Domestic violence doesn’t always come with answers

Some cases of domestic violence fatality are confusing, and without a lot of answers.

On October 26, 2016, Deborah Lynn Gerlach was murdered in her home in Emporium, Pa., by Michael Fuller Courtney. Courtney entered a Sheetz store around 8:30 that evening covered in blood saying that he’d killed Gerlach. When police arrived, he led them to her home, where they found Gerlach dead from two lacerations to the neck.

Courtney originally told police that he’d cut Gerlach’s throat after an argument over making a drug run. He later told police that the two had been drinking and that he’d taken a blue pill she’d give him, and that they’d been playing a game called “tit for tat” in which each player copies “each other’s acts, with the chosen actions increasing in severity throughout the length of the game,” according to an August 23, 2017 story in the Bradford Era.

Courtney told police that, under the influence of alcohol, he’d accidentally put the sharp end of his box cutter against Gerlach’s throat and cut her. He also told police that he’d tried to stop the bleeding with a scarf and, when that was unsuccessful, he went to the Sheetz to call police because he didn’t have his phone on him.

In August of this year Courtney pled guilty to one count of third degree and sentence to g18 to 36 years in state prison for the offense.

Gerlach’s mother, who was unable to attend Courtney’s sentencing, sent a written statement that talked about Courtney “isolating Gerlach from her family and being abusive,” according to the Bradford Era story. Her mother said in the statement that Gerlach’s “illness kept her coming back to (Courtney).”

Courtney’s public defender told the court during sentencing that he’d been admitted to 13 different rehabilitation programs for drug and alcohol addiction over the years, and that while he showed remorse throughout the investigation and prosecution, his crime was a result of drug and alcohol abuse. She also argued that his actions after the incident were honorable in that he reported the incident, waited for police to arrive, showed them to the scene and cooperated with the investigation throughout the process, according to the Bradford Era.

Gerlach was one of 102 people – 56 women – killed as a result of domestic violence in 2016, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence 2016 fatality report, which says that in the past decade over 1,600 people have died due to domestic violence in Pennsylvania. Gerlach and Courtney’s case illustrate that domestic violence is not always a black and white, simple issue. Many times things like drugs and alcohol complicate the situation, as well as leading to escalation of arguments and use of force that may not have been the case had they not been a part of the equation. It also illustrates the connection between mental health and drug and alcohol issues and their intersection with domestic violence.

A Safe Place will be hosting a candlelight vigil on Saturday, Oct. 28 at 7:30 p.m. on the steps of the Warren County Courthouse. Juliet Sharrow, a domestic violence survivor with the Office of Victim’s Advocates, will speak. In case of rain, the vigil will be held inside the courthouse.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with a domestic violence or abuse issue, contact A Safe Place at (814) 726-1030 or 1-800-338-3460.