No safe place

On her way to get a protective order against her husband, Veronica Williams drove by the home where their marriage had fallen apart - where he had attacked her with scissors and cut off her hair.

The District Court was just five blocks from their North Avenue rowhouse. She believed her husband had abandoned it to elude arrest for domestic violence.

She had decided to end her nine-year marriage, but on this day, a final series of coincidences and missed opportunities would lead to her death.

She spotted his SUV first. And then - on a cloudy Monday afternoon in November - she saw him walk down their front steps, carrying some belongings.

She drove on, hoping he had not seen her. A few minutes later, her cell phone vibrated and rang. She opened the text message.

"Where are you?" her assistant, Teruko Taft, asked.

"Entering the courthouse," she replied.

Taft typed back: "He saw you."

The 28-year-old woman standing before Baltimore Judge Jeannie J. Hong had a flawless face. Her words, as soothing as her beauty, were delivered like a doctor calmly giving bad news to a stranger in a waiting room.

Veronica gave her name, raised her hand and swore to tell the truth. She told the judge she had been married for about 10 years and had three children - ages 8, 7 and 5.

With the routine questions out of the way, the judge gently asked her why she was there. Veronica began to recount what happened at the three-story brick rowhouse at 2 a.m. Oct. 19, after she told her husband she was leaving him for the second time.

The judge interrupted, incredulous. "He cut all your hair off?"

"Yes. I screamed as loud as I could. No one responded but the children. They came downstairs."

The judge cringed.

"And they watched?"

"They didn't see anything because when he saw them he did stop. He sent them back upstairs, and then he kicked me out of the house."

Hong specializes in handling domestic violence cases. When she has reason to believe a victim might be in imminent danger, she knows what to do. She sends a security guard to escort the victim to her car. She ensures that the victim gets legal assistance, emergency shelter and other services.

But Veronica gave no hint that her husband had attacked her before. She never said how terrified she was. She never indicated that he might be lurking outside.

Before Hong granted the protective order, she asked Veronica if she wanted to tell her anything else.

"No," Veronica replied.

Veronica Graves met Cleaven Williams in 1998 at Hagerstown Junior College. Her cousin and best friend, Carlin Robinson, 38, didn't like him from the beginning - he showed up too often at the McDonald's where Veronica worked and always seemed to be monitoring her.

They married in 1999. Veronica was 19; Cleaven, 23. They built a barbershop business on the edge of downtown, where Cleaven cut hair and Veronica styled dreadlocks. They had three children, whom Veronica home-schooled and carted everywhere, from church to soccer, ballet, judo, tap, Chinese, music and art.

Veronica described their marriage as "picture-perfect" - until a Friday night in January 2005.

He slapped her and choked her in their upstairs bedroom. He pushed her into a dresser, pinned her against her vanity and then began kicking her in the chest. She pleaded with him to stop; she reminded him of their children. He told her that his mother could raise them.

Then he pistol-whipped her and fired a .45-caliber handgun at her feet.

The bullet went through the bedroom carpet, lodging itself in the kitchen floor about 10 feet from where Veronica's handicapped mother sat downstairs, physically unable to come to her daughter's rescue.

When Cleaven went to the bathroom, she ran out of the house, all the while fearing he would shoot her in the back. She went to Hagerstown police but gave them a false name and story. She had been robbed, she said, but didn't want to make a report. She just wanted "to be safe" and be taken to a hospital. Scratches and a bump were visible on her face.

Early the next morning, a Saturday, the Williamses' business - the 7th Degree Barbershop - burned to the ground. Fire marshals ruled it arson but were never able to gather enough evidence to charge anyone.

That afternoon, Cleaven fled to Johnstown, Pa., a two-hour drive from Hagerstown, to the home of a woman he knew. Cleaven told the woman he had hurt his wife with a gun and would be going to jail. The woman then told Western Hills Regional Police that Cleaven punched holes in the walls, threw pictures around and attempted to rape her in the hallway - but she refused to press charges.

While Cleaven was in Johnstown, Veronica's aunt coaxed her back to the police station, where she gave a full report and taped statement.

Her family encouraged her to leave town. She visited relatives in Texas, New Orleans and Florida, where Cleaven tracked her down. He promised that things would change, and they drove back to Maryland together.

Veronica stopped cooperating with Washington County prosecutors. And on May 19, 2005, she refused to testify against her husband - a right state law gives her only once.

Cleaven pleaded guilty to second-degree assault, was given a suspended three-year sentence and put on probation.

No one knew that he was wanted in Baltimore, charged with shooting at a man in a car in 2003. Had anyone found the open warrant, he would have been sent back to Baltimore in handcuffs.

Seven months later, the couple moved to a two-story, 2,300-square-foot home in suburban Abingdon with a cathedral window above the front door and a two-car garage. They bought it for $445,000.

Veronica was working as a hair stylist two days a week at a salon in Frederick, but Cleaven didn't have a steady job, her cousin says. The bank took the home in October 2007.

The family moved to a property they owned across the street from Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore. With its gleaming glass and wood door, white mailbox and porch light, 906 E. North Ave. looked out of place on a decaying block of buildings with boarded-up and caged windows.

The physical and emotional abuse continued, said Robinson, the cousin. Cleaven once whipped Veronica with a belt. They went through counseling. Nothing changed.

Her relatives pressed her to leave him, but Veronica told her cousin that she didn't want her children to grow up without a father.

Something changed her mind. And on Oct. 19, for the second time, she told him she was leaving. That was the day he cut off her hair.

She told her cousin she believed Cleaven would kill her. She filed second-degree assault charges against him for locking her out of the house and taking her car.

Baltimore police should have forwarded the warrant to a special domestic violence unit, whose members contact victims to offer assistance. But they didn't.

Cleaven, 33, had always fashioned himself a community activist. Wherever he went, he developed relationships with police and politicians.

On Election Day, as president of the Greater Greenmount Community Association, Cleaven walked Baltimore's Midway Community with Maj. Melvin Russell, commander of the Eastern District.

The walk was Cleaven's idea.

And so when a warrant appeared for his arrest, patrol officers - guys who knew him - decided to serve the warrant themselves.

Cleaven knew the police were after him. On Nov. 9, he agreed to turn himself in at the Eastern District. He never did. Patrol officers began going to the house, passing the warrant from shift to shift. On Nov. 14, he called, saying he was scared, and again agreed to turn himself in.

He did, but then Baltimore police couldn't find the warrant. Cleaven promised to come back on Nov. 18.

Veronica always worried that Cleaven would hurt her again, and she knew her efforts to leave him only enraged him more.

She and the children moved in with Robinson, and the two set up a buddy system. They would text each other any time they left one place or arrived at another.

So at 3:52 p.m. on Nov. 17, Veronica typed to her cousin: "Court over. Leaving now."

Her cousin replied: "Call me as soon as you get in the car and before you pick up the kids."

Her cousin sent another message around 4 p.m.; a third one at 4:15 with "!!!!???!!!"; the next at 4:25, "Where r u?"; and again 10 minutes later, "call me ASAP."

Around 4:45 p.m., she called Veronica and left a message: "If you don't call me back in 1 minute, I'm going to call 911."

Shana Samero, 25, was sitting at a red light across from the courthouse just before 4 p.m. when she saw a man in a tan jumpsuit dart across traffic.

He tackled a woman on the sidewalk and began slashing at her. Samero dialed 911 and rolled down her window to listen.

A police officer driving by pulled up. Cars began blocking Samero's view. She heard the officer order the man to stop and then the crackling noise of a Taser. "Put the knife down! Put the knife down!" Pop, pop - a gun fired twice.

The light changed. Samero floored it, pulling into the Walgreen's across from the courthouse.

A man had wrapped his shirt around the knife victim's bleeding neck, but, to Samero's horror, the rest of the crowd stood there gawking. She pulled the stranger between her knees, cradled her head against her breast and began applying pressure to her neck and stomach wounds.

"Stay with me, stay with me," Samero told the stranger.

Veronica's eyes fluttered. She was going. She reached up and grabbed Samero's face. And then she passed out.

The attacker tried to get up. "Don't move," Officer Joshua Laycock ordered as he reloaded his Taser. Laycock had shot the man at least once. He warned Samero that the man still had a knife.

Samero, soaked with blood, wanted to step on the attacker's wounds to inflict more pain.

"Kill the son of a bitch," Samero told Laycock.

The attacker raised his head and said, "Please do."

Carlin Robinson's cell phone finally rang, but it was a Baltimore detective, not Veronica. Robinson told the detective she was on her way to the hospital, but she was too shaken to drive and called a friend.

By the time Robinson arrived at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Veronica's heart had stopped four times, twice in the ambulance, once in the emergency room and then again on the operating table. She had lost a body's worth of blood and then some. The doctor asked if Veronica had any medical preferences.

"You don't have her medical directive?" Robinson asked.

Veronica was baptized a Jehovah's Witness, the faith of her childhood, last year. The denomination believes the Bible forbids blood transfusions. The directive also explained her wish not to be kept alive if she had no hope of regaining consciousness.

Police requested a warrant to retrieve the directive and other paperwork from her impounded Chevrolet Suburban, and the transfusions stopped.

Robinson stayed overnight as nurses wheeled her cousin in and out of the room for tests.

A brain scan revealed a stroke.

Doctors discovered something else: a 3-to 6-week-old fetus with a very faint heartbeat.

Veronica had wanted to have another child.

She miscarried Nov. 20, three days after the attack.

That evening, the children came to visit their mother in the intensive care unit, where she rested in a drug-induced coma.

The children took molds of her hands and slipped a ceramic heart ring on her thumb. They talked to her, rubbed her, and asked nurses to pick them up so they could kiss her.

They sang the chorus to her favorite hymn.

A paradise the Earth will be

With eyes of faith this we can see

This promise Christ shall soon fulfill

For he delights to do God's will.

The 7-year-old asked Robinson how their mommy could hear them singing. The music seemed like a dream to her, Robinson said. The boy understood, he said, because he remembered touching lions and bears in his dreams.

After the children's time was up, doctors removed Veronica's ventilator, as she had wished. She died soon thereafter.

Cleaven survived. For a time, he was being treated a few rooms away from his wife, until Robinson insisted that he be moved.

Police charged him in his wife's killing and served the two outstanding warrants. He is due in court this week. His public defender declined to comment.

On Nov. 20, Carlin Robinson returned to the rowhouse on North Avenue to gather the children's beds and belongings.

She and Veronica had gone there with a police escort the week before and discovered that Cleaven had thrown Veronica's clothes in the bathtub, scattered her magazines about the basement, smashed her sewing machine, and torn up every photograph of her, including her passport. But he had spared the children's things.

Now, they were gone. Someone had shattered a basement window to gain entry and stolen the family's home computer, Veronica's jewelry, and the children's electric piano, flute, bikes and laptops.

After the children repeatedly asked about the piano, Robinson decided to tell them about the break-in.

"I never want to go back to that house," the 7-year-old responded. "It has too many bad memories."

Fund for the children
A fund has been established at Bank of America branches to assist the Williams children. The account is listed under "Children of Veronica Williams."

The reporting
The Baltimore Sun reconstructed the details of Veronica Williams' life and death through interviews with witnesses and a review of court documents and other records. Quotations not heard by the reporter were the verbatim recollections of the people who made them or, in a few instances, heard them.