EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part 4 of our four-part series on domestic abuse and self-defense. This article discusses how firearms ownership and self-defense training help domestic abuse survivors to regain their confidence, take back control of their lives and heal old wounds.
It wasn’t so much the actual bust that irked some citizens of Nome, Alaska. It was that she had won the contest under false pretenses.
Donna Anthony was explaining the 2008 Iditarod arm wrestling trophy I had spied back in her office at the Chickaloon Tribal Police Department, which was strewn with bric-a-brac of a lengthy career in law enforcement. She had been doing undercover work for the Alaska State Troopers Statewide Drug Task Force Unit when she had bested all comers at a popular Nome watering hole. A police officer in Palmer, Alaska, and a deputy sheriff in Ohio before that, Anthony had recently come out of retirement to head up the newly formed department that serves the Alaskan Native people living in the rugged Matanuska-Susitna Valley.
We were in her Ford SUV patrol vehicle, driving a route that paralleled the icy Matanuska River. Outside the vehicle, the temperature hovered around zero. Jagged, snow-covered mountains rose up on both sides of the valley. And, being the middle of January, daylight was already starting to fade by the early afternoon. At one point, we spied a cow moose standing languidly by the side of the road. (Don’t be fooled. Their sharp hooves can kill.) As Anthony explained, the vast and inhospitable countryside makes for extra-long response times from emergency services.
It’s a combination of many factors that contribute to Alaska’s domestic violence problem, which stands as the worst in the country. The isolation. The long winter nights. The drinking. The increasing number of drugs flowing in from out of state. And while the topic is near and dear to her heart, Anthony isn’t sure she has a solution.
“Here in Alaska, we have less law enforcement, obviously, than in the Lower 48,” she said. “We have 40 percent of the state that does not have law enforcement.”
When it comes to remote villages, it can be hours or even days before an officer responds to a domestic violence call.
“Many areas are only accessible by plane, boat, four-wheeler or snow machine,” Anthony indicated. “Those are the challenges we have here in the state.”
One of the worst domestic-violence cases Anthony ever assisted with took place during her time in Palmer. A woman named Lisa Donlon was tied up and tortured by her abusive husband for several days. This took place in a storage shed behind the home of his mother and stepfather. After three days of this, she took advantage of her husband falling asleep, grabbing a firearm and shooting him dead.1 That’s where things got a little sticky because, in Alaska, the law clearly states that the threat must be immediate in order to justify such an action.
“It went to trial as a crazy case,” Anthony stated. “But even the sergeant with the troopers testified on her behalf. Because we truly felt that, in her mind, from what she said, what she was thinking at that moment, was that she was in immediate fear of her death. She had the opportunity, and she pulled the trigger. And the jury found her not guilty.”2
During her abbreviated retirement, Anthony founded Point Blank Firearms and Self Defense Training (PointBlankAK.com), and she travels to various parts of the state to instruct. She finds it therapeutic to work with women affected by domestic violence, and she is always careful to specifically tailor her instruction when dealing with survivors.
“You are giving them more attention,” Anthony indicated. “You have to help them as the instructor because this is so traumatic. And this is a big step for them in taking control of their lives and no longer feeling like victims. And you don’t want their experience to be uncomfortable, or for them to feel like you don’t care, because you are mentoring them through a life-changing experience.”
Anthony said that during the first lesson, many times she won’t have domestic abuse survivors fire a single round. Instead, Anthony focuses on education and safety, or the “whys” of training, as she calls them.
“The shift I’m seeing is I’ve got more women taking classes,” Anthony said. “And a lot of these aren’t even victims. They’re just preparing themselves because they don’t want to be a victim. So, we have women who have never liked guns. Never wanted to touch guns. But because of the economy, because of the crime, they are now learning to use handguns.”
Later that evening, I watched L.D. Howard, one of Anthony’s officers, qualify as expert at Matanuska Valley Sportsmen’s Range, one of the few indoor ranges in the area. He confidently grasped his Glock 17 Gen 5 MOS and delivered tight groupings drill after drill.
