Christchurch women share their stories of terror and survival after domestic violence

Two women have shared their stories of domestic violence and being strangled by their partners....
Two women have shared their stories of domestic violence and being strangled by their partners. Both thought they were going to be killed. Photo: File / Getty Images
Strangling your partner or impeding their breathing became a criminal offence in December 2018.

Now a Christchurch woman shares her story of being choked - almost to death - by the man she loved.

And another speaks about her fight for safety and her journey through the justice system.

New Zealand has the worst rate of domestic violence in the developed world and the specific charge of strangulation was introduced as part of the Family Violence Amendment Act, which replaced the Domestic Violence Act.

New figures provided to the Herald show that since the offence was introduced, 2533 people have been charged with strangling their partner.

Of those, 2448 were men.

According to police, one in three Kiwi women will experience abuse in a relationship in their life - but sadly, more than 80 per cent of incidents go unreported.

In 2019, 1499 people were charged. Just under 97 per cent of those were men.

And this year up to August 31, 916 people were put before the courts - 882 men.

Family violence is one of the most serious social issues in our community and sadly, figures show the epidemic is only getting worse.

Today Sarah and Lisa - whose names have been changed to protect their identities and safety - want people to hear their stories, and understand that domestic violence can happen in any household, in any suburb and to any woman or man no matter what their situation in life.

Their stories are graphic and may be upsetting - please take care and refer to the crisis line information at the bottom of this article if you need help or advice.

New Zealand has the worst rate of domestic violent in the developed word, but less than 20 per...
New Zealand has the worst rate of domestic violent in the developed word, but less than 20 per cent is ever reported. Phot: File / Getty Images
Sarah's story - that's not love
Sarah thought she was going to die.

The Christchurch woman lay on the bed, pinned beneath him, under his heavy knee, her neck tightly grasped in his hands.

There was no breath left in her.

She couldn't feel anything - except fear.

She could feel the life draining out of her. She thought of her kids. She thought of who would find her body.

Suddenly, he let go.

And Sarah ran.

Nineteen months later - to the day - she stood in a courtroom and faced Dave for the first time since the attack.

And now she wants everyone to know what he did to her and how it felt, and she wants other women to learn and leave and survive after reading her story.

Dave and Sarah had been in a relationship for almost three years when the attack in question happened.

The couple were in Hanmer for the weekend and staying at a motel.

They had been drinking and went back to the room where they argued about something.

At about 2.10am Sarah pulled a pillow and duvet off the bed and tried to make a bed on the floor, refusing to sleep beside Dave after the tiff.

It was then that he attacked, pinning her down on the floor and then the bed, kneeling on her chest and strangling her almost to death.

Dave was initially charged with two counts of strangulation, impeding Sarah's breathing in February 2018.

He denied the charges for more than a year but changed his tune and agreed to plead to one amended representative charge of strangulation after receiving a sentence indication from Judge Stephen O'Driscoll in the Christchurch District Court.

A representative charge means police believe the defendant has committed multiple offences of the same type in similar circumstances.

Dave was sentenced in September and the full details of the chilling attack were revealed.

"She believed she was going to die," said Judge O'Driscoll at sentencing as he read through the summary of facts.

"She tapped on your arms and legs in an attempt to get you to release the pressure."

Dave eventually let go and Sarah scrambled to get away from him.

"You threw her down onto the bed and pinned her down and applied pressure to her throat again," said Judge O'Driscoll.

"She pleaded for you to let her go."

Again, after some time, Dave let his partner go and she fled the motel and went straight to the nearby police station.

When spoken to by police, and to date, Dave said he could not remember strangling Sarah.

He maintains that stance to this day.

Sarah was attacked and strangled twice in one night by her partner. Photo: File / Getty Images
Sarah was attacked and strangled twice in one night by her partner. Photo: File / Getty Images
Survivor: This is my journey now, not his
Dave was refused name suppression in the District Court and later in the High Court following an appeal.

He then took his case to the Court of Appeal but abandoned the appeal shortly before it was due to be heard.

But he then contacted the Herald directly asking the newspaper not to publish his name or image.

He made no mention of his victim or the impact on her of his admitted offending, but claimed his ex wife and children - both adults - would suffer "extreme hardship" if he was identified.

Further, he reasoned that coverage of domestic violence prosecutions should be balanced with the "unfair toll" on people associated with the case on the side of the offender.

He asked for "compassion" for his wider family, and for the content of his email not to be published.

The Herald has chosen not to name the violent offender - simply to protect the privacy of his victim, who wants no association with him publicly.

