Abuse experts describe troubling cycle

PHOTOGRAPHER:

Family Counseling Center’s domestic violence shelter coordinator Lisamarie Soudelier, left, and the Family Counseling Center’s Director of Marketing and Fund Development Jennifer Jennings, right, speak at their offices in Gloversville on Friday January 14, 2022.

In the case of alleged kidnapping and torture inside a Town of Perth trailer, one domestic abuse advocate believes there were actually two victims: the woman who told police she was heinously assaulted, and Nicole K. Elmore, the 35-year-old woman who has been charged with helping to torture her. 

“From my point of view, there are two victims in this situation: the poor woman who was tortured and then the other woman who participated in this,” said Inge Zimmerman, the advocacy chair of the Zonta Club of Montgomery-Fulton, which is part of a global organization of professionals empowering women worldwide through service and advocacy. “Part of me thinks that she went along with this because she was afraid.” 

Zimmerman’s self-admittedly controversial opinion on the alleged actions arises out of years of studying the dynamics of domestic violence. And while other domestic abuse professionals didn’t want to speak to the case specifically, they did talk at length about the complicated forces at play that can often lead victims of domestic violence to act out in irrational and sometimes inexplicable ways, including staying with their abuser long after situations become dangerous.  

It’s important to state that Zimmerman would not exonerate Elmore if the awful alleged acts inside Elmore’s Town of Perth trailer and at an Amsterdam motel during the first week of the year occurred as the alleged victim describes in court papers. Elmore faces first-degree felony kidnapping, assault and aggravated sexual abuse charges for allegedly helping Justin J. Wilson, a 31-year-old Gloversville resident, kidnap and torture Wilson’s estranged wife. Wilson faces the same charges. Elmore has also been charged in Montgomery County with attempted murder in the first degree, aggravated sexual abuse in the first degree, assault in the first degree, unlawful imprisonment and conspiracy, all felonies, according to Montgomery County District Attorney Lorraine Diamond. Charges have not yet been filed for Wilson in Montgomery County. At the time of writing, Elmore was being held at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, while Wilson was being held at the Fulton County Correctional Facility. 

“I don’t think she should be exonerated because at the end of the day, if you know right from wrong, which she certainly did, she needs to make amends, she needs to pay,” Zimmerman said. “She can’t be exonerated just because she’s a victim of domestic violence. That would set a precedent. But I hope that there is some leniency, and I hope that part of her sentencing would be to treatment. She’s a damaged person. I can’t even imagine.”

Worrying signs  

Elmore and her attorney, Cristopher Savino, declined to provide details about Elmore’s background. But court documents and conversations with neighbors at the trailer park where she lived portray Elmore as being in a troubled state, and in and out of bad relationships.

Fulton County Correctional Facility booking documents say Elmore was born in Saratoga Springs. Elmore’s bail application submitted in Fulton County Court on January 14 states that she has lived in Fulton County for approximately two years. In the bail application, Elmore stated that she has her own cleaning business and does not have a criminal record. She also stated that she suffers from anxiety and depression and takes medications for those conditions. 

At the trailer park, neighbors, who did not want to be identified, said they had limited contact with Elmore, but that she seemed to hang around with the wrong company. 

“The men that she chose, it didn’t seem like a good choice of men,” one neighbor said. “And then the screaming that we would sometimes hear inside the house. Like screaming at the kids to stop. I don’t really know what they had said. Sometimes screaming and banging and stuff. But I don’t know what’s going on inside another house.”

In court documents, Elmore said Wilson moved into her trailer in May of 2021. 

Neighbors said they didn’t see much of Wilson, but what they saw worried them. 

“Once I saw him outside shooting guns, and it made a very loud bang inside of our house,” a neighbor said. “And then sometimes they had fires in their backyard in the middle of the night with music blaring.”  

Gloversville Police Chief Anthony Clay, who didn’t want to comment extensively on the specifics of the case, said Wilson was known to them. A records request on Wilson in the City of Gloversville Court returned a September 2019 arrest for allegedly attempting to strangle an ex-girlfriend. 

Elmore, who has four children, told police that she began meeting with Child Protective Services in August after Wilson allegedly stole money and abused one of Elmore’s children while Elmore was in the hospital with pneumonia. And in September, Fulton County Family Court granted an order of protection against Wilson, court documents show. But that order was violated several times, according to court papers. 

At the time of the alleged sexual and physical abuse in the trailer, Wilson had been free on bail after allegedly violating orders of protection, making $10,000 bail in the Town of Perth Court, $10,000 in Fulton County Family Court, and $1,000 in the Town of Johnstown Court, according to a Town of Perth official who did not want to be identified. 

“I began meeting with C.P.S. and I was doing really well at keeping him away,” Elmore said in Town of Perth Court documents. “I’m not really sure what happened, but he started coming back around again. It has been really hard trying to let him go.” 