“It is the last frontier for a reason,” Howard said of his adopted home in Alaska. “It’s very unforgiving. Even just going out on a hike, you pack 15 more pounds worth of gear because you just don’t know what’s going to hit you.”
Howard has an eclectic work background that includes having been, at various times, an overseas contractor, a child recovery agent and a hunting guide. He was even forced to use a high-caliber handgun to shoot and kill a grizzly bear in Wyoming in defense of his and his clients’ lives. He met Anthony while organizing for gun rights in the Mat-Su Valley, and he helps her train domestic violence survivors.
“We don’t charge to train them,” he said of women who come by Point Blank with a temporary protective order. “We train them for free. We train them on situational awareness at first, then a basic pistol course. And then we usually graduate them to a CCW course. [We] get them a weapons license. And [we] send them back into the world a little more prepared.”
Howard is sensitive to the fact that, as a man giving instruction to survivors, he might come off a bit intimidating. That’s why he does his best to keep his classes positive and lighthearted. He even goes so far as to employ “verbal judo” in order to get women to speak up first and get their classmates talking about the experiences that brought them there. He too finds the instruction therapeutic.
“That’s actually what keeps me around,” he declared. “I don’t make a lot of money doing it. I don’t want to make a lot of money doing it.”
He observed that these women’s shoulders go back, their heads sit up taller and they begin to make eye contact. They take their targets home and they’re proud of the fact that they pulled a 4-inch or 5-inch group. He has also noticed they’re more assertive.
“Honestly,” he said, “that’s what brings me the most joy.”
Taking Back Control
Later that week, I met up with Ruth Josten in the nearby town of Wasilla. Josten is a longtime acquaintance of Anthony and recently retired from the Alaska State Troopers. It was a balmy day, in the 20s, and she showed up with a book about the Elizabeth Holmes debacle to read in case I showed up late.
“I never failed a qualification,” she told me when I mentioned that many shelters and advocacy groups decry putting firearms into the hands of women. “I feel like, in a way, I shouldn’t even have to say that.”
Josten’s own experience with domestic violence is partly what led her to go to the academy. She was a young Jazzercise instructor and EMT-1 with Wasilla Ambulance in the early 1990s when she met a man at the gym who was initially warm, considerate and charming.
Eventually his behavior became more controlling and erratic. She broke things off. And it got to the point where he showed up at her workplace in his sports car, revving the engine menacingly until she came out into the parking lot to tell him to go away. When she got to the window, she saw that he was enraged and had a pistol and a crossbow with him. He told her to choose.
“I just turned around and walked away,” Josten recalled. “I was shaking so much. I go back in the building and I tell my girlfriends, ‘Oh, my God. This is where we’re at now. Please don’t leave me here.’”
There was no Wasilla Police Department at the time, so with her girlfriends escorting her in their cars, they all drove to the Alaska State Troopers in the nearby town of Palmer. The abusive ex followed the caravan, parked and watched as Josten had to wait 45 minutes for a female trooper to come out and see her. The trooper said that because he hadn’t technically done anything yet, Josten couldn’t do anything. She advised Josten to call 911 if he did physically harm her.
“I thought you were 911,” was Josten’s plaintive response.
She was renting a house at that point, and one of her girlfriends had given her a large revolver for protection. It was too cumbersome to carry, so she took it with her in a duffel bag that she kept in her car. One night, as she was undressing in her bedroom, she heard crunching in the snow outside her window. She knew it was her ex. She crept to her car to retrieve the pistol, then called 911 and waited while the dispatcher calmed her down. This time the troopers were able to catch and arrest him. He was in possession of duct tape and personal lubricant.
After the arrest, Josten could only sleep on the couch in the living room, with its many windows and full view of the front of the house. But it was through firearms training at the academy that she regained her confidence by knowing she could successfully defend herself if need be. She said she’ll never stop throwing bullets downrange.
In terms of advice for a woman experiencing domestic violence, Josten said that it’s imperative for her to have a safety plan first. The woman should think about where she is going to go and get a little extra cash. And then she needs to do a lethality assessment on her abusive partner. Is he just yelling and screaming? Or has he crossed the line into physical violence and sexual assault?
