Jaime Hunnicutt stood before a Howard County district court judge in November, and attempted to present a barrage of texts she received from a man sitting across the courtroom.
“I can promise you that I will kill anybody that associates their selves with you. I will put a bullet in their head, in their families head, and I don’t care after that,” read the text from her ex-boyfriend.
The threats, captured in a screenshot and printed on paper, were rejected as evidence that he had abused Hunnicutt. Judge Lisa Broten denied Hunnicutt a year-long, final protective order after hearing two hours of testimony from witnesses supporting him.
Six months later, the man burst through the Maryland City home of Hunnicutt’s son, Ryan Lee, and her daughter-in-law, Ivania Lee, killing both and shooting her 10-year-old grandson, Junior, multiple times before killing himself, police said.
“Does everyone believe me now that it’s too late?” Hunnicutt, 51, said in an interview with The Capital from the hospital where her grandson is recovering. “I was telling the court, all the police, nobody would listen.”
In the months leading up to what police said was a murder-suicide, Shawn Price, 57, came into contact with the judicial system across at least three counties.
He was charged with criminal misdemeanors in Charles and Anne Arundel counties and was sued for money he owed people and a compressed gas company. He walked out of a hospital 24 hours after completing a psychiatric evaluation ordered after Hunnicutt filed an emergency petition.
Employees of a Safeway in Charles County told police in July that after a customer asked Price to wear a mask during the coronavirus pandemic, he yelled the virus is a “hoax.” Price threatened to “end up coming in here and shooting up the place and kill some people because I’m tired of it all,” wrote La Plata police officer G.D. Plater in charging Price with threatening mass violence and violating an emergency health order.
Price was never jailed. His guns were never confiscated. Instead, he was sent a summons to attend court for hearings scheduled for this summer.
Meanwhile, Hunnicutt spent hours in a holding cell in October after Price reported that she stole his car.
“Why wasn’t he locked up? Why? If he was locked up, my family might be alive,” Hunnicutt said.
A spokesperson for the Maryland Judiciary said judges are not able to speak about specific cases, but each protective order hearing is case-specific and dependent on variables such as the number of witnesses, submitted evidence and the overall complexity of the case.
Protective orders are powerful tools that can require someone to surrender firearms, leave a shared home and stay away from the person seeking protection.
But Dorothy Lennig, director of Marjorie Cook Legal Clinic at the House of Ruth, an intimate partner violence center in Maryland, said Hunnicutt’s experience is an example of the barriers to protection women face.
“(Battered women) don’t testify in a way that’s what the judge feels that he or she needs to hear,” Lennig said. “Because they’re not lawyers. They’re not aware of what the law requires.”
Barriers to protection
When Price started acting violently in 2020, Hunnicutt moved in with her son’s family, turned off her phone to avoid contact and filed a request for a protective order at the closest courthouse. She asked the courts to remove the guns Price owned illegally. He had been convicted of a felony and was prohibited from owning guns.
Hunnicutt was granted a temporary protective order on Oct. 27 that removed Price from his home in Welcome, a small town in Charles County, while she collected her belongings. She wrote in her petition that Price threatened to kill her and placed a gun against her back and her head.
Hunnicutt said police came to search the house for firearms, but only checked a few places for his shotgun and 9mm handgun before leaving.
“And you know what they said to me? ‘Maybe it was a toy gun.’ That was their words,” Hunnicutt said.
Price violated the order in November when he repeatedly called Junior’s phone looking for Hunnicutt. He was charged with a misdemeanor and served a summons in December.
Over the course of 20 years, five people, including Hunnicutt, sought peace and protective orders against Price. Three were granted.
Temporary orders expire in a week or until a judge hears from both parties to decide whether to grant a year-long, final protective order. Petitioners must prove it is more likely than not they have been abused. Battered women and men seeking protection do not always have legal representation during the civil hearings where their credibility is often questioned.
“Do not be surprised or upset if the abuser lies about what happened,” the Maryland Judiciary advises petitioners on its website.
Protective orders can only be filed by family or live-in partners. Orders can be extended another year if the subject of the order violates its terms.
