators found what happened in Reese’s 2015 case is not unusual.
Our team analyzed domestic violence cases in Cleveland adjudicated between January 1, 2016 and Dec. 30, 2018 in Cleveland.
We found 60% of domestic violence cases were dismissed.
Even more troubling, we found the percentage and total number of dismissed cases has continued to climb over the three-year time period we reviewed.
In 2016, 54% of cases were dismissed. Just two years later, in 2018, 66% of cases were dismissed.
“The numbers are going in the wrong direction,” said Ronald B. Adrine, the newly retired Presiding Judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court.
An expert on domestic violence cases, who is often recruited to speak to groups that have included the FBI and CDC, Adrine spent 36 years on the bench in Cleveland watching how offenders often gained the upper hand.
“It is a complicated mix of circumstances that cause cases to be discontinued,” he said. “My interest really came because this was something, I saw every day playing out in front of me.”
'A witch’s brew'
When asked why many domestic violence cases are dismissed, Adrine replied, “It’s a witch’s brew.”
Some accused abusers threaten their victims, he said. Others sweet-talk them.
Adrine said victims’ also fear financial hardships, separating children from their fathers, and for their safety, if an abuser is convicted.
Whatever the reason, the result is the same.
Victims decline to continue participation in the prosecution.
“They have all kinds of reasons, many of them good, for doing that,” he said.
Take Reese’s 2015 case.
She did not have a car at the time and struggled to find transportation to get to court.
However, she admits she lost motivation to find a ride.
Crawford kept calling her. He promised he would never hurt her again.
When asked if she believed him, she said, “That’s the sad part. I did.”
Then, when domestic violence victims decline to participate, Adrine said “the case kinda goes south.”
Unless there’s strong additional evidence, like witness testimony, pictures, and a documented history of domestic violence, prosecutors are left with weak cases.
“Each stage is fraught with peril for the possibility of conviction,” said Adrine.
Over several weeks, 5 On Your Side Investigators repeatedly requested an on-camera interview with Chief Assistance Prosecutor Karrie Howard, who oversees criminal cases.
We also requested to speak with Barbara Langhenry, Cleveland’s Director of Law, about the city’s high domestic violence dismissal rate.
However, Latoya Hunter Hayes, Acting Director of Communication, refused to schedule an interview with anyone in the law department.
Adrine said it would be unfair to blame only prosecutors or police for the high number of dismissed cases.
“It’s like any other situation. Any other profession,” he said. “You have people who are good at it. You have people who are not so good at it, but to blanketly blame prosecutors or to blatantly blame police because the numbers are going up… is wrongheaded.”
The road ahead
Reese's advice to women: leave at the first red flag.
"Its not worth staying in a relationship where you are being disrespected. You don't deserve to have that empty feeling," she said.
“I didn't feel good about letting the case go,” she said. “I'm not just saying that because of what happened already."
After undergoing twelve surgeries and spending eight weeks in the hospital, Reese still has years of healing ahead of her.
“I have third- and fourth-degree burns, like real bad,” she said. She showed us where doctors stitched new skin, that was shaved off her thigh, onto a large part of her right forearm. She said her entire back was burned. Her scalp and skin on her face was destroyed, too.
“I had got head surgery. I had to get all my hair shaved off,” she said. “Basically, where the hair’s now growing, is like my donor sites (skin grafts) where they had to create me a new scalp.”
When we talked to Reese, she had recently had surgery to create a new eyelid. She had also just had her left thumb amputated. Part of a finger on her right hand was also amputated.
She will eventually have a procedure to help regrow her hair and to create a new thumb from what’s left of her hand.
Due to the extent of her injuries, Vaneejsha is still unable to work. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help cover her expenses.
‘I kept going’
Despite their history, Reese remains unsure what triggered Crawford to try kill her that Sunday afternoon in July of 2019.
She only knows why she survived.
“I have three kids to take care of,” she said. “So, I kept going.”
The couple’s three children were inside the Willoughby Hills apartment, watching, when their father tortured their mother.
Reese fought to keep her eyes open.
“I knew I had to stay up,” she said. “Because if I would have closed my eyes, I wouldn't made it. I wouldn't made it.”
Crawford was indicted on November 4 by a Lake County grand jury.
He faces 19 charges related to the July 21 attack on Reese and her sister, including two counts of aggravated burglary, four counts of attempted murder, four counts of kidnapping, four counts of felonious assault, four counts of arson and three counts of endangering children.
No trial date has been set.
If convicted, Crawford could spend the rest of his life behind bars.
After our deadline, the city of Cleveland sent News 5 the following statement:
The City prosecutors treat domestic violence cases seriously and understand that this issue affects not just the individual victim, but also the community as a whole. The prosecutors work hard, with community partners dedicated to this issue, to combat domestic violence and to support victims. It is our goal to prosecute domestic violence cases and assist the victims of these crimes. Each victim’s domestic violence case is unique. Fighting domestic violence is a complicated task that must take into consideration the dynamics of domestic violence itself, victim safety and the challenges of prosecuting such cases.
Cases are dismissed for a variety of reasons. Victims have individual and various reasons for deciding not to pursue a domestic violence prosecution. The City prosecutors who work on the Dedicated Domestic Violence Docket and the High Risk Domestic Violence Docket work diligently and compassionately with the victims in these cases.