“Understanding what I know now, I would tell everybody to get to a class,” Josten declared. “Go to a range. Find [a firearm] that works for you. You have to be totally comfortable with it. You have to practice with it. You have to manipulate it. You have to draw it. It has to be comfortable because you don’t know what’s going to happen in that moment.”
Time, Patience and Preparation
As I wrapped up this series, I spoke with two new trainers and got final thoughts from some familiar faces. The first was Maggie Martin, who is a facilitator for A Girl & A Gun out of the college town of Gainesville, Florida. She ramped up her firearms training in earnest after being threatened in the shower by a boyfriend she met on the dating app Bumble. She became a certified instructor in 2019.
“I respect our police department here,” Martin said. “We have our county sheriff’s department. And then we have our city police. And I respect them. But obviously they’re not in my back pocket. They’re not at my house. They’re not in my neighborhood. And if something were to happen, I don’t know how long it would take them to get here.”
Martin built herself a private range where she can shoot steel and give firearms instruction. She said she routinely deals with victims of domestic violence and that oftentimes, the first time they pull the trigger, they break down in tears as part of the healing process. Her best advice is to consider the timing.
“A survivor, depending on [her] mindset, can still be very raw and very tender to the whole situation,” she indicated. “I am four and a half years removed from my situation. And I’m in a much better place than I was four and a half years ago. Or even three years ago.”
Martin, who also advises her class members to practice situational awareness, said she still runs into her abusive ex around town, although it no longer riles her up due to her training in firearms and martial arts.
“It used to be like I would see his vehicle or I would see him in a parking lot or he would call me from a blocked number, and my adrenaline would spike and I would panic,” she admitted. “And now it doesn’t affect me like that.”
John Bolle, who is a 75-year-old instructor at the Florida Chapter of the Wyoming Antelope Club shooting range in Pinellas County, said that he also takes timing into consideration. And he works hard to never rush the domestic violence survivors sent his way by Melissa Dohme Hill at Hands Across the Bay.
“Their first time they’re nervous,” he said. “They don’t know me. And we go very slow. We bring them out on a Wednesday because Wednesday afternoons the range is basically empty. There’s nothing going on there, so it’s quiet and it’s personal.”
During the one-on-one range time, Bolle is careful to go over the basics of safety, the operation of a pistol and getting them comfortable. He likes to start with firearms chambered in .22 Long Rifle because there’s no recoil and it’s not going to scare them. They can focus on the fundamentals.
“To me, the most important thing is to go by our students’ speed,” he stated. “That’s very important. Because in too many firearms instructions, it’s all about the instructor and how much he can show you he knows. If they learned 5 percent of what we hoped we would teach in a day, but they retain it? As far as we’re concerned, that’s a win.”
Valinda Rowe, the spokesperson for IllinoisCarry whom we met earlier in this series, stressed the importance of mental preparation for domestic violence survivors wishing to learn to successfully defend themselves.
“I think, especially for women, that’s a determination we need to make in advance,” she said. “Are we willing to use lethal force to protect ourselves and our loved ones? Walk through that process. Are we willing to be prepared to follow through if we find ourselves in a life-threatening situation?”
This goes to the notion that women are less likely to pull the trigger against an abuser that they still know and possibly still love, she stated. That’s much less likely to be the case for women who have gone through the process of mental preparation.
Renowned self-defense expert Massad Ayoob’s parting advice ran to the practical. He suggested the option of a cross-draw shoulder holster for women because their body proportions are typically different from those of a man.
“The hip holsters most of us males wear are great for us because the concealing garment drapes down from the latissimus dorsi,” he said. “All you’ve got to do is bring your elbow back and your hand is on the gun. On the female, with the shorter torso and higher waist, that same holster puts the gun butt up by her floating ribs.”
Most women, Ayoob indicated, have narrower torsos and can practically reach around and pat themselves on the back. Correspondingly, the cross-draw makes for a very easy reach to a defensive firearm.
“She wants the holster to adapt to fit her body and her particular wardrobe,” he advised.
