Fam­ily: ‘He should’ve gone to jail’

Be­fore mur­der­sui­cide on Thanks­giv­ing, po­lice re­sponded to five 911 calls as abuse es­ca­lated

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - By CASSANDRA JARAMILLO and SARA COELLO Staff Writ­ers

Dar­ryl Ste­gall was a wanted man when he kicked in the door to Kis­hana Jeffers’ apart­ment on Thanks­giv­ing and fa­tally shot her and him­self in front of their three chil­dren, ages 7, 9 and 10.

Weeks ear­lier, Lewisville po­lice had is­sued a war­rant for Ste­gall’s ar­rest on a charge of sex­ual as­sault of a child. But Jeffers’ friends and fam­ily say po­lice should have ar­rested Ste­gall and taken the do­mes­tic vi­o­lence al­le­ga­tions to the dis­trict at­tor­ney long be­fore they charged him with sex­u­ally abus­ing the child.

Po­lice had re­sponded to five 911 calls from Jeffers re­gard­ing Ste­gall be­tween April and June 2018. But of­fi­cers said Jeffers wasn’t co­op­er­a­tive, so they never ar­rested Ste­gall, nor did they re­fer those

abuse cases to pros­e­cu­tors.

Den­ton County pros­e­cu­tors, how­ever, say co­op­er­a­tion doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily block pros­e­cu­tion of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence cases. Jamie Beck, an as­sis­tant dis­trict at­tor­ney, said the only cases that are im­pos­si­ble to pros­e­cute are the ones po­lice don’t bring to them.

“We have a no­drop pol­icy. ... We go the dis­tance with [each case],” Beck said. “We don’t care about un­co­op­er­a­tive wit­nesses ... we still go for­ward on any case that we can le­gally prove.”

Lewisville po­lice Capt. Dan Rochelle said the “no­drop pol­icy” is good in the­ory, but is chal­leng­ing for of­fi­cers who have to fo­cus their en­ergy on the cases most likely to re­sult in con­vic­tions.

“It has been our ex­pe­ri­ence in work­ing with the DA’s of­fice ... that they would have de­clined this case,” Rochelle said.

Ste­gall “should have gone to jail,” said Kishima Smith, Kis­hana’s sis­ter, who lives in Illi­nois. “All of this could have been avoided . ... What do you ex­pect some­one like him to do? He’s sick in the head.”

Get­ting to Texas

Jeffers, who grew up in Or­lando, Fla., met Ste­gall shortly after she grad­u­ated from high school in 2007.

Court records show that Ste­gall was pre­vi­ously ar­rested on a do­mes­tic bat­tery charge in Flor­ida from 2006, but county of­fi­cials said the vic­tim’s name isn’t in their records. The state ul­ti­mately dropped the case.

But to Jeffers’ friends, all ap­peared to be well be­tween the cou­ple. They said Ste­gall spoiled Jeffers, tak­ing her out to eat and get­ting her nails done. In those early days, friends and fam­ily didn’t ques­tion the health of the re­la­tion­ship, which was Jeffers’ first se­ri­ous one.

“When I was in his pres­ence, he was a joker, he was a kid­der. Dar­ryl was the type to play a lot,” Smith said. “I never saw them ar­gue.”

Around 2008, Ste­gall and Jeffers moved to Illi­nois, where Ste­gall’s fam­ily lived. The two started to grow their fam­ily. Jeffers was thrilled to be a mother.

“She was happy with where life was tak­ing her and she loved Illi­nois. So it was an easy tran­si­tion,” said child­hood friend Se­lena Boyd. “He was a good guy. Took good care of her. I didn’t have any reser­va­tions about any of that.”

In 2011, Jeffers and Ste­gall moved again, this time to Texas so he could take an­other job op­por­tu­nity in the oil in­dus­try.

Dark months

The re­la­tion­ship seemed to turn toxic start­ing in 2017, ac­cord­ing to Jeffers’ friends in Texas. They said she con­fided some sto­ries of abu­sive be­hav­ior.

Ste­gall ac­cused her of be­ing un­faith­ful and showed up un­ex­pect­edly at her work­places and her friends’ homes, for­mer co­worker Sharitha Thomp­son said.

Thomp­son said Jeffers told her Ste­gall’s be­hav­ior both­ered her, but Jeffers al­ways wor­ried more that he’d hurt him­self rather than any­one else.