‘Leave. Just Leave’
Domestic violence advocates say most people probably can’t understand why Elmore would continue to hang around with an allegedly abusive man like Wilson. And even if Elmore continued to see Wilson, how could she ever be compelled to assist him in kidnapping, torture and attempted murder, as alleged? 

“She at any time could have left the situation,” said Acting-Fulton County District Attorney Amanda Nellis. “There were two vehicles at the residence. She at any time could have left, could have gone somewhere, could have called the police. So I don’t feel any sympathy for her.”

But domestic violence experts say many victims of abuse struggle to leave. 

“I think for people who have never been in that situation or who don’t understand, it’s a very simple solution. Leave. Just leave,” Zimmerman said. “Well, if people could just leave, we wouldn’t have this problem. But we do.” 

LisaMarie Soudelier, the domestic violence shelter coordinator at The Family Counseling Center in Gloversville, said she often works with clients who struggle to stay away from their abusers. Financial control, physical threats, threats to children, geographic isolation, words of discouragement and devaluing someone’s self-worth: there are myriad factors that contribute. 

“You hear this person saying I need help to stay away from them. To a normal person who has not been involved in domestic violence, you’re like what do you mean? The normal person thinks they hurt you, you stay away from them,” Soudelier said. “Multiple times I have clients saying I need help staying away from them.” 

Domestic violence specialists like Soudelier at The Family Counseling Center–who all wanted to make it clear that they were talking in generalities and not discussing any specific case–spoke of “trauma bonding” as being a major component in domestic abuse cases. 

Candy Gurtler, who works as the non-residential advocate at The Family Counseling Center, said trauma bonding is like a psychological addiction. 

“They have this desire to leave and to be free and to have a better life. But this trauma bond keeps them attached to this person who is so bad for them,” Gurtler said. 

Trauma bonding begins with a “love bomb,” Gurtler said. In the beginning of the relationship, the abuser showers the eventual abusee with adoration and affection, Gurtler said. That releases chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin, which make the person feel good about the eventual abuser.  

“It releases all kinds of chemicals in your brain that create the bond with this person,” Gurtler said. 

Then, when abuse happens–be it physical or emotional–the body’s trauma reactions kick in, flooding the person with adrenaline. To defend against trauma the body and mind gloss over the horror, blocking out memories of negative experiences and feelings, Gurtler said. 

As a result, when the trauma subsides, the person is left once again searching for the feeling of being loved, while not truly remembering how bad it felt to be abused, Gurtler said. 

“All you’re trying to do is get that dopamine rush again and get that oxytocin, that love bonding going again. So you’re running around in circles trying to make this person happy to make them be that person again,” Gurtler said. 

In other words, someone who is abused is, in many ways, chemically predisposed to seek out their abuser. 

Gurtler compared trauma bonding addictions to substance addictions. 

“The way it works in your brain is very much like an addiction. Even addicts who want to try to quit using have this addiction that’s constantly fighting their desire to quit. And that’s what trauma bonds do with victims of domestic violence,” Gurtler said. 

The impact of substances

In fact, chemical substances are often part of abusive relationships, advocates say because the presence of alcohol and drugs reinforces the victim’s feelings of being dependent on the abuser.

“A lot of people who are abusing other people will intentionally get them addicted to substances because then it makes them rely on them even more,” Gurtler said.

Gurtler has one client who has been living with an abusive partner for about a decade while battling substance abuse at the same time. 

“One of the things they repeatedly say to me is, when is enough going to be enough? When am I going to be able to walk away? Because they recognize that the relationship is bad for them, and it is just as harmful as the addiction to the substances, but they just are not at that point yet,” Gurtler said. “Everybody’s breaking point is different, and all you can do is be there for them.”

In court documents, Elmore describes driving around Gloversville to known drug houses with Wilson, even after getting an order of protection placed against him. 

Soudelier said some abuse victims use drugs to cope with the trauma. 

“They get addicted to something to forget about what’s happening over here as far as the abuse goes, and it gets them through it,” she said. “But it’s such a double-edged sword because they are addicted to whatever substance that is, but they are also addicted to the abuser.”

Even if drugs are present in domestic abuse, Gloversville’s police chief said we have to resist placing all our blame there. 

“We’d all like to think that nobody would do this unless they are in an altered state of consciousness,” Clay said. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case. People do this because they are just evil people sometimes.”

Clay said substances and domestic violence don’t have a particularly strong correlation in Gloversville, according to recent data. 

In 2021, the Gloversville Police Department had 871 total domestic violence complaints resulting in 78 arrests, Clay said. In 2020, 967 complaints resulted in 57 arrests, and in 2019, 1,001 complaints resulted in 98 arrests, Clay said. But drugs and alcohol were involved in less than a quarter of the domestic violence complaints each year, according to the chief.  