Healing Old Wounds
As for the women we met in Part 1 of this series, all of them have found a welcoming place in the firearms community. And their growing litanies of self-defense skills have become part of their healing processes.
Beth Alcazar recently put together the USCCA’s women’s curriculum for instructing the introduction to pistol, intermediate pistol and defensive pistol. She is also the author of Women’s Handgun and Self-Defense Fundamentals.
“I wrote that book as a come-along-with-me-type invitation to women,” she said. “Like, ‘This is my journey. I’m being vulnerable. I’m sharing with you. Because I want you to relate. And I want you to see that if I can do it, you can do it too.’ And I think that’s really important to women. We’re collaborators.”
Amy Smith* continues to be part of the DC Project and has testified in front of Congress’ Second Amendment Caucus. She still lives in New York state. And she continues to work in marketing and publications consulting.
“You know what it is,” Smith said, “I guess it’s the absence of fear. I’m not afraid. Mostly of that one a******. Now that I don’t have that anymore, I’m just hungry to learn more. I’m hungry to get more training. I’m hungry to bring more people into the world of understanding how to defend themselves and how to protect their families.”
Shirley Watral is also still involved in the DC Project and is a firearms instructor in Florida, where she continues to receive positive feedback on her 2020 book Heels to Holster.
“The more I trained, the more confidence I got, and the more comfortable I was being just me,” she indicated, “and being [comfortable] with myself instead of feeling like I needed to be with someone else. I think there was a point where I thought I had to be with someone else, so [that individual] could protect me and take care of me, which really wasn’t the case.”
Closure at Last
And as for the saga of Sabrina Hendley, we left her locked up in jail, facing first-degree murder charges, in South Florida. Hands Across the Bay CEO Julie Weintraub took on her case and worked tirelessly to be her advocate. One of the first things she did was to have the bloody carpet replaced at Hendley’s house.
Once Hendley was released on bail, Weintraub took a chance and hired her to work at her business, the Gold & Diamond Source, so she could keep an eye on Hendley and make sure she wasn’t the cold-blooded murderer that she was being made out to be. Satisfied with Hendley’s work ethic and her character, Weintraub continued to go to bat for her.
“I do not believe in violence … But if someone is right there, and they are about to take your life or take other people’s lives? You have the right to defend yourself and those around you.”
After a disappointing stand-your-ground hearing where Judge Michael Williams denied Hendley immunity, Weintraub relentlessly hounded then-State Attorney Andrew Warren.3 Eventually Warren hired outside experts to look at the case from different angles and decided to drop the charges.
Hendley was driving when her attorney called her with the news. She was so excited that she had to pull over lest she run her car off the road. One of the first things she did was call her daughter. On Dec. 13, 2022, a judge granted her guardianship of her children again.
She has dipped her toe in the waters of advocacy and gotten involved in the lives of some of the women also being helped by Hands Across the Bay. Looking back on her experience, she said she would like to see some of the laws changed.
“I do not believe in violence,” Hendley declared. “If you were beaten up at 9 o’clock in the morning, you don’t have the right to come back at 11 o’clock and shoot someone. But if someone is right there, and they are about to take your life or take other people’s lives? You have the right to defend yourself and those around you.”
*Amy Smith is a pseudonym.
(1) “Wife is CLEARED of murdering her husband as he slept after telling how he raped and tortured her for days,” Daily Mail, April 4, 2013, DailyMail.co.uk/news/article-2303680/Lisa-Donlon-Jury-acquits-Alaska-woman-husbands-murder-claims-raped-tortured-her.html.
(2) “Woman acquitted of murdering husband,” Telegram & Gazette, April 4, 2013, Telegram.com/story/news/local/east-valley/2013/04/04/woman-acquitted-murdering-husband/48983595007.
(3) Lawrence Mower and Emily L. Mahoney, “DeSantis removes Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren,” Tampa Bay Times, Aug. 4, 2022, TampaBay.com/news/florida-politics/2022/08/04/desantis-suspends-hillsborough-county-state-attorney-andrew-warren.