By Maggie Cassidy
Valley News Staff Writer
Windsor — A group of coworkers gathered at the Windsor Diner Wednesday night grabbed a quick bite to eat before a sobering task: Creating dozens of purple ribbons, the color of domestic violence awareness, to honor their friend and colleague, Molly Helland.
The tragic news this week that Helland, 23, was gunned down by her estranged boyfriend has struck the women deeply — and they said the specter of domestic violence is all too familiar. Out of four women who talked to a reporter, two said they were survivors of domestic abuse, and another woman, Patti Hutchins, said Helland was the second friend she had lost to such violence.
“I never dreamed there’d be one,” Hutchins said.
Helland’s death follows several similar homicides in the Upper Valley in recent years, including the shooting deaths of Kelly Robarge in Charlestown in 2013 and Lebanon High School teacher Natalie Perriello in 2012. The women’s husbands were both convicted of murder and are serving sentences that could keep them in prison for life.
In Fairlee in 2013, police said a 42-year-old man fatally shot his wife, Rhonda Gray, before turning the gun on himself.
Authorities have said Jason Kendall, 27, shot Helland to death outside her parents’ home on Main Street early Monday morning. Kansas authorities said that Kendall killed himself Wednesday night with the same gun he used to kill Helland after he crashed his car in that state following a police chase.
The women at the Windsor Diner said they worked with Helland at the Willows of Windsor, an assisted living home. They said they were headed there after dinner to make the ribbons, which will be available for donations at Windsor’s alumni event on the town common on Saturday, with money slated to go to Helland’s family — a fund has been set up under her mother’s name, Kirsten Gould, at People’s United Bank — and a rescue organization for pit bulls, Helland’s favorite type of dog.
However, said friend and coworker Holly Waters, the goal is not only to raise money but also to raise awareness around domestic violence.
Waters designed an image of a purple ribbon with Molly’s name and white heart on it that quickly became many community members’ profile pictures on Facebook this week.
“I loved her dearly and I wanted everyone to be aware that she was in a bad situation and was trying to make her life better,” said Waters. “She had gotten out of the relationship finally and was starting a life with her baby.”
Waters and other coworkers said Helland had started opening up to them within the last month about her troubles with Kendall, but Waters still said “never in my life would I have imagined (Kendall) was capable” of killing Helland.
An affidavit made public on Thursday said that Helland’s father told police she was on her way to file a restraining order against Kendall because of an incident where he held a gun against her head during a car ride on Friday as she tried to move out of his apartment. They had a 2-year-old child, currently being cared for by Helland’s family, and Helland had recently ended the relationship, police said.
The court documents paint a picture of an increasingly violent relationship, including Kendall throwing knives and lit cigarettes at Helland, followed by Kendall repeatedly asking for her forgiveness and begging for her to take him back.
It was unclear whether Kendall knew that Helland was planning to file the restraining order on Monday. Sampson said his department had not received any domestic violence complaints related to Kendall or Helland.
Another friend, Brittnee Lord, said Helland had “promised me that she was going to go Monday” to get a restraining order.
“We really want Molly’s story to be known, because I feel like (news organizations) are making it seem like it was just one altercation between these two, and it just wasn’t,” Lord said.
Lord, who met Helland through Willows of Windsor, said Helland had always been a giggly sweetheart and “the most positive person in my life,” but that she was pleased to see more of the “quirky” aspects of Helland’s personality shine through in the past month as she moved on from Kendall and opened up about that situation.
“I still expect her to walk through the door looking like a hot mess, her hair in a ponytail because she’d just gotten up 10 minutes ago,” Lord said, chuckling.
Christy Vanderveer, another friend and coworker who said she survived a violent relationship, said she fully understood that when a person is in an unhealthy relationship, it can look different to that person than to the outside world.
She and Hutchins said they hoped people learn from Helland’s situation to get help as soon as any warning signs arise.
“She was an amazing person,” Vanderveer said, “and she would definitely want other people to benefit from her life.”
Officials and experts echoed the women’s assessment that domestic violence is all too common. Abby Tassel, assistant director WISE, the Upper Valley nonprofit that provides crisis counseling and other services, said that many hundreds of domestic violence cases in the region go unnoticed in the public eye. She said WISE works with roughly 1,100 victims a year, and “we think we’re not even scratching the surface.”
“It is so widespread and prevalent,” Tassel said, “and while we are all blessed to live in a part of the world that’s perceived of as being safe, I think this is a reminder that … there are a lot of people who are having a very different experience.”
Windsor Police Chief William Sampson said that unlike some other types of crime, domestic violence does not ebb and flow with the overall rate of criminal activity, nor does it discriminate along socioeconomic lines.
“It’s truly prevalent everywhere,” he said.
Gov. Peter Shumlin addressed Helland’s case at an unrelated news conference Thursday, calling it “yet another example of men inflicting violence on women” and “absolutely unacceptable and should break all of our hearts.”
Tassel, of WISE, and Executive Director Peggy O’Neil said they could not comment on whether they were providing services to Helland.
But speaking generally and not about Helland’s death in particular, Tassel said that domestic violence usually means a “pattern of power and control tactics on the part of one person to control the other.”
“So for the abuser, the person using those tactics, the other person leaving is the ultimate lack of power and control, so this is why leaving is so dangerous,” Tassel said.
Tassel stressed that while the “responsibility for the violence falls squarely on the shoulders of the (perpetrator),” she said WISE and other organizations work with victims to come up with a step-by-step plan to safely leave a relationship, and that WISE respects a victim’s “expertise in her situation, because she’s going to know better than anyone what is going to be safe or what is going to be dangerous.”
O’Neil echoed that point.
“What can be hard for family and friends and what sometimes may seem counterintuitive is trusting the victim when she is making choices to not move out of the relationship when other people may think she should be moving out of it, and the bind that victims can be in sometimes from family and friends who are so well-meaning,” O’Neil said.
Safety plans may include a protective or restraining order. Windsor County State’s Attorney Michael Kainen said in an email that it’s “quite common” for women to get a restraining order during night or weekend hours because police departments have judge’s phone numbers, “but unless a woman called a police department, our office or WISE, she may not know that,” he said, calling for more public awareness.
Tassel noted that while restraining orders may be part of a woman’s safety plan to leave a relationship, “unfortunately, having a protective order in place may not be enough protection.”
She encouraged friends and family members to contact organizations such as WISE if they think a loved one is dealing with domestic violence. It’s important to listen to that person, Tassel said, and warning signs can include extreme jealousy, isolation, controlling finances, using the children to manipulate a relationship, and more.
Domestic Violence Resources
∎ WISE: http://www.wiseuv.org; 603-448-5922; 24/7 at 603-448-5525
∎ Turning Points Network: http://www.free-to-soar.org; 603-543-0155; 24/7 at 1-800-639-3130
∎ Safeline: http://www.orgsites.com/vt/safeline1; 1-800-639-7233