Petitioners need to prove in court by a preponderance of evidence that they were abused, a lesser standard than beyond a reasonable doubt used in criminal proceedings. Evidence can include photos and medical records to prove abuse such as threats of physical violence, stalking, assault, false imprisonment, revenge porn and sex offenses.
A temporary order might make the subject of the complaint surrender his or her guns while a final order demands it. Final orders can also award child custody and compel an alleged abuser to leave a shared home.
Traumatized women representing themselves can have trouble articulating their legal case to a judge, said Lennig, the domestic violence advocate at the House of Ruth. Petitioners can be cross-examined and their evidence questioned if their abuser has legal counsel.
And attorneys can argue to limit the scope of abuse to the petitioner’s experience, even if an abuser has a history of violence.
In the November hearing, Price hired an attorney and brought in four witnesses to testify on his behalf. Hunnicutt had four witnesses, including her son. Ultimately, Broten found Price to be credible and denied Hunnicutt’s request for an order.
Maryland also authorizes judges to issue an extreme risk protective order to remove someone’s guns if they are determined to be at risk of hurting themselves or others, sometimes called the red flag law. The orders only apply to firearm and ammunition possession.
Along with family members and intimate housemates, health professionals and police who interact with at-risk individuals can apply for the orders.
Final orders last for a year and a judge can order a search warrant if the subject doesn’t surrender his or her guns.
Josh Horowitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said extreme risk protective orders require a more thorough examination of the subject’s background to determine if they’re a threat.
But many abused women and men, including Hunnicutt, aren’t aware they can apply for an extreme risk protective order. Maryland became one of 19 states to pass the law in 2018.
A spokesperson for Charles County Sheriff’s Office said deputies served 20 extreme risk protection orders in 2020 but has never received an order for Price, a longtime Charles County resident.
“Between the domestic violence instances and these other misdemeanor violent issues, an extreme risk protection order is an available remedy for exactly this type of situation,” Horowitz said. “The totality of the circumstances made it pretty clear that there was some imminent violence about to occur.”
State Del. Sandy Bartlett, who lives across the street from the Lee home in Maryland City, said she’s examining how the General Assembly could act to raise awareness of extreme risk protection orders as an option for domestic violence victims.
“I just want to find out what we can do for that segment of the population that is still not being protected,” Bartlett said.
The day after Hunnicutt’s final protective order was denied in November, Price sought one against her, claiming that she tried to poison him.
A judge in Charles County granted a year-long order when Hunnicutt didn’t show up to the hearing. Hunnicutt said she believed Price would finally leave her alone if his order was granted by default.
She was wrong.
Two months before the shooting, Price hacked into her social media accounts, changed her passwords and posted naked photos of her online, according to court documents. Hunnicutt reported it to Anne Arundel County police and said Price had contacted her family and friends demanding to talk to her.
“(She) believes he will not stop until she agrees to renew their relationship,” Detective Kimberly Callison wrote in a document charging Price with distributing revenge porn.
The Morning Sun
Hunnicutt had no contact with Price, who she believes was on drugs, for weeks until May. Two days before the shooting, he called her niece and friend at 2 a.m. asking them to help him win Hunnicutt back, she said.
On the night of May 10, Hunnicutt and her family were messing around in the kitchen while Ivania made tacos for dinner. Her 3-year-old granddaughter, Demi, had just gotten out of the bath.
Hunnicutt had stepped downstairs when she heard someone storm the house and call out “Where’s she at?” before hearing rapid gunfire.
Rushing up the stairs, Hunnicutt grabbed Demi and fled to the neighbors’ house, where her son was dying of gunshot wounds beside the steps to the door. Lee tried to get help after he was shot.
Junior, suffering from six gunshot wounds, called out for his father while he died, she said.
Hunnicutt told him he was brave and strong while they waited for the ambulance. Junior, who is still in the hospital in stable condition, repeated it back, she said.
“I am so brave. I am so strong.”
This story has been updated to correct the number of witnesses Jaime Hunnicutt and Shawn Price had at the protective order hearing. They both had four witnesses.
This story has been updated to correct details of the November hearing in District Court. Jaime Hunnicutt tried to present printed copies of threatening text messages she said were from Shawn Price. The judge ruled they were inadmissible.