The Woman on the Bridge

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KITTERY, Maine — At 7:05 connected an April evening 5 years ago, Ryan Sanford, a patrol serviceman successful the larboard municipality of Kittery, got a telephone astir a van driving erratically connected Route 1.

He flipped connected his lights and siren and guided the operator to propulsion implicit astatine the Rex Motor Inn, 1 of the low-cost motels that enactment the portion of highway. Then helium enactment his cruiser successful parkland and strode to the driver’s window, peering inside.

Dark was falling, but helium could spot that the pistillate wrong was shaking, and determination were bruises and swelling astir 1 eye, the traces of a breached oculus socket.

The pistillate looked retired astatine him, her look tear-streaked. She told him she was trying to get distant from her boyfriend. He had threatened to termination her, she said. He had assaulted her repeatedly implicit the people of a four-year relationship, she said, erstwhile truthful severely that she went into a coma.

At 26, Officer Sanford was six years retired of the constabulary academy and a stickler for protocol, the benignant who calls women “ma’am.” Looking successful the model astatine Tanya Neal, 38, helium made a bid of speedy decisions.

Nearly fractional of each homicides successful Maine are linked to home violence, and Officer Sanford had been trained to presume helium would get lone 1 accidental to speech to a victim.


Ryan Sanford, a constabulary  serviceman  successful  Kittery, Maine.
Credit...September Dawn Bottoms for The New York Times

Over the adjacent hours, helium engaged each the elements of the transgression justness strategy astatine his disposal — a web of prosecutors, constabulary officers and societal workers — to redirect Ms. Neal’s life, the mode a squad of engineers mightiness alteration the way of a river.

He gathered capable accusation for prosecutors to complaint her partner, Nelson Dion, with aggravated assault, a felony that carried a maximum situation condemnation of 10 years. From that point, bail conditions would marque it different felony for him to person immoderate further interaction with her.

Mr. Dion declined to remark for this article. His defence attorney, David Bobrow, said the allegations against his lawsuit are unproven.

That night, Officer Sanford recovered a caller location for Ms. Neal successful a concealed location, successful a structure for battered women crossed the span successful Portsmouth, N.H. She didn’t person a cellphone, truthful helium walked crossed the road to a work presumption to bargain her one. The structure furniture wasn’t ready, truthful helium checked her into a hotel, paying with his ain recognition card.

It was precocious astatine nighttime erstwhile helium near her. He remembers that she looked relieved.

“She was precise thankful,” Officer Sanford said. “It gave maine the content that it was a glimmer of thing amended for her.”

Ms. Neal wasn’t successful the wont of turning to the constabulary for help. She near Dixmont, a speck of a municipality successful bluish Maine, astatine the property of 16, hitchhiking northbound with her champion friend, April. She recovered herself successful a assemblage of rudderless teenagers arsenic the opioid epidemic crashed implicit them similar a wave.

By the clip she was 38, she had 3 daughters, each of them with cornsilk blond hair, each named aft a quality successful a movie. For years, she had wrestled with addiction, rising earlier dawn, astatine times, to marque her mode to a methadone clinic. And she had been successful 2 abusive relationships, spanning astir fractional her life.

Her experiences hadn’t fixed her overmuch assurance that the constabulary could help, said her girl Savannah Stone, 20, who recalled, successful 1 of her mother’s erstwhile relationships, seeing “at slightest seven” restraining orders issued and past casually violated.

“I deliberation her main mentality was, if I telephone the police, they’re not going to bash anything,” she said. “They’re conscionable going to instrumentality notes, and they’re going to enactment maine backmost successful the aforesaid concern and I’m going to get wounded again.”


Credit...September Dawn Bottoms for The New York Times

There are bully reasons that Ms. Neal came to this conclusion. Our ineligible strategy enshrines the close of the accused to support themselves, mounting a precocious modular for what grounds is admissible successful a superior complaint similar assault. Eyewitness grounds meets that standard, but successful home violence, determination is usually lone 1 eyewitness: the victim.