What Clay, who started at the Gloversville Police Department in 1995, has noticed, at least anecdotally, is that cases of domestic abuse have become more violent in recent years. 

“Generally, what it seems like is maybe we’re dealing with fewer complaints, fewer calls for service, and fewer calls overall, but the violence within those complaints that we have is much more,” Clay said. “Drugs may exacerbate what happens during domestic violence, but my belief is it’s still domestic violence at its core. Domestic violence is the seed, drug involvement may be a leaf on the plant, but it’s still domestic violence.” 

The more telling figure for Clay is that of the 871 domestic violence calls in Gloversville last year, he estimated that less than half involved new people–in other words, repeat offenders are the norm. 

“The cycle of domestic violence still very much exists,” he said. 

Limits of legal action

For Elmore, a court-issued “stay away” order did not keep Wilson out of her life. That doesn’t surprise domestic abuse advocates. Soudelier said orders of protection often do more harm than good because they can signal to the abuser that the victim is trying to get them in trouble. In situations where a victim is trying to escape, an order of protection can tip off the abuser on the victim’s location based on the jurisdiction from which the order originated, she said. Then, even if an arrest is made, abusers often have extensive networks that can be used to help them retaliate against the victim, Soudelier said. 

“A lot of people choose not to do an order of protection because they worry it’s going to cause more problems,” she said. 

Clay acknowledged the limited power police sometimes have when responding to reports of domestic violence.

“We go. We deal with what’s in front of us right then and there. Sometimes it results in arrests, sometimes it doesn’t,” Clay said “But then there is no follow-up. If they go to criminal court they can be tracked through criminal court. Or the victim can go to family court, but maybe sometimes it is an instantaneous event where the suspect is intoxicated and the victim thinks it’s not going to happen again, and then you start sliding down that hill.” 

Overall, more needs to be done, Clay said 

“We are not giving services to people. I’m not standing here saying incarceration is the solution. That’s not what I’m saying,” Clay said. “But there obviously needs to be more to address domestic violence, the alcohol problem, the poverty issue, everything we’ve got going on.” 

‘We will help you through’

In Gloversville, The Family Counseling Center can provide support, offering shelter, or off-site assistance. If you’re in trouble, call the 24/7 hotline (518-725-5300). If you need a safe place to go and there isn’t a spot at the safe dwelling facility, The Family Counseling Center’s staff will help you find a place at a different facility. 

At the safe dwelling shelter, where food, clothing and personal hygiene products are provided upon admission, case managers meet with clients daily. Meanwhile, children are transported to their school, or else they are enrolled in a school near the shelter. 

The Family Counseling Center will also provide support to victims who don’t need shelter. The center assists with everything from job training to finding housing–whatever it takes to make a life stable. 

But the hardest part is the grueling emotional work of processing the trauma, counselors say. 

“One of my first calls was someone saying, ‘I just escaped and I’m going to go back to him because it’s easier,’ said Amanda Anderson, assistant director of operations and interim Fulton County domestic violence program manager. “It’s going to be hard, but it’s not going to be harder than what you went through physically and emotionally, and we will help you through that.” 

Evolved thinking 

Advocates and law enforcement officials alike seem to agree that we’re at an inflection point, emphasized by the gruesome alleged Perth torture case.

“Twenty years ago now, there was a big focus on domestic violence and supporting the victims, where now we have gone through this evolution of how we can also help perpetrators of most crimes,” Clay said. “What can we do for them to keep them out of the street?”

Clay emphasized the need for more agency in local communities, whether that involves conversations on bail reform or more funding to support centers like The Family Counseling Center.

Advocates like Zimmerman — who is also a psychiatric/mental health clinical nurse — said a potential jury should be more lenient with a defendant like Elmore, whom she sees as somewhat of a victim, than they should with a defendant like Wilson, who, in her mind, is “a monster.” 

“To me, it’s heartbreaking,” Zimmerman said. “Part of me wants to just shake this woman and say stand up for yourself, stand up for your kids. But, you know? I’m thinking she would if she could.” 

It’s hard to know why Elmore didn’t seem to stand up for herself, Zimmerman said. Maybe it was low self-esteem. Maybe it was the fact that Wilson somehow convinced Elmore that he’s the only one who will ever love her. Maybe as a 215-pound, 6-foot-3 man, according to booking papers, Wilson was simply able to physically intimidate Elmore, who stands a foot shorter. Or maybe Elmore is a monster, too. Either way, there don’t seem to be clear answers. 

Zimmerman said if the accounts are true as alleged, “It’s a sad situation. For the poor woman who was tortured, I can’t even imagine how she closes her eyes at night. And for Nicole [Elmore], to know that you are capable of doing something like this? I don’t know how she sleeps.”

Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite. 

By Andrew Waite

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