It wasn’t personal enough, she heard him say as he pinned her down with his knees and ground a bed pillow into her face.
So he strangled her, she said. He grabbed a knife as she struggled to breathe.
Then the world went dark.
Eva Schwab tells me the story of how she nearly died Jan. 8 in her home near Lake Charles, La., strangled by a man she was engaged to be married to until that day.
And maybe she wouldn’t have been telling me that story, maybe she wouldn’t have been hurt, maybe she wouldn’t have ever met Donald Eugene Lees if she had heard an Albuquerque woman’s story first and if New Mexico lawmakers had acted more quickly once they heard it.
Schwab’s encounter with Lees, who sits now in the Calcasieu Parish Jail in Lake Charles, is terrifyingly similar to what Lynette Waters told me happened to her June 6, 2012, at the couple’s home in Albuquerque.
On that day, she said Lees strangled her so brutally that his hands left bruises on her throat and robbed her of her voice for a time. He then grabbed a pillow and started suffocating her, she said.
Lees was charged with felony counts of kidnapping, aggravated battery and aggravated assault on a household member. But a grand jury indicted him instead on five misdemeanor battery charges. The charges were cut to two in exchange for a no-contest plea.
In October 2012, Lees was sentenced to probation and disappeared. He turned up in Texas more than two months later, his probation was revoked and he was sentenced to jail for 364 days. With time served, Waters calculated he would be a free man by November 2013.
But she calculated wrong. By August 2013 he was back in Texas and in a relationship with Schwab.
“Oh, he was such a charming man, all this ‘Baby, I love you,’ ‘Baby, you’re my whole world’ stuff,” Schwab said. “I didn’t know anything about his past.”
Like he had in New Mexico, Schwab said he drove large road construction equipment, his job supposedly taking the couple from Texas to Colorado and finally to Louisiana.
Like Waters, Schwab said her relationship to Lees was abusive. It took the strangulation attempt for her to leave him and call law enforcement.
Calcasieu Parish Court officials say Lees, 51, is charged with domestic abuse battery/strangulation and domestic abuse aggravated assault – both felonies. If convicted, he could face up to eight years in prison.
That’s a key difference from New Mexico, where domestic violence strangulation is not always charged as a felony if authorities are not convinced that the person’s hands are deadly weapons or that real harm was caused.
In 2013 and again in 2015, bills were introduced at the New Mexico Legislature that would have clarified such strangulation and suffocation attempts as third-degree felonies, each punishable by up to three years in prison.
(As a misdemeanor, it’s a maximum 364 days.)
Both bills – SB 262 in 2013 and SB 513 in 2015 – passed through their respective committees but died when the sessions ended.
Waters testified at those committees.
No similar bill has been introduced thus far in the ongoing Legislature. That riles Waters.
“They just keep sweeping this under the rug,” she said, her voice still hampered by the damage done to her trachea more than four years ago. “This needs to be a felony because it’s attempted murder.”
Fiscal impact reports prepared by the Legislative Finance Committee for the bill in 2015 cited studies about how strangulation is often misunderstood, misidentified or minimized since most victims do not have visible injuries.
Yet, the studies state, “strangulation is a form of power and control that can have devastating psychological long-term effects on its victims in addition to a potentially fatal outcome.”
Almost half of all domestic violence homicide victims were strangled at least once before their deaths, the studies indicated.
After Lees’ arrest this month, Schwab said a friend stumbled across my April 18, 2013, column about Waters’ ordeal with Lees.
“I felt like I was just punched in the stomach, like I was hit face first by a Mack truck. I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “If only I had known about this before I started dating him.”
Or, Waters said, if only the penalties in New Mexico had been stronger.
This week, I put both women in touch with each other. I think they have a lot to talk about. I’m glad they are still able to.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.