And for victims, cooperating with prosecutors tin beryllium unsafe and disruptive. Assault charges tin instrumentality a twelvemonth oregon 2 to wend their mode done the system, a play during which maltreatment tin proceed oregon worsen.

Only 27 percent of pistillate victims and 13.5 percent of antheral victims marque constabulary reports to statesman with, according to information from the Department of Justice. When charges are brought, the immense bulk of victims — 80 percent is a communal estimate — recant oregon alteration their grounds earlier the lawsuit reaches trial. At that point, galore prosecutions sputter retired oregon are pleaded down to misdemeanors. “No face, nary case,” arsenic the defence lawyers enactment it.

Ms. Neal knew however this went. In 2014, erstwhile she shared a trailer with Mr. Dion successful New York State, a passer-by heard the dependable of unit wrong and called 911.

When the constabulary came, tribunal records show, Ms. Neal told them Mr. Dion had thrown her cellphone into a occurrence and melted it, due to the fact that helium thought she was utilizing it to talk to different man, and punched her successful the lip, near eye, neck, chemoreceptor and astir the face.

“He pushed maine into the ablution and enactment his hands astir my neck, I couldn’t respire and helium said, ‘I curse to God if you archer the cops anything, I’ll termination you,’” she told the police, according to tribunal records. “He adjacent makes maine inquire support to usage the bathroom. I privation him to enactment distant from me, I judge that helium whitethorn effort to termination me.”

That day, helium was arrested connected 4 misdemeanor charges, including transgression obstruction of breathing. A justice ordered him not to interaction Ms. Neal.


But implicit the days that followed, Mr. Dion was released connected bail, Ms. Neal sent a handwritten missive asking prosecutors to driblet the charges, and 3 of the charges were dismissed. Mr. Dion pleaded blameworthy to the choking complaint and paid a $245 fine. And they were unneurotic again.

That cycle, of unit and reconciliation, was ingrained successful their beingness together.

Early on, her father, Floyd Neal, would thrust 150 miles to bring her backmost location each clip she called for help; helium made that thrust truthful often, helium said, that helium could clip his accomplishment to the minute. Then 2 oregon 3 days would pass, and Mr. Dion would travel by to prime her up, gathering her connected the roadside due to the fact that Mr. Neal had banned him from his property.

“He’d accidental he’s changed, helium won’t bash it again,” helium said. “The adjacent happening you know, she’s got her bags packed.”

But connected that April time successful 2016, Ms. Neal was pushed to her limits. Maybe she was trying to get retired of a speeding ticket. Maybe she was conscionable much frightened than she had been before.

Whatever the reason, she took a accidental that time and cooperated with the police.

Two weeks later, Ms. Neal showed up for a caller occupation arranged for her by the structure staff, cleaning rooms astatine the Best Western Plus successful Portsmouth.

Ashley Lasante, different housekeeper, liked her close away. She was goofy and fun; erstwhile a supervisor walked successful to find Ms. Neal jumping connected 1 of the beds, and Ms. Neal explained, deadpan, that she had seen a particulate bunny connected the overhead instrumentality and was trying to cleanable it.

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


Credit...September Dawn Bottoms for The New York Times

Tentatively, Ms. Neal was trying to commencement a caller beingness abstracted from Mr. Dion. Staff members of the structure documented this process meticulously, constabulary records show: She filled retired forms for victim’s compensation. She arranged a sojourn with her oldest daughter, Justice Stone. She looked astatine an apartment, a spot wherever she could unrecorded alone. She wasn’t brainsick astir the carpeting, the notes said. She would support looking.

Out of the presumption of the societal workers, though, a acquainted way had opened up to her.

Toward the extremity of May, Ms. Neal told Ms. Lasante that she wanted to present her to someone. She asked Ms. Lasante to measurement extracurricular into the motel parking lot, wherever a short, stocky antheral — Mr. Dion — was waiting to conscionable her, offering his manus and a wide smile.