She pulled away from him in fall 2017, tak­ing the chil­dren to stay with friends from work and church as she tried to re­build her life.

The peo­ple who took in the fam­ily — Thomp­son and Jeffers’ friend Idora Jha­groo — sup­ported her but were un­cer­tain about whether Ste­gall, a truck driver, had worked his way back into Jeffers’ life.

Po­lice records show five in­ci­dents, which es­ca­lated over time, that re­sulted in 911 calls last year.

In April, Jeffers and the kids moved into a Lewisville apart­ment. Ste­gall helped with rent but no longer lived there, Jef­ fers told po­lice the first time she called them to the unit that month.

On April 5, Jeffers told po­lice Ste­gall had stolen one of the chil­dren’s phones to see if she’d used it to com­mu­ni­cate with an­other man. Three weeks later on April 26, Jeffers re­ported to po­lice that Ste­gall sent her threat­en­ing mes­sages from un­known num­bers.

An of­fi­cer watched as Jeffers emailed Ste­gall, say­ing she would file harass­ment charges if he con­tacted her again, ac­cord­ing to po­lice records.

Five weeks later, on May 13, Jeffers let him stay the night to watch the chil­dren while she was at the hos­pi­tal, she told po­lice. But she called po­lice when he re­fused to leave, said Rochelle, the Lewisville po­lice cap­tain, and Ste­gall left when of­fi­cers ar­rived.

Jeffers called po­lice again in early June, telling them she sus­pected Ste­gall had stolen her keys.

Of­fi­cers also talked to Ste­gall on June 21. He told them he’d wres­tled Jeffers to the ground, hit­ting her face and arm, to pre­vent her from call­ing 911.

He’d seen an­other man in the apart­ment, he said, so he came bang­ing on the door, poured wa­ter on the floor and lit a cig­a­rette in the apart­ment.

Ste­gall told po­lice that Jeffers was “act­ing crazy,” when she threat­ened to call po­lice and fled when she wran­gled the phone back from him and di­aled 911.

Po­lice said Jeffers told an of­fi­cer she wanted to pro­tect her­self, but she de­clined to press charges. How­ever, she al­lowed po­lice to take pho­tos of the wounds on her lip and el­bow. The of­fi­cer then gave her a brochure about prevent­ing do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and no­ti­fied Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices, ac­cord­ing to the in­ci­dent re­port.

A CPS worker was told of the call but couldn’t get a re­fer­ ence num­ber be­cause the sys­tem was down, ac­cord­ing to po­lice records. When a de­tec­tive fol­lowed up with Jeffers, she told him she didn’t want to press charges, Rochelle said.

Lewisville of­fi­cers wrote in the in­ci­dent re­port that they closed the case “due to con­flict­ing sto­ries, the lack of wit­nesses, Jeffers re­fus­ing to pre­pare a writ­ten state­ment, and Jeffers stat­ing that she does not want to pur­sue this case.”

A vic­tim’s case

Boyd, Jeffers’ friend, said she re­mem­bers ask­ing Jeffers if she was scared that Ste­gall would hurt her.

“I asked her, ‘Do you think that he would do any­thing ex­treme to hurt you?’ And she was con­fi­dent. She was like, you know, Dar­ryl, he might hurt him­self, but she was con­fi­dent that he would not kill her,” said Boyd, who now lives in Madi­son, Ala.

Suc­cess­ful pros­e­cu­tion re­quires a vic­tim’s co­op­er­a­tion and tes­ti­mony, Capt. Jesse Hunter said. Of­fi­cers recorded Jeffers’ com­plaints, gave her a do­mes­tic vi­o­lence ed­u­ca­tion packet, and left — all they could do, ac­cord­ing to Hunter. The depart­ment has to file a re­port to pass on to pros­e­cu­tors, and that can’t be done with­out in­for­ma­tion and co­op­er­a­tion from the vic­tim, he said.

But Beck, the as­sis­tant DA, said pros­e­cu­tors can — and of­ten do — work with ev­i­dence in lieu of cor­rob­o­rat­ing tes­ti­mony from vic­tims to con­vict do­mes­tic abusers. Beck said con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous po­lice re­ports of the in­ci­dent, 911 calls, in­ter­views with the al­leged abuser, and pho­tos of in­juries or crime scenes — all of which were recorded in Jeffers’ case — can be enough to prove the abuse to a jury or per­suade the de­fen­dant to take a plea deal.