"This is my journey now, it's not his anymore - and I just want my story to help someone. I don't want anyone else to end up in the same situation," she told the Herald.

"I want women to find the strength to walk away, and to know that, even if they feel alone, there are many others who have been in the same situation before them and who are willing to help.

"People said I shouldn't talk about it, they asked why I'd want my dirty laundry aired, but we have to talk about this - that's why it's so insidious, because people stay quiet.

"Women don't talk about it because of their embarrassment and shame that they're in the situation, or fear of the repercussions if they do speak out.

"Repercussions like, will I be judged by others for talking? Will they blame me and say I must've made him really mad? Will they say I'm being nasty?

"What women tend to forget is that they were innocent in this.

"If I had known he was like this, I wouldn't have walked into that relationship - never in a million years."

At sentencing Dave's lawyer told the court how he had been significantly affected by the lengthy court case, how he had struggled and suffered, how he felt.

"This has been incredibly stressful, not also for him but also for his ex wife who he is close with and his two children," said the lawyer.

"There is a suspicion he lost previous employment as a result of this situation."

He told Judge O'Driscoll that Dave had already paid $3000 in emotional harm reparation to his victim, which was being held in a court trust account for her.

He claimed that showed "enormous goodwill".

"He was prepared to engage in Restorative Justice but that was not appropriate - but he has been willing to go the extra mile to ensure that whatever happened on the night in question he has made up for," said Nicholls.

"I am confident that the court won't see him again. This has taken a significant toll on him and his family.

"He is determined to ensure the victim can walk away with her head held high, he appreciated the hurt that's been caused is largely to the victim."

And that was about all he had to say about his victim, who sat there watching intently, flanked by two friends and shaking with nerves, dread, fear and pure adrenalin.

Then she stood and got to have her say.

Almost 2500 men have been charged with strangling their partners since a new law was introduced...
Almost 2500 men have been charged with strangling their partners since a new law was introduced in 2018. Photo: File / Getty Images
Standing up to Dave: Sarah's day in court
"It is 19 months today that you tried to take my life," she read.

"Nineteen months you have caused me to lose faith and trust in people, especially in men.

"You were someone I was supposed to be able to trust. You were supposed to cherish and protect me like you said you would.

"You caused me fear, pain, permanent emotional damage."

Sarah said the hurt Dave caused was "incredibly immense" and she had never been more scared in her life.

"I asked what I'd done to deserve [being strangled] and you said 'you've done nothing, I love you more than anything".

"That's not love - but your last words were right, I didn't deserve it.

"You had no right to lay your hands on me in anger. What I saw in your eyes that night made me terrified that my children would never see me again.

"I was embarrassed and ashamed - I felt embarrassed and ashamed, I also felt guilty about bringing violence into my childrens' lives.

"But the embarrassment, guilt, shame - they belong to you, they are yours."

Sarah said Dave may appear to be someone people could believe in and trust but appearances were deceiving.

"You're vicious, you're violent, you're a bully, you're controlling," she told him.

"You're lucky you can't remember the events of this night, you're very lucky. Your actions are something I will never, ever be able to forget."

Judge O'Driscoll listened to both sides and said it was entirely clear that what Dave did had affected Sarah deeply.

"She had the strength to come to court today and read the last part of her victim impact statement for you to hear. Her comments are powerful and set out the significant effect that the offending has had on her," he said.

"I suspect that the emotional impact has been the most significant. The scars and bruises have faded, but she can't remove the memory of what happened in the motel room that night."

He had considered a term in prison for Dave - up to 18 months - but after giving discounts afforded by the Sentencing Act, arrived at an end point of community detention.

"But you shouldn't think - and no one should think - that you've bought yourself out of a prison sentence," Judge O'Driscoll warned, referencing the already-paid $3000.

"Reparation is simply one matter that I need to take into account."

The abuser trying to hide his crime
A pre-sentence report was prepared by a probation officer after an interview with Dave.

It outlined the danger Sarah would have faced had she stayed in the relationship, something she wants other women to recognise.

"The assessment is you have a low risk of reoffending - but the risk of future harm to the victim was considered high had you remained in a relationship with her," said Judge O'Driscoll.

He revealed that since the attack Dave had abstained entirely from alcohol and used "relevant support" offered by police and stopping violence services to address his offending, including counselling.

The report stated that if Dave was sentenced to an electronically monitored sentence like home detention it was possible he would lose his job.

On that basis, the probation officer recommended a sentence of supervision and community work.

However Judge O'Driscoll said that was not acceptable.