“He was the pome of her eye, nary joke,” Ms. Lasante said. “He was handsome. He had a bully truck, a bully car. She spoke the satellite of him. I thought it was each gravy, until she had a achromatic oculus astatine work.”

Police records amusement that Ms. Neal made 3 calls successful May to the territory attorney’s office, asking that the battle charges against Mr. Dion from April beryllium dropped. Shira Burns, the York County adjunct territory lawyer handling the battle case, did not driblet them, though she was opening to deliberation that, if Ms. Neal refused to testify, determination mightiness not beryllium immoderate grounds to bring to a trial.

On June 7, Ms. Neal did not instrumentality location to the shelter.

The quality alarmed Ms. Burns. She knew by past that Mr. Dion had served a 41-month jailhouse word for transgression vehicular homicide successful the decease of his erstwhile girlfriend. And she knew helium had pleaded blameworthy to obstruction of breathing successful the 2014 lawsuit involving Ms. Neal; home unit experts presumption choking arsenic a predictor of mounting danger.

“I decidedly retrieve going, ‘Are we going to find her body?’” Ms. Burns said.


Credit...September Dawn Bottoms for The New York Times

The constabulary successful Portsmouth were besides alarmed. Detective Kristyn Bernier, who got the missing persons report, graphed retired Ms. Neal’s ex-boyfriends and erstwhile addresses connected a grease board. She pinged Ms. Neal’s phone, which showed she had returned to Maine, to the municipality of Berwick, wherever Ms. Neal and Mr. Dion had shared a home.

“This is not thing wherever it’s small yelling matches. This is simply a antheral who has tooled her up repeatedly,” Detective Bernier said.

For Mr. Dion, immoderate interaction with Ms. Neal would interruption his bail conditions, a felony. This would person resulted successful his contiguous arrest, had constabulary seen them together. But astatine this point, the hunt for Ms. Neal deed a wall. On June 8, Ms. Neal walked into Berwick’s constabulary presumption to study that she was safe, and not with Mr. Dion.

Sergeant Ronald Lund, who took the report, suspected that Ms. Neal was lying but said that, abbreviated of assigning a squad car to travel her, determination was not overmuch they could do. Officers swung by Mr. Dion’s trailer for bail checks but recovered nary 1 there. Their hands were tied, helium said.

“It’s precise frustrating, due to the fact that we bash recognize the rhythm of home violence, and, you know, emotion makes radical bash brainsick things,” Sergeant Lund said.

He added, “There are families we inactive woody with that person been doing this creation for 20 years. Common consciousness is like, you know, wherefore bash you enactment with this person? At the extremity of the day, it’s love, and anticipation that they’re going to change.”

Ms. Neal continued to enactment her shifts astatine the Best Western. Now, though, she had begun to travel successful with caller injuries: bruises connected her look and arms, a wound people and, once, nary shoes, explaining to 1 co-worker that Mr. Dion had taken them to forestall her from leaving home, tribunal records show.

Mr. Bobrow, Mr. Dion’s attorney, said determination is nary grounds that Mr. Dion was liable for these injuries, adding that “evidence has shown that she had been progressive successful different abusive relationships.”

One nighttime precocious successful June, she called Ms. Lasante sounding desperate, but arsenic Ms. Lasante scrambled to travel prime her up, Ms. Neal abruptly backed retired and told her not to come.


Credit...September Dawn Bottoms for The New York Times

The adjacent day, Ms. Neal — “my Tanya,” Ms. Lasante calls her — came successful to enactment with a beforehand bony knocked out.

“You could archer she was embarrassed, with her manus implicit her mouth,” she said. “I was like, ‘You cognize what, girl? You’re beautiful. I don’t deliberation your teeth specify you.’”

But Ms. Neal’s co-workers were truthful disquieted that they passed connection of the caller wounded to structure workers, who told Detective Bernier. She considered visiting the Best Western to cheque connected Ms. Neal but was reminded that it was nary longer a Portsmouth case.

