Nerissa Shaw’s niece pleaded with her for years to stay away from Walter Thompson III, a man who never tried to disguise his propensity for beating, terrorizing and isolating his on-and-off girlfriend.
But she considered the black eyes and busted lips collateral damage from a pull she couldn’t resist — not her love for the man now accused of killing her, but for the alcohol he provided.
The 46-year-old Minneapolis woman’s brutal death in mid-September was the state’s 33rd domestic homicide of 2013, a year in which several Minnesota women have died, allegedly at the hands of their male partners. Her case put a grim limelight on the link between domestic violence and chemical dependency.
Still, Shaw’s family said that despite a decades-long struggle with alcoholism, their aunt and sister’s story is more than just a cautionary tale.
“She was a human being,” said her brother, Ronnell Shaw, 48.
“It’s also for the next woman,” added her cousin, Troy Shaw, 51. “Because there will be another one.”
Thompson, 54, is jailed on second-degree murder charges that accuse him of punching, kicking and stomping Shaw to death. Days later, he allegedly recruited his sister and daughter, Senaca and Rachel Thompson, to help him dump her naked body behind a St. Louis Park industrial business, where it was found Sept. 17. Both are also charged with felony accomplice after the fact for their alleged involvement.
Walter Thompson’s criminal record dates back to at least 1990, with convictions ranging from domestic violence and drunken driving to criminal sexual conduct.
Shaw’s death followed a five-year relationship with Thompson, who boomeranged in and out of jail for repeatedly beating Shaw and breaking into her apartment so many times that she was evicted. He was charged at least five times with violating a protective order she took out against him.
Again and again, prosecutors were forced to dismiss charges when Shaw failed to show up in court as a witness. Prosecutors were able to convict him last year only when police caught him in the act at her apartment. He served five days in jail and two years’ probation with an additional six months’ jail time hanging over his head. A protective order Shaw took out against him lapsed in May, but another no-contact order was still in effect as a condition of his probation.
Richfield City Attorney Martin Costello declined to discuss Thompson’s history at length, citing the ongoing murder case. However, he said police and prosecutors “did all that we reasonably could,” when it came to prosecuting Thompson. However, unless he was caught in the act of violating the order, it was necessary for Shaw to serve as a witness. She also rejected help through Cornerstone, an advocacy service that aims to prevent domestic violence.
Two weeks before her death, Shaw showed up at the St. Paul home of her niece Amber Shaw, her face again swollen and battered.
“She said, ‘Niecy, I’m not going back to him. I can’t go back,’ and I said, ‘Don’t worry about it; we’ll get you clothes; we’ll take care of you,’ ” Amber Shaw said. “When she went back to him, I guess … that alcohol was calling her.”
Troy and Ronnell Shaw say they never knew the extent of the abuse Nerissa suffered, and that if they had, things would have turned out differently. They realize Shaw had some responsibility to help protect herself, they say, but wish the state would have moved forward with its prosecution of Thompson even without her assistance, and put him in prison.
“That’s what the laws are for,” Troy Shaw said. “To protect someone in this situation.
Like gas to a fire
The link between alcohol and domestic violence has long been established, but one doesn’t necessarily beget the other, said Liz Richards, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.
“The link between chemical dependency and domestic violence is sort of like gas on a fire,” she said. “The issues around power and control and coercive behaviors are one thing — that’s the fire — while the alcohol can exacerbate the problems and make things worse, things that make people less able to protect themselves and the assaults that happen more violent.”
In Shaw’s case, the alcohol made her dependent on Thompson. Unable to hold down a job, she relied on him not only for booze but sometimes shelter, often staying at his Minneapolis apartment when she had nowhere else to go.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Shaw was the youngest of nine siblings in a family ravaged by alcoholism. Only three of the brothers and sisters are still alive. Her early adulthood was happy and productive, said Troy Shaw, who is slightly older than her aunt and was close with her for years. After graduating from Patrick Henry High School, she worked at Northern States Power and eventually had two sons, who are now being raised by other relatives. She was long an alcoholic, but mostly a functional one until she met Thompson.
Soon after that, Troy and Ronnell rarely saw her. But when they did, she looked more worn down. Her once-fashionable outfits had been replaced by baggy T-shirts, and she stopped wearing makeup. They attributed her isolation to drinking, but had no idea that Thompson, a man they’d only met a few times and didn’t like, was beating her. They were infuriated when they learned of the lengthy history only after her death.
“It was devastating …” Troy Shaw said. “… that she had to suffer and go through that much torture without thinking anybody cared,” Ronnell Shaw added.
“Exactly,” Troy Shaw said. “That’s how she died. Really thinking that nobody loved her, because she was so busy hiding it.”
She didn’t hide it from Amber Shaw, who often defended her aunt against Thompson and encouraged her to take out a protective order. In a cellphone video taken days before she died, Shaw danced in her niece’s living room while family members laughed. She was happy, and was on the waiting list to receive Social Security assistance with a new apartment.
Amber Shaw was working at her job downtown last month when she came home to learn that her aunt had returned to Walter Thompson. She’s believed to have been killed that day. Amber said she spent three days trying in vain to reach Shaw, in part because she had good news: A social services agency had just approved Shaw for her own apartment.
The next call came from St. Louis Park police. It was too late.
Shaw’s ashes were buried Tuesday at Crystal Lake Cemetery in Minneapolis. More than 75 people gathered to say goodbye.