"Your employment involves regular travel throughout the South Island. You did not give consent for your employer to be contacted [by the probation officer].

"Currently your employer is not aware of your offending and your appearance in court - this is a matter for you to consider. If you lose the [name suppression] appeal it will be highly likely that your name is published.

"It is perhaps in your best interests to be upfront with your employer and be open and frank so it does not come as a surprise.

"This is serious offending - the starting point is a sentence of imprisonment and I am not prepared to reduce it from prison simply to a sentence of community work and supervision.

"You need to be held accountable for this offending - the offending is simply too serious for community work and supervision."

Judge O'Driscoll said he needed to impose the least restrictive sentence, but also one that reflected the gravity of the offending and Dave's culpability.

He sentenced him to four months' community detention meaning that from 8pm Friday to 6am Monday he could not leave his home address at all.

That sentence started on September 25 - the delay allowing him to tell his employer if he thought it wise.

Dave was also ordered to complete 200 hours of community work and supervision for 12 months with a special condition that he had to attend any counselling, course or programme deemed necessary by his probation officer.

Sarah's voice - the decision to speak out
After sentencing Sarah explained her decision to speak out about her ordeal.

"I was in the 'it doesn't happen to me' box," she said.

"I was a successful, highly paid professional, I'd raised two kids, I owned my own home. When I told people what had happened to me their reactions were really interesting.

"One woman broke down and said she'd been through exactly the same thing, but never pressed charges.

"I thought - how many other women are out there going through this and are too scared to get help?

"I just really wanted to help other women if I could - it's not about him, it's not about a revenge article in the paper, it's about me and other women."

Initially Sarah was not going to read her victim impact statement in court, but decided at the last minute she wanted to face Dave and have her say.

"I knew I needed to do it for closure, for me," she said.

"I didn't actually care what happened to him [at sentencing], I was there to stand up for me and I was standing up for that woman 19 months ago who needed someone to stand up for her.

"Sitting there hearing the judge read out that summary of facts, I was thinking 'oh my God, that was me'. Back then I wasn't strong, I was broken and he did that to me.

"Now I am strong and I am standing up for myself and the woman who couldn't do it back then."

She remembers every second of that terrifying night and will never forget it.

"I knew I wasn't going to be able to talk him down, that's when I got the blanket and lay down on the floor to sleep.

"It was terrifying.

"One of the worst parts was when I was lying there thinking 'my kids aren't going to see me again'.

"And I knew people would be able to hear, I was thinking 'why isn't anyone coming, why aren't they coming to help me'.

"I thought they were just going to come into the room tomorrow and find a dead body lying on the floor."

Sarah said her mind was "going crazy" and she thought back to another woman killed by her partner.

She could not remember the woman's name though, and as she was gasping for breath she was racking her brain trying to think of it.

"I thought he was going to kill me and no one would remember my name, that everyone would remember his name and I'd just be some woman that was murdered," she said.

"By the second time he held me down I was just going… I felt everything getting lighter, my arms, my legs, I thought 'that's it, I'm going'."

She's in a new relationship now with a kind and respectful man, but the psychological scars Dave caused still haunt her.

Her new partner cannot embrace her in certain ways, cannot touch her neck - if he does all of the horror of February 2018 comes flooding back.

But she is healing.

And talking about what happened in a bid to help others has empowered her and given her control over her story.

It's also important to Sarah to create more awareness of the fact that domestic violence doesn't only happen in some demographics.

"This situation could easily have involved your sister, your mother, your daughter, your son, friend, work colleague or neighbour," she said.

"If you are worried or concerned that anything in a relationship doesn't feel quite right, get out of it before it's too late.

"Those red flags, and your gut instinct, are important markers and are there for a very good reason.

"Listen to your gut and trust your feelings. Never think you can change or 'fix' a person because , quite simply, you can't.

"If I can help even one woman avoid the situation I was in, then I've done all I can," she said.

Lisa's story: This is why women like me die
Lisa waited for a "quiet time" to ask her partner.

Quiet times were the times after he'd beaten her, after his rage subsided, when he was finished dishing out cruel hidings and berating her.

In the beginning the relationship was good.

They had things in common: they wanted to settle down, they enjoyed each other's company.

Andy had been in a gang for years but was trying to turn his life around and was doing well.

"It was great, I hadn't been with anyone I had so much in common with," she said.

In early 2018 the woman was offered a new job within her organisation that included on-site accommodation.

Her partner convinced her to give up her flat and take the job so he could live with her and they would be rent-free.

He had recently lost his job and a close family member had died and he thought it would be a good change for the couple.

