"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Written for the alternative paper Fayetteville Begin in 1993, this remains one of the pieces I am proudest of writing. Two paragraphs in particular took me almost an hour to write - and rewrite - before I was satisfied with it.
What would give me even greater satisfaction is if domestic abuse was just something we read about in history books, and not something which too many of the people we love face in their lives. This is included in my book, Ozark Mosaic.
Death and the Sisters
“I made a quiet move over night. The guy I was living with turned out to be somewhat of a nut case.” Twenty-eight year old Stella Marie Vidler wrote those words to one of her sisters in early 1993. Before the month was over, she would be dead, victim of a man who “loved” her. In fear, she was obliged to move from one residence to another after leaving the home she had shared with 47 year old Donald Erwin, a respected Dallas fire fighter, and Vietnam Veteran.
That spring, Stella found herself looking at her lover with new eyes, after he pulled a gun on her after an argument. Before this, he had displayed evidence of severe instability, going so far as to forbid her to speak to other men. He had also instructed her on how she should dress. Earlier in the year, he had been jealous when she had hugged male relatives at her grandmother's funeral.
She sought temporary shelter, first with her ex-husband, then a sister, and finally a friend. Stella was eventually able to find an apartment where she hoped that she would be safe from Erwin.
She was wrong.
Stella told her sister that Erwin had told her new landlady that she was his runaway daughter. She said the landlady obliged the grateful “father” by affirming that she was on the premises.
Erwin began calling Stella in an attempt to win her back. He continued to buy her presents, which she accepted, though they were no longer a couple. One of the last presents he gave her was an ankle bracelet.
Why did she accept the gifts? Perhaps you just don't turn down presents from a man who might pull a gun on you.
On June 29th, as she was leaving her job at Texas Instruments, Donald Erwin accosted Stella in the employee parking lot. Evidently, he was trying to force her into a van which he had rented.
She fought with him furiously, screaming for help. At some point in the struggle, he fired a bullet into her head, causing instant brain death.
Leaving behind the fallen Stella and the rented van, he sped away in her new car. He was not located until the day after her funeral, when the Dallas Police found the car parked four blocks away outside a hotel, where he had been renting a room for almost two weeks before the killing. Inside they found Erwin's body, a “victim”of suicide.
Though her brain was dead, Stella's body clung to life long enough for her mother to arrive from Arkansas and see her child a bare two hours before death. She was no longer recognizable as a human being, but instead was sunken in on herself. “Her body looked like a blow up doll,” her mother said later.
End of story.
Well, not quite. Besides the sister living in Texas, Stella had another sister, Vina Mae Thompson, who lived through a similar experience some years ago.
Vina, a victim of childhood sexual abuse, spent much of her adult life getting involved with men who sought victims, and saw natural prey in the slightly built young woman. Several years ago Vina was living with a man whose mood swings were unpredictable, and who had put her into the hospital on several occasions. He had also sexually assaulted her with a Coke bottle.
Though they broken up several times, they always reconciled.
On September 18th, 1989, Vina went to a local pawn shop and bought a 22 pistol for the sum of $55.65. It was money which her boyfriend had given her, wanting her to have “protection.” That afternoon, according to Vina, he attacked again, knocking her to the floor, promising that she was finally going to get what was coming to her. She later claimed that he had a knife.
Vina shot and killed him, pumping several bullets into him. Because the Battered Women's Defense was not used at her trial, the past violence could not be mentioned in court.
Vina Mae Thompson lives today in an Arkansas prison, if you can call that sort of existence living.
The difference between the two sisters would have been like visiting two different countries. Stella was a popular employee who had just been promoted, while Vina, diagnosed as having a lower than average IQ, was never able to get her life in order. She drifted from one undesirable man to another, from dead-end job to dead-end job.
Though Stella never discussed Vina very much with the rest of her family, one can easily imagine that she must have thought about her in her last few months, while Donald Erwin made her life a hellish nightmare. Indeed, it was to Vina that Stella wrote the lines about having to leave overnight.
She told other employees that he had threatened to kill both her and her daughters. Surely she was aware of how Vina's attempts to save her own life had only guaranteed her another prison.
So Stella fought Erwin using the law, filing an assault charge against him after he pulled the gun on her in the spring. The police were unable to protect her, since aside from the firearm incident, he did nothing illegal up to the day he shot her down in the parking lot.
Vina Mae, who took the law into her own hands and killed a man, will be out of prison someday, perhaps reshaping her life into something meaningful, finally able to put her pain behind her. Stella Marie has only a cold grave.
End of story.
Fayetteville Begin - August, 1993