At 3:20 A.M., Simon Gonzales drove up to the police station and opened fire with a semiautomatic handgun. The police shot him dead, and when they went to his truck, found the bodies of the three girls in the backseat. "I was so angry," says Lenahan now. "I believed the police would do their job." After the murders, she sued the town of Castle Rock and appealed her case as far as she could, alleging that the police had violated her 14th Amendment right to due process. In 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case, Castle Rock v. Gonzales, ruling that the arrest laws left room for police discretion and that she had no constitutional right to have her restraining order enforced. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority: "We do not believe that these provisions of Colorado law truly made enforcement of restraining orders mandatory. A well-established tradition of police discretion has long coexisted with apparently mandatory arrest statutes."
Many advocates worry that the decision has weakened victim protection, even though it didn't strike down mandatory arrest laws. "The cops I meet around the country say, 'Castle Rock means we don't have to enforce these orders,'" notes Marcus Bruning, supervising deputy with the St. Louis County sheriff's office in Duluth, Minnesota, who trains police nationally to recognize abuse—teaching them, for example, that although it's frustrating when a woman repeatedly returns home to her batterer, that is a sign of his power and control.
Lenahan has gone on to file a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which is part of the Organization of American States, in the hopes of bringing attention to the system's failures. Her struggle fills Vernetta Cockerham with misgivings. "I have an unbelievable fear that my case will end up like Jessica's," Cockerham says.
After the incident in Elkin, Ellerbee was charged with felony assault and violating the emergency protective order; the charges against Cockerham were ultimately dropped. Meanwhile, domestic violence workers had been telling her to take the children to a shelter. But the closest one was in Elkin, in plain view of the road, with no real security or surveillance, and Cockerham felt safer at home with the police station less than 70 yards away. She was also hopeful about her next hearing, scheduled for Tuesday, November 12, at which a judge would rule on extending the emergency protective order. Ellerbee now faced charges in two counties—assault in Surry and communicating threats in Yadkin. She felt confident the judge would revoke his probation and send him to jail, and that safety was just a few days away.