Soon after they moved in, the violence began.

"I remember the first time he lost it at me; the first one was just a push," she said.

Andy was evicted from their accommodation after an altercation with another person and convinced Lisa to leave with him.

They checked into a motel and were effectively homeless.

"It was here he first showed a violence I'd never in my life experienced or dreamed that it would happen," she said.

"He completely lost it and tried to strangle me, I fought him off for my life.

"He locked me out, I had no keys, no phone, I was in bedwear. I didn't know what to do."

He apologised the next day, promised he was "trying to change" and begged for forgiveness.

And so began a cycle of ever-increasing brutality and control.

"Abusing me became a daily occurrence," Lisa recalled.

"Throwing cups and knives at my head was a favorite tactic, along with his jumping me suddenly, punching, ripping my hair out."

Andy's verbal abuse was constant. He would accuse Lisa of all kinds of "wrongdoing" and ring her throughout the day while she was at work.

He started to use methamphetamine again - a drug he'd been addicted to for more than 20 years.

"He would be waiting for me at breaks, constantly monitoring me," she said.

"He would demand money off me, standing me over for my eftpos card and he accused me of cheating on him on a daily basis - which meant abuse and violence on a daily basis also.

Why she didn't leave - and why she did
Lisa said she felt "stuck" with Andy.

She loved him "very much" and wanted to help him, but she was also terrified every minute of every day.

"He would wait for me in the dark and jump out, terrorise me - it was really horrible," she said.

"The physical stuff got worse and worse. He would try and get me on the ground, he knew that if he pinned me down, he had me, so I always had to fight to not let him get me there.

"It was terrifying but I loved him. I'm not dumb, I knew it was wrong but I couldn't go, there was some kind of trauma bond, he just wore me down.

"My family couldn't handle it - my son and daughter left me so I was by myself. I had nowhere to live, Andy was all I had."

Late last year Lisa began to make her escape.

"In October he attempted to stop me going to work by throwing a glass bowl at my car," she explained.

"When I didn't stop he picked up a steel pole and threw it through my rear window.

"This time I drove to Women's Refuge."

She took two weeks off work to try and sort her life out - and lost her job as a result.

She was staying in emergency housing but returned to the cabin one weekend in November 2018.

Andy "snapped".

"I was dragged outside and thrown on the concrete with him punching me," Lisa said.

"I felt one arm go floppy and I told him 'I think you've broken my arm - please stop' several times.

"He then grabbed my leather necklace and I had to grip the pendant to stop it choking me.

"He picked me up by my shoulders and threw me through a wooden pallet wall… I landed on my back. I have never known such pain. My shoulder was now dislocated also. He saw it sticking out and finally stopped.

"I begged him to ring an ambulance but he wouldn't let them come to the cabin so made me get in my car and he drove me down the road."

In that attack Lisa sustained a dislocated and fractured shoulder and torn tendons in her rotator cuff.

"I was sent to the South Island to recover and to be safe. I spent Christmas isolated, alone, physically injured, unable to cook, dress, even shower properly by myself.

"He continued ringing obsessively accusing me of still cheating."

Andy was charged with assaulting Lisa and ordered to keep away from her, but managed to woo her with his promises of change and pleas for forgiveness.

She was struggling mentally and he travelled to see her, promising he would make everything better and took her back to the North Island with him.

The violence and abuse started almost immediately and Andy racked up more charges.

Again, he was ordered by the courts to stay away from Lisa - but again, that meant nothing to Andy.

"There was even an incident when he chased me down on his bike, blocked the road and tried to smash my driver's window," she said.

"Ii fled in panic at high speed with him chasing desperate to make it home to where there were people who would help.

"I was so frantic I tried ringing 111 while driving more than once."

Police attended but Andy was not charged with any further offending.

Reprieve - and a final attack
In mid-2019 Andy was sentenced to home detention for a month.

When he got out Lisa went back to the South Island to get away from him but could not escape.

"The verbal abuse and accusations again carried on, he insisted on video calling," she said.

There were sexual demands and degradation too - things he forced Lisa to do before he would allow her to leave him.

Those things are too painful for her to talk about.

Lisa moved into her son's home for lockdown after New Zealand went into Covid-19 level 4 restrictions.

She tried to block Andy out of her life but could not shake him.

He slashed her tyres in the night, watched her, followed her and stole things from her workplace soon after she started a new job in an attempt to get her fired and control her life again.

He said he would return the items if she met him.

Lisa reluctantly agreed, desperate to keep her job.

In a public place, a carpark where Lisa thought she would be safe, Andy attacked again.

