Susan McCall Hartmann persuaded herself that her three children were better off with an alcoholic father figure in the home than with none.
There were reasons to leave her husband after the abuses started, soon after she married him. But she could find more reasons to stay: He had adopted her kids. She believed in marriage; it wasn’t by her choice that her first one had ended in divorce, she said last week in an interview. “I felt I should keep hanging on and hoping.”
Money was another reason. Though she co-owns a business and works at a call center in Des Moines, Iowa, he brought in some needed income. So McCall Hartmann, now 54, stayed married to Anthony Hartmann for 19 years, thinking she had adequately sheltered her two daughters and one son from the emotional and physical traumas she suffered daily.
The awful irony is that after he was finally out of the house by court order, and two of her adult children had moved back in to help her, the secrecy she had cultivated to spare them would leave them more vulnerable.
She had not told them that on May 4 she had lifted the no-contact order against Hartmann and given him permission to return for his things the weekend of May 6, when they were away. She hadn’t predicted he’d get drunk and high on meth and not show up until Monday, when the kids were home.
So when 29-year-old Sera Alexander heard Hartmann ranting in the basement, she “thought he’d broken in and was coming to harm them,” McCall Hartmann says.
“She asked him to leave and he wouldn’t,” says F. Montgomery Brown, Alexander’s attorney. So police say Alexander pulled out a gun she owned legally and shot Hartmann to death, as Iowa’s new Stand Your Ground law allows for if a person feels threatened at home — whether or not they actually were.
But Alexander has been charged with first-degree murder. A judge ruled that the law, though signed at the time of the shooting, hadn’t yet taken effect.
Hartmann had a history of domestic abuse assaults going back before his marriage to McCall Hartmann. He was jailed last November for smashing her head into a window in a rage when she was driving him to work. He had gotten out and called her in violation of a restraining order and the next day broke into her house, refusing to leave when asked to.
Alexander had been privy to these incidents. She called police after seeing him throw a screwdriver at her mother, breaking her hand. She saw him cut her mother’s arm with a broken mirror, threatening to kill her and call it a suicide, McCall Hartmann says. Alexander knew he had burned her mother’s arm with a cigarette lighter, dislocated her shoulder with his hands, thrown her down the basement stairs and forbidden her to get treatment, her mother says. And for 10 years, she says, he barred her from her own bed, forcing her to sleep on a reclining chair or in her car or office.
Gary Thompson, who lived with his wife across the street from them between 2001 and 2014, corroborates her account, saying he called police dozens of times on Hartmann. He said he saw Hartmann constantly drunk and yelling at his wife and the kids, then throwing them out.
At night, Thompson said, the family would be “trying to sneak in without waking him up.” Many times he saw Hartmann chase the kids outside, throwing tools. “The kids had no escape until they were in high school,” Thompson said.
When Alexander was about 16, Thompson says he saw Hartmann swing a log about two inches wide and 6 feet long at her. He said she swung her purse back at him but fell and he slammed the log onto her back. When she tried to leave in her car, Thompson says Hartmann ordered her out, beating on the car and leaving dents when she didn’t comply. He said police took half an hour to come after he called, and then did nothing because Alexander wasn’t there.
McCall Hartmann said she stopped calling police because they either wouldn’t come, would come late or would threaten to arrest both of them. Even though her husband admitted to breaking her hand with a screwdriver, he wasn’t arrested for that, she notes. Calls to the Des Moines Police Department for comment were not returned. Alexander has been in treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder over the abuses, her mother says. “For years she’d felt very helpless about what was happening to us,” and begged her to leave.
McCall Hartmann says she stopped sharing information with her daughter. “She’d be afraid and angry with me for even giving him an inch,” she said. “She wanted me out, and I needed to be.”
So she didn’t notify her that May 8, Hartmann stopped by her office on his way to their house smelling of alcohol, and saying he’d used meth over the weekend. And she gave him permission.
Battered women have a credible fear of retaliation — including death — if they leave their abusers, studies have shown. And after years of being told they’re worthless, they often feel powerless. “Part of me is just so broken down,” said McCall Hartmann. “For so many years I learned I shouldn’t stand up for myself and fight back.”
She won’t allow herself to believe her 29-year-old daughter will be convicted of murder and spend her life in prison. But even if Alexander, who is home on bail, gets off, her mother says, “What happened is so horrendous, she may not be able to maintain contact with me.”
Alexander is exactly the sort of person Stand Your Ground laws should be protecting. She was never violent, has always had a job and even made the 2014 president’s list at Des Moines Area Community College. It is painfully ironic that the Iowa lawmakers and governor who vocally lobbied for this law and voted for it in defiance of public opinion remain silent about the fate of a battered woman and her traumatized daughter.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at email@example.com. Column courtesy of the Associated Press.