Wednesday, August 02, 2000

Call to 911: 'I just shot my husband'

Grand jury likely

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HANOVER TWP. — On the last night of their 52-year marriage, Josie and William Whitaker did what they often did: He got drunk, they fought and she ended up battered and bruised.

Josie Whitaker
        But this time, Mrs. Whitaker aimed a .25-caliber semiautomatic handgun at her husband and fired. He died early Tuesday.

        “She saved her life by firing a warning shot at the man, to which he responded something such as, "It's going to take more than a flesh wound to keep me from killing you,'” said one of Mrs. Whitaker's lawyers, Patrick W. Garretson. Then “he moved aggressively toward her.”

        After the first shot hit Mr. Whitaker's abdomen, Mrs. Whitaker fired a second shot, fatally wounding her 70-year-old husband in the chest.

        Then, standing naked in her kitchen, she called police at 11:40 p.m. Monday: “I just shot my husband. ... He was trying to kill me.” Butler County Sheriff's Dispatcher Mary Thompson told Mrs. Whitaker to put the gun down. “No,” insisted a breathless Mrs. Whitaker, “Not until I know he can't come back at me.”

        Mrs. Whitaker, 68, was freed on her own recognizance Tuesday and is scheduled to appear in County Area II Court today on a charge of murder.

        Patrick and his brother Jack Garretson, who are representing Mrs. Whitaker, said she exhibits classic signs of battered woman syndrome, which Ohio courts have recognized as a valid defense in such cases; and they believe the murder charge will not stick.

        In a similar case in 1996, the Garretsons convinced prosecutors that Lawana Tzeiranakis suffered from “battered woman syndrome,” meaning she feared for her life when she shot her abuser. The Liberty Township mother of four had originally been charged with a felony but pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in the death of her husband.

        Butler County Sheriff's Maj. Anthony Dwyer said Mrs. Whitaker's case is likely to go to a grand jury, which will decide whether Mrs. Whitaker should be charged with murder, with a lesser offense or with no crime at all.

        Maj. Dwyer said family members and others confirmed that the couple had a history of domestic disputes, although records confirming that could not immediately be located. He cautioned that investigators had not yet heard from Mr. Whitaker's side of the family.

        The Garretsons say they are confident that evidence will show Mrs. Whitaker acted in self-defense, following a sexual assault — and that the shooting was the culmination of decades of abuse.

        “You can't just look at this night alone, or this set of circumstances that happened in a heartbeat,” Jack Garretson said.

        The assaults became worse when Mr. Whitaker drank, Mr. Garretson said. Butler County Coroner Richard P. Burkhardt said Mr. Whitaker was intoxicated when he died, with a blood-alcohol level at “more than twice the legal limit” for driving.

        Mrs. Whitaker, who was treated at Mercy Hospital Hamilton and released, is exhausted and numb, Jack Garretson said, “She has said repeatedly that she wished it wouldn't have happened, but she also was just scared to death of him. I think it was absolute, genuine fear that he would kill her.”

        The couple had three children, Patrick Garretson said, “and they all report that they were afraid someday their father would kill their mother.”

        John Barger, who has lived across Stahlheber Road from the Whitakers for more than 30 years, said he knew the couple had fought but never witnessed the violence. “He'd beat her up,” he said. “I guess she just got tired of it.”

        The couple's history was well-known, but police were not aware that anyone had ever successfully intervened. Mrs. Whitaker's brother is Gary Rednour, retired Fairfield police chief.

        Patrick Garretson said that when outsiders tried to help the Whitakers, “he would beat her severely and she would beg them not to say anything more.”

        Ann MacDonald, executive director of Women Helping Women Inc., said she was saddened to hear about the case, although not necessarily surprised.

        “A lot of people might look at this and say, "If it was me, I would just leave.' I would just ask people to realize that we didn't know what was going on in her life,” Ms. MacDonald said. “We just don't know.”

        David Eck contributed to this story.


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