Den­ton County Dis­trict At­tor­ney Michael Graves said pros­e­cu­tors ask po­lice to send re­ports about any do­mes­tic vi­o­lence case in­volv­ing in­jury, so the at­tor­neys can look for other ev­i­dence like pho­tos of in­juries, on­scene in­ter­views with vic­tims, or in­for­ma­tion from sub­poe­naed wit­nesses.

Abuse

Lewisville po­lice did even­tu­ally is­sue a war­rant for Ste­gall’s ar­rest — but Jeffers wasn’t the vic­tim.

A child al­leged that Ste­gall started mo­lest­ing her in mid-Au­gust. Po­lice is­sued a war­rant for Ste­gall on Oct. 10 and asked Jeffers for help in find­ing him. The Dal­las Morn­ing News doesn’t typ­i­cally iden­tify sex­ual abuse vic­tims.

Jeffers told Thomp­son, her co­worker, she could for­give Ste­gall for call­ing her un­faith­ful or show­ing up at her work­place, Thomp­son said. But once Jeffers dis­cov­ered Ste­gall was ac­cused of abus­ing a child, she de­cided to cut ties, Boyd said.

Lewisville po­lice of­fi­cials said Jeffers helped, but the leads she of­fered weren’t enough to track him down.

Ste­gall changed his num­ber and drove var­ied truck routes, Hunter said. And Jeffers didn’t know the ad­dresses of any of the rel­a­tives she sus­pected might have taken him in.

Po­lice said they tried but couldn’t find him.

Hol­i­day plans

Jeffers had orig­i­nally planned to visit fam­ily out of town for Thanks­giv­ing. But in­stead, she de­cided to stay in Lewisville and take the chil­dren to her friend’s house for din­ner.

Thomp­son said her co­worker was look­ing for­ward to next year when she could put aside the stress and lone­li­ness of her first Thanks­giv­ing and Christ­mas as a sin­gle mother. Jeffers planned in 2019 to start sav­ing up to buy a house.

“How could you feel in the hol­i­day spirit?” Thomp­son said. “It wasn’t in her.”

And things were look­ing up for Jeffers: She had started ex­er­cis­ing, lost a few pounds and started talk­ing to a new man, her sis­ter said.

But Ste­gall was be­com­ing more jeal­ous, friends said.

When she and the chil­dren re­fused him en­try on Thanks­giv­ing, Ste­gall kicked the door down, shot Jeffers in the head, then turned the gun on him­self — all in front of his chil­dren, Lewisville po­lice said.

The kids ran to their aunt’s house a few blocks away, where their un­cle called po­lice.

Re­gret

Jeffers’ sis­ter was stunned and said she didn’t know about the abuse.

“It just doesn’t seem real,” said Kishima Smith. “That’s the part that eats me up. I’m your big sis­ter. Why didn’t you tell me this? She was in all this pain.”

Paige Flink, CEO of The Fam­ily Place, said vic­tims of­ten feel shame dur­ing the on­go­ing abuse, or think it will even­tu­ally end.

“Gen­er­ally, these sit­u­a­tions es­ca­late,” Flink said. “It’s ap­par­ent be­hav­iors that a bat­terer ex­erts on a vic­tim. They’re try­ing to get some­thing or con­trol.”

Flink said some warn­ing signs are when peo­ple iso­late them­selves from friends and fam­i­lies — or part­ners who use sui­cide threats to scare their part­ner.

Fam­ily and friends buried Jeffers on Dec. 14 in Or­lando. Her three chil­dren are now liv­ing there with Jeffers’ mother.

The fam­ily is still rais­ing funds to help pay for the fu­neral ex­penses and costs to re­lo­cate the kids.

The change in their lives was stark. Smith re­mem­bers see­ing her sis­ter late last sum­mer. They took their kids to the mall and to go swim­ming. They planned to see each other again for the hol­i­day sea­son.

And dur­ing that Lewisville visit, they also talked about both of them mov­ing back to Flor­ida.

“OK, it’s time for me to go,” she had told her sis­ter. They gave each other a hug, think­ing the fam­ily would be re­united again.

“Now, I wish I would have stayed,” Smith said.

Se­lena Boyd

Kis­hana Jeffers (right) at­tended the wed­ding of her child­hood best friend, Se­lena Boyd. Be­fore Jeffers was killed on Thanks­giv­ing, friends said she had con­fided sto­ries of abuse.

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