“When he shot me in the head, it felt like a freight train hit me,” those are the words spoken by domestic violence survivor Leslie Hilliard. Tuesday, Hilliard stood with the silent witnesses as their voice.
Every year, the multi-colored t-shirts hang on a clothesline around the courthouse in Athens. It looks like a vibrant happy event, but behind every shirt is a story like Hilliard's, behind every story is the tears of a survivor or family member of one who was not so lucky.
“My heart truly breaks for the families of each life represented here today. I was one of them,” Hilliard said.
She met her abuser when she was 14-years-old. As the relationship progressed, so did the abuse. They had a child and the threats began to include the baby.
“To this day, I could not tell you how a girl finds herself in such a nightmare,” Hilliard said. “The changes are so gradual, without realizing what is happening you are slowly being isolated, extreme jealousy takes over, followed by complete control.”
When she left, he would find her and she would go back believing he would keep his hollow promises.
“With every bit of rage it only gets worse,” Hilliard said. “Looking back now I can see the warning signs.”
Two days after dropping assault charges against him, she was preparing for work. In a matter of moments, breakfast was everywhere, furniture was broken and the baby was screaming. He finally relented and took her to work, but she asked someone to help her and filed a restraining order that day.
On the morning of Sept. 2 she left her mom's apartment with a friend and their 2-year-old daughter. He pulled up next to them and blocked them in a parking lot.
“Suddenly he was at my window with a gun, within seconds he unloaded the gun,” Hilliard said. The first shot ricocheted, the second broke the glass and the four remaining bullets were in me.”
She had a broken arm, a collapsed lung and a damaged kidney, among other major injuries. This wasn’t enough for him, as he went to the back of the vehicle to reload.
“As I laid across the front seats, driver door still open, I saw his feet walking up and the gun being pointed at my head,” she said. “He shot me in the head and then turned the gun on himself. All as my 2-year-old sat behind me.”
Hilliard was conscious all the way to surgery. She is lucky to be alive and telling her story. She wants women like her to know there is help out there.
County Judge Wade McKinney signed a proclamation declaring October Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
He said the people of Henderson County are fortunate to have so many groups working together to fight for victims.
“If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, please seek help. Reach out to ETCC or the Sheriff's Department, they will get you help. There are ministries and organizations out there to provide a safe place.”
Hilliard spoke on the beauty that can come from the ashes, and encouraged women to look for the signs: jealousy, control and isolation.
“If you are able and have a heart for the cause, look for ways to volunteer or donate, there is a great need for both,” she said.
Terry Dyer, the mother of Kristi Morris, also spoke. Morris was killed by her husband. She had been staying at a safe house and returned home where he shot her, then turned the gun on himself. She left behind two children.
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, call 911, the East Texas Crisis Center at 903-595-5591 or the Family Peace Project shelter hotline, 903-677-9177.