Her pelvis broken and six bullets lodged in her body, Kate Fay heaved her wounded friend off her, stood up, and stumbled past her dead mother.
Outside her mother’s Shoreview home, Fay crumpled to the sidewalk, crying out for help from her mother’s movers and somehow managing to call her brother on her cellphone. “John shot everybody!” she told him. “Mom’s gone!”
It was June 4, 2013. Fay had just seen her 57-year-old mother, attorney Nancy Sullivan, shot to death by Johnny L. Simpson, 65, the boyfriend Sullivan was trying to leave. Tony Brown, Fay’s ex-boyfriend and the father of her 5-year-old daughter, lay wounded, shot four times when he stepped in front of Fay to try to end Simpson’s rampage.
It ended only when Simpson fatally shot himself.
Brown and Fay survived. Fay spent the next week in intensive care, heavily sedated, occasionally lucid enough to ask her brother, Danny Fay, who never left her side, what had happened. A month passed before she was well enough to leave the hospital in a wheelchair.
“It’s been unreal ever since,” Fay said. “Nothing will ever be the same.”
Simpson’s horrific act of domestic violence had effects that extended well beyond his primary target. Fay and her brother now live not just with the damage inflicted by gunshot wounds, but also with the memories and sorrow inflicted by that day.
On average, every minute in the United States, 24 people become the victims of violence at the hands of an intimate partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Women are the primary targets. Beyond the horror they suffer, there is the shock, fear and grief inflicted on their families. And domestic violence is an even broader public health concern because children who survive or endure violence often become violent themselves.
Something felt amiss
In the Shoreview case, neither of Sullivan’s adult children had seen signs of potential violence in their mother’s relationship. But after their mother’s death, they learned that Simpson’s ex-wife had made allegations of violence during their divorce.
That they didn’t see or sense danger doesn’t surprise Liz Richards, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.
Even the best scientific methodology is right only about 60 percent of the time in predicting lethal domestic violence, Richards said.
The best predictor? A woman’s gut instinct. “If you feel like you’re at risk, even if you can’t articulate why, trust that sense,” Richards said.
In Sullivan’s case, something was starting to feel amiss. The day before she was killed, she told her son that Simpson was trying to keep her from moving out. Danny Fay said he told his mother to call a police escort. Instead, she called Brown. Meanwhile, Kate Fay, feeling some concern, left work to help her mother.
But they never expected anything like the violence they encountered at her house. “Of course I would love to ask my mom a million and one questions,” Kate Fay said last week.
Sullivan’s case is a particularly grim illustration of one of the most established truths about domestic violence — that the breakup is the most perilous time for women, because the abuser is losing control. But violence can be difficult to predict because up until that time, control may have been exerted quietly, Richards said. Often, a woman is accustomed to capitulating to the man so he has no need to resort to violence.
In therapy, victims often say they became accustomed to doing what the partner wanted. Many say, “He would just look at me and I knew,” Richards said.
‘I want to talk’
Now, more than a year later, Fay, 30, still has a one-inch unhealed opening in her abdomen. She wore a colostomy bag for several months. She lost her spleen, a Fallopian tube and an ovary.
Improbably, it wasn’t the first time Fay was shot. Four years before her mother was killed, Fay was the victim of a random drive-by shooting in south Minneapolis as she stood chatting on a friend’s lawn. She was nine months pregnant with her daughter when the bullet took a chunk out of her right calf.
After surviving seven bullets, Fay struggles to find meaning, but opens up anyway. “My story’s here for somebody,” she said. “I want to talk. I know if I don’t, I’m going to be stuck in a dark place.”
She tells the story calmly — about how Simpson was sitting on a chair in the hallway talking on a cellphone when she arrived at her mother’s house. About how his last words were spoken on the phone. He said, “No, I don’t need you to come help.” Then he hung up.
He shot Sullivan first.
Therapy used with vets
As soon as she was able, Fay started psychological treatment, specifically, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing 1 therapy, also used with some combat veterans. She would repeatedly relate that day’s events to her therapist, stopping when she had a physical response, which she and the therapist would then break down. She’d continue until she could tell the story without physical reaction.
Getting herself to therapy was tough. She’d tell herself, “I know this is going to suck. But I’m doing what’s necessary so this isn’t what the rest of my life feels like.”
As a witness to homicidal violence, as well as being a victim, part of Fay’s trauma is guilt. She feels pain at the memory of how she ran from the room and left Brown behind without knowing his condition.
“You learn to give yourself permission to say, ‘I can’t do anything about that day that would change my reaction,’ ” she said.
Creating a legacy of peace
Danny Fay arrived on the scene quickly after his sister’s call. He was stuck behind crime tape, looking at ambulances. “I didn’t know who was alive or who was dead,” he said.
His mind immediately turned to Kate Fay’s daughter, his niece Sewmauria, and to making sure someone picked her up from school. She and his 6-year-old daughter, Dalia, are like sisters.
On a recent sunny afternoon, the girls flitted around Kate Fay’s house in St. Paul, playing and mugging for company. Sullivan adored her granddaughters, who called her “Granny Fancy Pants” because of how she pampered them, Kate and Danny said.
The siblings have thrown themselves into giving their daughters happy, loving childhoods. And in June, Kate Fay organized a peace walk to replace the memories of violence with something better.
Still, she’s willing to show her bullet wounds or a forearm tattoo that reads “Nancy.”
A loud pop from the street causes the only break in her composure. She grows chillingly still. Someone else asks, “What was that?”
Everyone goes quiet. Even now, sitting in her cozy living room, Fay is acutely aware of the potential for life-changing violence. “You can be anywhere,” she said. “You can be anybody, anytime.”