"He grabbed me in a headlock and punched me two times," she said.

"He dragged me between cars in an attempt to get me on the ground.

"Members of the public came over, he disappeared. I drove home, ran to the neighbour's and asked her to ring the police.

"He had taken my phone, he knew I wouldn't have been able to ring for help. While at the neighbour's place we saw him walk past and into mine."

This time Andy was charged with assault on a person in a family relationship.

His sentence: 18 months of intensive supervision and five months of community detention.

The judge said Andy had "a concerning history of previous convictions" but deemed the offending before him as "probably at the lower end of the scale".

"What is of particular concern are your convictions for assault and contravention of protection orders, which indicates that people who get into an intimate relationship with you are at some level of danger from your violence.

"Until such time as you address your violence and you are demonstrating a greater ability to regulate your behaviour and consider the consequences of your actions, you are assessed to be at medium risk of harm to others."

The judge said Andy had a "difficult background" and weas "remorseful for what has happened".

He acknowledged his gang and drug background saying carving out a "prosocial life" would be "somewhat more difficult than it probably would be for others".

Lisa's freedom - and fears
Along with the sentence he granted a new protection order meaning Andy cannot contact Lisa in any way.

However she said the sentence, and the judge's comments were an absolute joke.

Lisa felt the justice system - including police who along the way told her to "just delete his number" when attending incidents involving Andy - had failed her and there was nothing more she could to do to keep herself safe.

Protection and non-association orders did nothing - Andy had consistently ignored them.

She said there was little more she could do to keep herself safe from a violent abuser who had no regard for the law.

"I feel defeated. This is why women like myself die," she said.

"There is still a strong chance I might - hopefully it's not being slowly and painfully by being beaten.

"May he shoot me instead. I couldn't stand for my children and grandchildren to picture me dying that way. They don't deserve that. No child should ever hear that."

Lisa feared there was no sentence that would stop her ex from coming after her - or other women.

There was nothing police or anyone else could do to keep her safe, and that horrified her.

"He doesn't care where he attacks me, he showed that," she said.

"He doesn't care if anyone sees - I thought he was going to kill me in that carpark. Perhaps if he had stabbed me 11 times… would death have meant he would be stopped in anyway possible from doing this again?

"I used to beg him not to kill me, in the quiet times I would say 'please, please if you are ever going to kill me don't beat me to death. It never fazed him.

"This is why women don't report this stuff - because these men don't give a shit. I didn't get any justice. My life will never be the same and he will just continue to be what he has always been.

"I don't know what will happen if he sees me again if he will try and get me - or has he moved on to his next victim?

"Because that's the reality too."

Lisa reckons she will never recover from what her violent partner put her through.

Her voice shakes when she talks about him, she's so worried he will find her, she waits most days for it.

"The trauma of the past three years has already damaged me in ways I will never recover from," she said.

"I still don't feel safe, I still freak out when I hear a motorbike, I am so scared about seeing him.

"I am always looking for him. I can't drive a car by myself."

She hoped that by speaking out she could help someone in some way - help a woman leave or speak up, help a man change his violent ways.

She hoped that somehow the system would change, the way that offenders were dealt with would be better, that victims would be made safer.

"It needs to change, it needs to be different," she said.

"We don't stay with these men because we enjoy this abuse. I felt humiliated going to the police again and again, I felt like it was a waste of time - the fear of going through that again, of going to court, the thought that he might retaliate again, that nothing will be done to stop him - it's not worth it.

"I know women out there that wouldn't dream of ringing 111 because they don't believe that they are going to be kept safe or that the men will be stopped.

"I wanted to speak out because it might save a life - or a child's life."

Do you need help?

If you're in danger now:

• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours of friends to ring for you.
• Run outside and head for where there are other people.
• Scream for help so that your neighbours can hear you.
• Take the children with you.
• Don't stop to get anything else.
• If you are being abused, remember it's not your fault. Violence is never okay

Where to go for help or more information:

• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day - 0508 744 633
• Women's Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 - 0800 refuge or 0800 733 843
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and middle eastern women and their children. Crisis line 24/7 0800 742 584
• It's Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450

Local trusted journalism matters - now more than ever

As the Covid-19 pandemic brings the world into uncharted waters, Star Media journalists and photographers continue to report local stories that matter everyday - yours.

For more than 152 years our journalists have provided Cantabrians with local news that can be trusted. It’s more important now than ever to keep Cantabrians connected.

As our advertising has fallen during the pandemic, support from you our reader is crucial.

You can help us continue to provide local news you can trust simply by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter