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The woman on the bridge

Police and prosecutors spent five years chasing a domestic violence case. Would it be enough?

The Piscataqua River Bridge in Kittery, Maine. September Dawn Bottoms / The New York Times


KITTERY, Maine — At 7:05 on an April evening five years ago, Ryan Sanford, a patrol officer in the port town of Kittery, got a call about a van driving erratically on Route 1.

He flipped on his lights and siren and guided the driver to pull over at the Rex Motor Inn, one of the low-cost motels that line the strip of highway. Then he put his cruiser in park and strode to the driver’s window, peering inside.

Dark was falling, but he could see that the woman inside was shaking, and there were bruises and swelling around one eye, the traces of a broken eye socket.

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The woman looked out at him, her face tear-streaked. She told him she was trying to get away from her boyfriend. He had threatened to kill her, she said. He had assaulted her repeatedly over the course of a four-year relationship, she said, once so badly that she went into a coma.

At 26, Sanford was six years out of the police academy and a stickler for protocol, the kind who calls women “ma’am.” Looking in the window at Tanya Neal, 38, he made a series of quick decisions.

Nearly half of all homicides in Maine are linked to domestic violence, and Sanford had been trained to assume he would get only one chance to talk to a victim.

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Ryan Sanford, a police officer in Kittery, Maine. – September Dawn Bottoms / The New York Times

Over the next hours, he engaged all the elements of the criminal justice system at his disposal — a network of prosecutors, police officers and social workers — to redirect Neal’s life, the way a team of engineers might change the path of a river.

He gathered enough information for prosecutors to charge her partner, Nelson Dion, with aggravated assault, a felony that carried a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. From that point, bail conditions would make it another felony for him to have any further contact with her.

Dion declined to comment for this article. His defense attorney, David Bobrow, said the allegations against his client are unproven.

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That night, Sanford found a new home for Neal in a secret location, in a shelter for battered women across the bridge in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She didn’t have a cellphone, so he walked across the highway to a service station to buy her one. The shelter bed wasn’t ready, so he checked her into a hotel, paying with his own credit card.

It was late at night when he left her. He remembers that she looked relieved.

“She was very thankful,” Sanford said. “It gave me the impression that it was a glimmer of something better for her.”

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‘They’re just going to take notes’

Neal wasn’t in the habit of turning to the police for help. She left Dixmont, a speck of a town in northern Maine, at the age of 16, hitchhiking north with her best friend, April. She found herself in a community of rudderless teenagers as the opioid epidemic crashed over them like a wave.

By the time she was 38, she had three daughters, each of them with cornsilk blond hair, each named after a character in a movie. For years, she had wrestled with addiction, rising before dawn, at times, to make her way to a methadone clinic. And she had been in two abusive relationships, spanning nearly half her life.

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Her experiences hadn’t given her much confidence that the police could help, said her daughter Savannah Stone, 20, who recalled, in one of her mother’s previous relationships, seeing “at least seven” restraining orders issued and then casually violated.

“I think her main mentality was, if I call the police, they’re not going to do anything,” she said. “They’re just going to take notes, and they’re going to put me back in the same situation and I’m going to get hurt again.”

Savannah Stone holding a photo of her mother, Tanya Neal. – September Dawn Bottoms / The New York Times

There are good reasons that Neal came to this conclusion. The U.S. legal system enshrines the right of the accused to defend themselves, setting a high standard for what evidence is admissible in a serious charge like assault. Eyewitness testimony meets that standard, but in domestic violence, there is usually only one eyewitness: the victim.

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And for victims, cooperating with prosecutors can be dangerous and disruptive. Assault charges can take a year or two to wend their way through the system, a period during which abuse can continue or worsen.

Only 27% of female victims and 13.5% of male victims make police reports to begin with, according to data from the Department of Justice. When charges are brought, the vast majority of victims — 80% is a common estimate — recant or change their testimony before the case reaches trial. At that point, many prosecutions sputter out or are pleaded down to misdemeanors. “No face, no case,” as the defense lawyers put it.

Neal knew how this went. In 2014, when she shared a trailer with Dion in New York state, a passerby heard the sound of violence inside and called 911.

When the police came, court records show, Neal told them Dion had thrown her cellphone into a fire and melted it, because he thought she was using it to speak to another man, and punched her in the lip, left eye, neck, nose and about the face.

“He pushed me into the shower and put his hands around my neck, I couldn’t breathe and he said, ‘I swear to God if you tell the cops anything, I’ll kill you,’” she told the police, according to court records. “He even makes me ask permission to use the bathroom. I want him to stay away from me, I believe that he may try to kill me.”

That day, he was arrested on four misdemeanor charges, including criminal obstruction of breathing. A judge ordered him not to contact Neal.

Tanya Neal’s daughter, Justice, and her daughter, Skyler, at their home in Bangor, Maine. – September Dawn Bottoms / The New York Times

But over the days that followed, Dion was released on bail, Neal sent a handwritten letter asking prosecutors to drop the charges, and three of the charges were dismissed. Dion pleaded guilty to the choking charge and paid a $245 fine. And they were together again.

That cycle, of violence and reconciliation, was ingrained in their life together.

Early on, her father, Floyd Neal, would drive 150 miles to bring her back home every time she called for help; he made that drive so often, he said, that he could time his arrival to the minute. Then two or three days would pass, and Dion would come by to pick her up, meeting her on the roadside because her father had banned him from his property.

“He’d say he’s changed, he won’t do it again,” Floyd Neal said. “The next thing you know, she’s got her bags packed.”

But on that April day in 2016, Tanya Neal was pushed to her limits. Maybe she was trying to get out of a speeding ticket. Maybe she was just more scared than she had been before.

Whatever the reason, she took a chance that day and cooperated with the police.

‘The apple of her eye’

Two weeks later, Neal showed up for a new job arranged for her by the shelter staff, cleaning rooms at the Best Western Plus in Portsmouth.

Ashley Lasante, another housekeeper, liked her right away. She was goofy and fun; once a supervisor walked in to find Neal jumping on one of the beds, and Neal explained, deadpan, that she had seen a dust bunny on the overhead fan and was trying to clean it.

“She trusted me,” Lasante said. “Maybe she realized I was a little broken, too.”

The Best Western Plus in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. – September Dawn Bottoms / The New York Times

Tentatively, Neal was trying to start a new life separate from Dion. Staff members of the shelter documented this process meticulously, police records show: She filled out forms for victim’s compensation. She arranged a visit with her oldest daughter, Justice Stone. She looked at an apartment, a place where she could live alone. She wasn’t crazy about the carpeting, the notes said. She would keep looking.

Out of the view of the social workers, though, a familiar path had opened up to her.

Toward the end of May, Neal told Lasante that she wanted to introduce her to someone. She asked Lasante to step outside into the motel parking lot, where a short, stocky man — Dion — was waiting to meet her, offering his hand and a broad smile.

“He was the apple of her eye, no joke,” Lasante said. “He was handsome. He had a nice truck, a nice car. She spoke the world of him. I thought it was all gravy, until she had a black eye at work.”

Police records show that Neal made three calls in May to the district attorney’s office, asking that the assault charges against Dion from April be dropped. Shira Burns, the York County assistant district attorney handling the assault case, did not drop them, though she was beginning to think that, if Neal refused to testify, there might not be any evidence to bring to a trial.

On June 7, Neal did not return home to the shelter.

The news alarmed Burns. She knew by then that Dion had served a 41-month jail term for criminal vehicular homicide in the death of his previous girlfriend. And she knew he had pleaded guilty to obstruction of breathing in the 2014 case involving Neal; domestic violence experts view choking as a predictor of mounting danger.

“I definitely remember going, ‘Are we going to find her body?’” Burns said.

Shira Burns, the York County assistant district attorney who handled the case. – September Dawn Bottoms / The New York Times

The police in Portsmouth were also alarmed. Detective Kristyn Bernier, who got the missing persons report, graphed out Neal’s ex-boyfriends and previous addresses on a grease board. She pinged Neal’s phone, which showed she had returned to Maine, to the town of Berwick, where Neal and Dion had shared a home.

“This is not something where it’s little yelling matches. This is a man who has tooled her up repeatedly,” Bernier said.

For Dion, any contact with Neal would violate his bail conditions, a felony. This would have resulted in his immediate arrest, had police seen them together. But at this point, the search for Neal hit a wall. On June 8, Neal walked into Berwick’s police station to report that she was safe, and not with Dion.

Sgt. Ronald Lund, who took the report, suspected that Neal was lying but said that, short of assigning a squad car to follow her, there was not much they could do. Officers swung by Dion’s trailer for bail checks but found no one there. Their hands were tied, he said.

“It’s very frustrating, because we do understand the cycle of domestic violence, and, you know, love makes people do crazy things,” Lund said.

He added, “There are families we still deal with that have been doing this dance for 20 years. Common sense is like, you know, why do you stay with this person? At the end of the day, it’s love, and hope that they’re going to change.”

Neal continued to work her shifts at the Best Western. Now, though, she had begun to come in with new injuries: bruises on her face and arms, a bite mark and, once, no shoes, explaining to one co-worker that Dion had taken them to prevent her from leaving home, court records show.

Bobrow said there is no evidence that Dion was responsible for these injuries, adding that “evidence has shown that she had been involved in other abusive relationships.”

One night late in June, she called Lasante sounding desperate, but as Lasante scrambled to come pick her up, Neal suddenly backed out and told her not to come.

An image of the Piscataqua River and Bridge at the Best Western where Tanya Neal worked. – September Dawn Bottoms / The New York Times

The next day, Neal — “my Tanya,” Lasante calls her — came in to work with a front tooth knocked out.

“You could tell she was embarrassed, with her hand over her mouth,” she said. “I was like, ‘You know what, girl? You’re beautiful. I don’t think your teeth define you.’”

But Neal’s co-workers were so worried that they passed word of the new injury to shelter workers, who told Bernier. She considered visiting the Best Western to check on Neal but was reminded that it was no longer a Portsmouth case.

Frustrated, Bernier described the new injuries in an email to her colleagues in the Portsmouth Police Department, in the hope that officers might spot Neal on her way to work.

Time was running short. Three days later, police records show, Neal drove south, headed toward the Best Western. She and Dion were fighting — he didn’t want her to see her work friends — and the two exchanged frantic, angry text messages.

“U say I don’t have the balls watch this,” she wrote.

He threatened to break up with her, telling her to go see her “slut friends at work I’m moving on I will find myself a hotty.” He said he was tired of her mouth. “I tried I’m sorry.”

She backed off and seemed to plead with him.

“Sorry no friends,” she wrote.

“Call me,” she wrote.

There was no answer.

“Call me,” she wrote.

When no answer came, she sent one more message.

You’re “right, I’m no good,” she wrote then. “ur truck is on the bridge.”

A call to the bridge

Sanford was working a morning shift when he got a call about a possible suicide on the Piscataqua River Bridge, which carries six lanes of I-95, connecting Maine and New Hampshire. He sped south, glancing at the northbound lane, where the dispatcher said the person had parked a truck.

That’s when he got a sinking feeling in his stomach: He knew that truck.

Then he was standing on the bridge, looking down at a figure in the water. Neal was barely breathing, unresponsive, when she was retrieved by a patrol boat. Her identity was confirmed, not by her eye color (blue) or hair color (brown), but by her fresh injuries, which Bernier had reported in her email three days earlier.

Sanford is not an expressive type; at moments of intense emotion, he might reach into his pocket for a piece of nicotine gum. After his shift ended, he went to Neal’s hospital room and placed a call to her father, who would consent, the following day, to withdraw life support, with family gathered around her.

Sanford found himself compulsively reviewing the case in his mind, looking for some error.

“At this point, I was at a loss,” he said. “I didn’t know what else we could have done.”

Bernier received the news in a text message from her lieutenant — “Your girl just jumped off the 95 bridge.” She pulled her cruiser over and burst into tears of frustration.

Det. Kristyn Bernier. – John Tully / The New York Times

Frustration was nothing new, not for any of them. Burns, who specializes in domestic violence, describes the criminal justice response to these crimes as ineffectual, like “putting Band-Aids on bullet wounds.” She spends much of her time scraping for evidence that can be admitted in court, but so many of the assaults she prosecutes take place behind closed doors, she said, that not guilty verdicts are common.

Neal’s suicide — the way she had slipped away from them — made this failure different, more agonizing.

“From the criminal justice side of it, we had a piece of paper telling Nelson not to contact her, that’s what we had,” Burns said. In domestic violence cases, she added, “the dynamics and the history are too deep” to be altered by “a piece of paper from a judge.”

Domestic violence cases are so challenging that some experts, like Rachel Teicher of John Jay College’s National Network for Safe Communities, argue that arrests and prosecutions are simply inadequate as a response, and should be supplemented with other kinds of interventions.

Perpetrators and victims become accustomed to a cycle — charges dismissed or reduced, restraining orders violated — and conclude, she said, that “these are systems I don’t have to take all that seriously.”

“The folks at the front lines are often using every tool they can,” she said. “Sometimes our tool kit isn’t big enough.”

This could have been the end of the story, the futile intervention that Neal warned her daughters about.

But the police and prosecutors who knew about this case kept talking about it. And their frustration began to percolate through the system, until it reached a federal prosecutor.

A sting operation

If you have never heard of a federal prosecutor taking on a domestic violence case, that is because it rarely happens.

Federal prosecutions traditionally focus on organized crime, political corruption and terrorism, offenses that require sophisticated surveillance. Their tools are powerful. There is currently no parole in the federal system, so sentences are longer, and investigators have greater resources.

“The feds are different, because they are mysterious,” Teicher said. “Their procedures are different. Everything looks different. You don’t have the same roadblocks in administrative and prosecutorial ways. To be uncouth, they are the big guns.”

On March 28, 2019, a highly unusual FBI sting operation got underway in Kittery, Maine.

Two special agents — women from New York — knocked on the door of Dion’s parents’ house and told him that they were investigating a case of human trafficking at the Best Western in Portsmouth. They had surveillance footage of his vehicle there in the spring of 2016, they told him.

Alarmed at the possibility that he might be a suspect in a prostitution case, Dion explained that he had gone to the hotel to visit Neal. He had been reluctant to admit it, he explained, because the visits had violated his bail conditions on an assault charge.

The Best Western where Tanya Neal worked. – September Dawn Bottoms / The New York Times

“I had this order where I couldn’t be near Tanya,” he told them, according to court records.

The agents were wearing button cameras. A block and a half away, listening from his car, was Special Agent Tommy MacDonald, a 20-year veteran of the FBI, who served on the task force that found Whitey Bulger, the Boston mobster.

He had already worked on the case for nine months, reviewing Dion’s bank records and cellphone signals, and looked for surveillance video. But Darcie McElwee, an assistant U.S. attorney, wanted more, so MacDonald came up with the idea of a ruse interview.

Chatting with the agents in his parents’ house, Dion described Neal as mentally unstable and said she had attempted suicide multiple times.

“I was the only person she had,” he told the agents, according to court documents. “Everybody left her.”

At the time of her death, Dion said, she had falsely accused him of domestic violence, and the relationship sputtered out.

“You know, I loved her, but nothing but a pain in the neck,” he said. “You know what I mean?”

He went on, but MacDonald, listening to the exchange from his car, already had what he needed.

“When I heard his statements from my car, a block away, I knew we had him,” he said. “We had the guy admitting a crime on tape.”

31 months

In May of this year, slightly more than five years after Sanford pulled Neal over, Dion reported to the office of his defense attorney to be sentenced. He had pleaded guilty to two counts of crossing a state border to violate a protection order, on the condition that he be allowed to appeal, questioning whether the federal statute could be applied to his case.

Dion’s family members spoke in his defense, saying he had stopped drinking and was no longer violent. Dion sat in silence, saying only that he suffered from such a paralyzing fear of public speaking that, if forced to make a statement, he might vomit.

Bobrow released a statement on Dion’s behalf later that day, saying he is “incredibly remorseful” about Neal’s suicide, but that “there is no evidence whatsoever that he knew that she would do so or encouraged her to do so.”

The two, he said, had an “extremely unhealthy relationship with both parties suffering from untreated mental illness and substance abuse.”

More than an hour had elapsed by the time McElwee, had a chance to make her case for a sentence of 46 months, at the high end of the guideline range. She took a deep breath, and launched into a detailed account of Dion’s relationship with Neal, characterizing his alleged physical abuse as “continuous, severe and aggressive,” and coming to rest on Neal’s last text message: You’re “right, I’m no good.”

“He has not, in the government’s opinion, been held accountable for the significant and frightening domestic violence in which he has engaged,” McElwee said.

Bobrow questioned the relevance of all this history. Dion was not being charged with physical abuse, or in connection with Neal’s death. The charge his client had pleaded guilty to in this case — interstate travel in violation of a protection order — was, he said, not a high offense level.

That was true. The judge, George Z. Singal, sentenced Dion to 31 months. He will remain confined to his parents’ house, pending an appeal to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Tanya Neal’s father, Floyd, at her childhood home in Maine. – September Dawn Bottoms / The New York Times

As the hearing came to a close, Neal’s oldest daughter, Justice, was watching on Zoom, sitting on a couch in her grandfather’s house in Dixmont, the northern town where her mother had grown up.

To Justice Stone, after all this time and effort, 31 months seemed inadequate. Angry tears were running down her face.

“He got a tiny slap on the wrist, and that’s it,” she said. If the police knew so much about what was going on with her mother, she wondered, why couldn’t they stop it?

“I’ve never seen the cops so involved with her life, ever, really ever,” she said. “It’s crazy. And that’s what blows my mind, is how much the cops were involved, in the three or four years when all of this was happening, but nothing was really done.”

It enrages her, to this day, how casually perpetrators violate restraining orders.

“If a judge says stop,” she said, “it means stop.”

A hundred miles to the south, McElwee was also on the Zoom call, and she, too, looked up from her laptop.

Pandemic sentencings end abruptly, and she felt at loose ends, without the normal sense of release that comes at the end of a long effort.

McElwee tried to shake it off, stepping out of her house into the bright spring afternoon. She was standing at an ice cream counter when she was so overwhelmed by something — grief, maybe — that she had to step aside until she stopped crying.

“It just hit me like a train,” she said. “How sad it is to wonder what she would think of what happened, that she is not going to get any benefit from that prosecution at all. It’s just so sad that it won’t bring her back.”

The reward of prosecuting a domestic violence case, McElwee said, comes from seeing victims walk away transformed. With Neal, “we’ll never have that,” she said. “She’s stuck at her worst point, and there’s no recovering from it. She’ll never know any of this.”

Sanford — who was promoted to detective in 2017 — was also on the sentencing call. When it ended, he was due at a debrief for a triple fatal car crash, and as he drove, he thought about everything that had happened.

He tries not to get hung up on sentences; that’s not his job. The main thing here, he said, was that Dion would face some punishment.

“I feel like, if nothing else, Nelson does have a consequence to look forward to,” he said.

He recalled the night five years before when he dropped Neal off at the hotel, and he saw her face, for just a moment, flooded with relief.

Maybe today, if she had just been able to watch the sentencing — if she knew about the FBI sting, and the hundreds of hours that went into the prosecution — maybe it would have been the same.

“I would hope,” he said, “that maybe it would just let her feel like she did matter.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.

For support for victims of domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 (SAFE) or go to thehotline.org.

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