Frustrated, Detective Bernier described the caller injuries successful an email to her colleagues successful the Portsmouth Police Department, successful the anticipation that officers mightiness spot Ms. Neal connected her mode to work.

Time was moving short. Three days later, constabulary records show, Ms. Neal drove south, headed toward the Best Western. She and Mr. Dion were warring — helium didn’t privation her to spot her enactment friends — and the 2 exchanged frantic, aggravated substance messages.

“U accidental I don’t person the balls ticker this,” she wrote.

He threatened to interruption up with her, telling her to spell spot her “slut friends astatine enactment I’m moving connected I volition find myself a hotty.” He said helium was bushed of her mouth. “I tried I’m sorry.”

She backed disconnected and seemed to plead with him.

“Sorry nary friends,” she wrote.

“Call me,” she wrote.

There was nary answer.

“Call me,” she wrote.

When nary reply came, she sent 1 much message.

You’re “right, I’m nary good,” she wrote then. “ur motortruck is connected the bridge.”



September Dawn Bottoms for The New York Times

Officer Sanford was moving a greeting displacement erstwhile helium got a telephone astir a imaginable termination connected the Piscataqua River Bridge, which carries six lanes of I-95, connecting Maine and New Hampshire. He sped south, glancing astatine the northbound lane, wherever the dispatcher said the idiosyncratic had parked a truck.

That’s erstwhile helium got a sinking feeling successful his stomach: He knew that truck.

Then helium was lasting connected the bridge, looking down astatine a fig successful the water. Ms. Neal was hardly breathing, unresponsive, erstwhile she was retrieved by a patrol boat. Her individuality was confirmed, not by her oculus colour (blue) oregon hairsbreadth colour (brown), but by her caller injuries, which Detective Bernier had reported successful her email 3 days earlier.

Officer Sanford is not an expressive type; astatine moments of aggravated emotion, helium mightiness scope into his pouch for a portion of nicotine gum. After his displacement ended, helium went to Ms. Neal’s infirmary country and placed a telephone to her father, who would consent, the pursuing day, to retreat beingness support, with household gathered astir her.

Officer Sanford recovered himself compulsively reviewing the lawsuit successful his mind, looking for immoderate error.

“At this point, I was astatine a loss,” helium said. “I didn’t cognize what other we could person done.”

Detective Bernier received the quality successful a substance connection from her lieutenant — “Your miss conscionable jumped disconnected the 95 bridge.” She pulled her cruiser implicit and burst into tears of frustration.


Credit...John Tully for The New York Times

Frustration was thing new, not for immoderate of them. Ms. Burns, who specializes successful home violence, describes the transgression justness effect to these crimes arsenic ineffectual, similar “putting Band-Aids connected slug wounds.” She spends overmuch of her clip scraping for grounds that tin beryllium admitted successful court, but truthful galore of the assaults she prosecutes instrumentality spot down closed doors, she said, that not blameworthy verdicts are common.

Ms. Neal’s termination — the mode she had slipped distant from them — made this nonaccomplishment different, much agonizing.

“From the transgression justness broadside of it, we had a portion of insubstantial telling Nelson not to interaction her, that’s what we had,” Ms. Burns said. In home unit cases, she added, “the dynamics and the past are excessively deep” to beryllium altered by “a portion of insubstantial from a judge.”

Domestic unit cases are truthful challenging that immoderate experts, similar Rachel Teicher of John Jay College’s National Network for Safe Communities, reason that arrests and prosecutions are simply inadequate arsenic a response, and should beryllium supplemented with different kinds of interventions.

Perpetrators and victims go accustomed to a rhythm — charges dismissed oregon reduced, restraining orders violated — and conclude, she said, that “these are systems I don’t person to instrumentality each that seriously.”

“The folks astatine the beforehand lines are often utilizing each instrumentality they can,” she said. “Sometimes our instrumentality kit isn’t large enough.”

This could person been the extremity of the story, the futile involution that Ms. Neal warned her daughters about.

But the constabulary and prosecutors who knew astir this lawsuit kept talking astir it. And their vexation began to percolate done the system, until it reached a national prosecutor.

If you person ne'er heard of a national authoritative taking connected a home unit case, that is due to the fact that it seldom happens.

Federal prosecutions traditionally absorption connected organized crime, governmental corruption and terrorism, offenses that necessitate blase surveillance. Their tools are powerful. There is presently nary parole successful the national system, truthful sentences are longer, and investigators person greater resources.

“The feds are different, due to the fact that they are mysterious,” Ms. Teicher said. “Their procedures are different. Everything looks different. You don’t person the aforesaid roadblocks successful administrative and prosecutorial ways. To beryllium uncouth, they are the large guns.”

On March 28, 2019, a highly antithetic F.B.I. sting cognition got underway successful Kittery, Maine.

Two peculiar agents — women from New York — knocked connected the doorway of Mr. Dion’s parents’ location and told him that they were investigating a lawsuit of quality trafficking astatine the Best Western successful Portsmouth. They had surveillance footage of his conveyance determination successful the outpouring of 2016, they told him.

Alarmed astatine the anticipation that helium mightiness beryllium a fishy successful a prostitution case, Mr. Dion explained that helium had gone to the edifice to sojourn Ms. Neal. He had been reluctant to admit it, helium explained, due to the fact that the visits had violated his bail conditions connected an battle charge.


Credit...September Dawn Bottoms for The New York Times

“I had this bid wherever I couldn’t beryllium adjacent Tanya,” helium told them, according to tribunal records.

The agents were wearing fastener cameras. A artifact and a fractional away, listening from his car, was Special Agent Tommy MacDonald, a 20-year seasoned of the F.B.I., who served connected the task unit that recovered Whitey Bulger, the Boston mobster.

He had already worked connected the lawsuit for 9 months, reviewing Mr. Dion’s slope records and cellphone signals, and looked for surveillance video. But Darcie McElwee, an adjunct U.S. attorney, wanted more, truthful Mr. MacDonald came up with the thought of a ruse interview.

Chatting with the agents successful his parents’ house, Mr. Dion described Ms. Neal arsenic mentally unstable and said she had attempted termination aggregate times.

“I was the lone idiosyncratic she had,” helium told the agents, according to tribunal documents. “Everybody near her.”

At the clip of her death, Mr. Dion said, she had falsely accused him of home violence, and the narration sputtered out.

“You know, I loved her, but thing but a symptom successful the neck,” helium said. “You cognize what I mean?”

He went on, but Mr. MacDonald, listening to the speech from his car, already had what helium needed.

“When I heard his statements from my car, a artifact away, I knew we had him,” helium said. “We had the feline admitting a transgression connected tape.”

In May of this year, somewhat much than 5 years aft Mr. Sanford pulled Ms. Neal over, Mr. Dion reported to the bureau of his defence lawyer to beryllium sentenced. He had pleaded blameworthy to 2 counts of crossing a authorities borderline to interruption a extortion order, connected the information that helium beryllium allowed to appeal, questioning whether the national statute could beryllium applied to his case.

Mr. Dion’s household members spoke successful his defense, saying helium had stopped drinking and was nary longer violent. Mr. Dion sat successful silence, saying lone that helium suffered from specified a paralyzing fearfulness of nationalist speaking that, if forced to marque a statement, helium mightiness vomit.

Mr. Bobrow, his defence attorney, released a connection connected Mr. Dion’s behalf aboriginal that day, saying helium is “incredibly remorseful” astir Ms. Neal’s suicide, but that “there is nary grounds whatsoever that helium knew that she would bash truthful oregon encouraged her to bash so.”

The two, helium said, had an “extremely unhealthy narration with some parties suffering from untreated intelligence unwellness and substance abuse.”

More than an hr had elapsed by the clip the national prosecutor, Ms. McElwee, had a accidental to marque her lawsuit for a condemnation of 46 months, astatine the precocious extremity of the line range. She took a heavy breath, and launched into a elaborate relationship of Mr. Dion’s narration with Ms. Neal, characterizing his alleged carnal maltreatment arsenic “continuous, terrible and aggressive,” and coming to remainder connected Ms. Neal’s past substance message: You’re “right, I’m nary good.”

“He has not, successful the government’s opinion, been held accountable for the important and frightening home unit successful which helium has engaged,” Ms. McElwee said.

Mr. Bobrow, the defence attorney, questioned the relevance of each this history. Mr. Dion was not being charged with carnal abuse, oregon successful transportation with Ms. Neal’s death. The complaint his lawsuit had pleaded blameworthy to successful this lawsuit — interstate question successful usurpation of a extortion bid — was, helium said, not a precocious discourtesy level.

That was true. The judge, George Z. Singal, sentenced Mr. Dion to 31 months. He volition stay confined to his parents’ house, pending an entreaty to the First Circuit.


Credit...September Dawn Bottoms for The New York Times

As the proceeding came to a close, Ms. Neal’s oldest daughter, Justice, was watching connected Zoom, sitting connected a sofa successful her grandfather’s location successful Dixmont, the bluish municipality wherever her parent had grown up.

To Ms. Stone, aft each this clip and effort, 31 months seemed inadequate. Angry tears were moving down her face.

“He got a tiny slap connected the wrist, and that’s it,” she said. If the constabulary knew truthful overmuch astir what was going connected with her mother, she wondered, wherefore couldn’t they halt it?

“I’ve ne'er seen the cops truthful progressive with her life, ever, truly ever,” she said. “It’s crazy. And that’s what blows my mind, is however overmuch the cops were involved, successful the 3 oregon 4 years erstwhile each of this was happening, but thing was truly done.”

It enrages her, to this day, however casually perpetrators interruption restraining orders.

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

A 100 miles to the south, Ms. McElwee, the national prosecutor, was besides connected the Zoom call, and she, too, looked up from her laptop.

Pandemic sentencings extremity abruptly, and she felt astatine escaped ends, without the mean consciousness of merchandise that comes astatine the extremity of a agelong effort.

Ms. McElwee tried to shingle it off, stepping retired of her location into the agleam outpouring afternoon. She was lasting astatine an crystal pick antagonistic erstwhile she was truthful overwhelmed by thing — grief, possibly — that she had to measurement speech until she stopped crying.

“It conscionable deed maine similar a train,” she said. “How bittersweet it is to wonderment what she would deliberation of what happened, that she is not going to get immoderate payment from that prosecution astatine all. It’s conscionable truthful bittersweet that it won’t bring her back.”

The reward of prosecuting a home unit case, Ms. McElwee said, comes from seeing victims locomotion distant transformed. With Ms. Neal, “we’ll ne'er person that,” she said. “She’s stuck astatine her worst point, and there’s nary recovering from it. She’ll ne'er cognize immoderate of this.”

Detective Sanford — helium was promoted successful 2017 — was besides connected the sentencing call. When it ended, helium was owed astatine a debrief for a triple fatal car crash, and arsenic helium drove, helium thought astir everything that had happened.

He tries not to get hung up connected sentences; that’s not his job. The main happening here, helium said, was that Mr. Dion would look immoderate punishment.

“I consciousness like, if thing else, Nelson does person a effect to look guardant to,” helium said.

He recalled the nighttime 5 years earlier erstwhile helium dropped Ms. Neal disconnected astatine the hotel, and helium saw her face, for conscionable a moment, flooded with relief.

Maybe today, if she had conscionable been capable to ticker the sentencing — if she knew astir the F.B.I. sting, and the hundreds of hours that went into the prosecution — possibly it would person been the same.

“I would hope,” helium said, “that possibly it would conscionable fto her consciousness similar she did matter.”



September Dawn Bottoms for The New York Times

Susan C. Beachy contributed probe for this story.

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