Victims discuss their pain, healing

Third annual forum on domestic violence designed to promote awareness

Thursday, Oct. 19, 2006

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Brenda Aheran⁄The Gazette
Mildred Muhammad, ex-wife of D.C. area sniper John Muhammad, speaks at the Third Annual Survivors Forum on Tuesday at Prince George's Community College in Largo. Muhammad said she believes if her husband is released from prison, where he is serving a life sentence, he will kill her.

Several participants attending a domestic violence forum in Largo on Tuesday wept openly as three gravely abused women took turns recounting stories of mistreatment and suffering at the hands of their violent spouses.

Beltway sniper John Allen Muhammad’s ex-wife Mildred Muhammad, Yvette Cade and Cheryl Kravitz gave their audience full details about the pain they experienced, and their subsequent work to help other victims of domestic violence. They spoke at the third annual Survivors Forum at Prince George’s Community College.

The women talked about being re-victimized by people who blamed them for the abuse they suffered. They claimed that fortune-hunters have even sought to profit from their pain and shredded self-esteem. But each one said she found the courage to survive.

All three survivors described a pattern of abuse that began as verbal, but then escalated into physical violence.

Muhammad said her ex-husband’s abusive behavior began after his military service. John Allen Muhammad, who was convicted of seven counts of murder and sentenced to death in 2003, began abusing his wife after he returned from serving in the first Gulf war.

‘‘The man that I married is still in Saudi,” Muhammad said, referring to John Allen Muhammad’s tour of duty in Saudi Arabia with the U.S. Army in 1991.

‘‘The man that came back was a total stranger.

‘‘He was very controlling. Nothing I did was right. I contemplated suicide, because I could not figure a way out,” she said.

Mildred Muhammad said she contacted government agencies seeking help, but people were skeptical about her story.

‘‘Because of the way he looked, the way he presented himself, no one would believe me,” she said. ‘‘I didn’t look like a victim. When you’re in a domestic violence situation ... you may not know if you want to leave, or if you want to stay. It’s not an easy decision. You’re trying to keep your family together.”

John Allen Muhammad eventually kidnapped the couple’s three children and emptied their bank accounts, forcing Mildred Muhammad to seek shelter in a transitional home for eight months. During that time, she attended a paralegal program through the Professional Career Development Institute. She credits that training with giving her the knowledge she needed about the legal and judicial system to get her children back.

‘‘I knew if he found me, I was going to die,” she said of the period that she sought custody of the children, with whom she was reunited after 18 months. During that time, she said she had no idea that her husband’s violent behavior had escalated to random killings in the Washington metropolitan area.

‘‘When the [sniper attacks] started, I was scared, like everybody else. I didn’t know who it was. I was looking for a white box truck. My kids were ducking, like everybody else,” she said. ‘‘When the ATF came to pick me up, and told me that they were going to name my ex-husband as the sniper, I dropped my hands on the table and said ‘what do you mean?’ But when they asked me if I thought he would do something like this, I said ‘yes.’”

After Muhammad shared her story with the audience, the husband of one of John Muhammad’s victims stood up to speak. Nelson Rivera tearfully told the audience how difficult things had been since his wife Lori Lewis Rivera’s death, but applauded the courage of the women to come forward to speak about domestic violence. Rivera, was shot in the back by John Muhammad on Oct. 3, 2002.

Since the arrest and conviction of her ex-husband, Mildred Muhammad has started her own organization called ‘‘After The Trauma,” which focuses on getting survivors the help they need after they have survived domestic violence.

Kravitz is an award-winning journalist and executive director of the Washington Region for Justice and Inclusion, a human relations organization dedicated to fighting bias and bigotry Cade has become a national advocate for victims of domestic violence.

‘‘My story is hard to hear, and harder to tell, but if I can help one person, it’s worth coming forward,” said Kravitz. She described a fantasy she often had while being beaten by her husband, that she was floating above herself, and that it wasn’t really happening.

‘‘For over ten years, I was in fear for my life. My self-esteem was in shreds. I was afraid for my daughter. It was the mother of one of my daughter’s friends who realized what was happening and reached out to help,” said Kravitz.

She vividly described an evening when her husband burned her forearms by planing them inside the oven, followed by a beating. The mother of her daughter’s friend called the police, and offered them a place to stay.

‘‘The signs of abuse are there, if we’re willing to see them. And once we do, we must be ready to act.”

Kravitz’ ex-husband died, and she has since remarried.

Cade has also become a domestic violence advocate after her case garnered national attention. She was set on fire by her estranged husband, Roger Hargrave, in October 2005, and sustained third-degree burns over 65 percent of her body. Cade has since appeared on several national talk shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, and has been recognized by the U.S. Justice Department for her work on behalf of domestic violence victims. Cade, who has undergone 18 surgeries and faces perhaps as many as 20 more, says she is still optimistic about her future. She is planning to establish a foundation to use as a platform to speak to domestic violence victims.

‘‘People ask me how I can smile. But I refuse to let him (her ex-husband) steal my joy. It doesn’t matter how I look, I know that inside, I am a beautiful person,” said Cade.

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