Wednesday, October 7, 2009
By 10 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2007, the temperatures were well on their way to 93 degrees when Jackson Police Sgt. Eric Wall pulled his cruiser into the turn lane on Northside Drive east of Interstate 55, ready to make a left onto Ridgewood Road and head north. That's when he noticed the black Jeep with a man driving and a woman in the passenger seat.
"[T]he black Jeep was pulling into my lane of traffic, and the white male driver was attempting to get my attention by motioning his hand at me," Wall later wrote in his official report. "I stopped my police cruiser in the middle of the intersection and lowered my driver's side window. The white male driver then extended his left arm from the driver's side window of the black Jeep and began to motion his arm up and down for me to stop."
Told by the driver "he needed to talk to me immediately," Wall directed the man to pull off the road, whereupon the driver parked in a Northside Drive driveway, got out of the Jeep and approached Wall's cruiser.
"The white male identified himself as Attorney James Bell," Wall wrote. "Mr. Bell then stated that he believed that his nephew George Bell III may have killed his estrange (sic) girlfriend Heather Spencer at Bell's mother's home on Trawick Drive." James Bell didn't know the house number, but said that there was a George Bell Carpet truck in the driveway.
Robbie Bell, George Bell's mother, had called his uncle James Bell, a local Jackson lawyer and a former municipal court judge, earlier that morning. The attorney told Wall that the woman in the Jeep was "a friend" of Bell and Spencer, and that he believed Bell was holding his mother hostage, "against her will," and that her "life was in immanent (sic) danger."
Wall had James Bell return to the Jeep and follow him to the Highland Village parking lot, where Wall learned that the friend was Elizabeth Hall, Heather Spencer's roommate.
On that warm September morning just over two years ago, Sgt. Wall became a character in one of the most highly publicized cases of domestic violence in Jackson, a case worthy of a movie script, including sordid details of drugs, rape, murder, an attacker escaping jurisdiction and a mother's tragically misplaced sheltering of her son. It is also a tale that provides clues to how the community, judges, police and legislators can stop abused women from meeting Spencer's tragic fate in the future.
A Fairy Tale, Shattered
Four months earlier, on June 4, 2007, Elizabeth Hall, a tall, olive-skinned brunette in her late 20s, had prevented George Bell III from murdering her friend and housemate Heather Spencer in the home Spencer owned on Parkwood Place in North Jackson.
Spencer, 28, and Bell, then 32, had been dating about a year at that point, and she worked with him at his car dealership, I.W. Motors on Highway 49 in Florence. By all accounts, the two of them were a happy couple, with Bell frequently showering Spencer with gifts and flowers.
"He seemed to be crazy about Heather, and just seemed like a nice guy," her mother, Linda Francomb, told the Jackson Free Press in September 2007. They were planning a cruise, and had talked about getting married.
"Looking back, some things were a little weird—nothing specific, but him being so quiet, or being overly nice to people. He was too perfect. He gave her cars and money, and she didn't have to work a lot," Spencer's friend Katie Stafford said last week. "To me, that's not normal. That was her dream, to be pampered, and he basically put her on a pedestal. So, coming down to it, that's kind of a fairy tale."
Bell came on strong, one of the potential signs of an abuser. "He showered her with flowers all the time, and gifts, just things that girls like to have, but he came on very strong," Francomb said last week.
The fairy tale came to an abrupt end that June morning when Bell used a spare key to break into Spencer's house.
Sources close to Bell say he regularly used steroids to enhance his weight-lifting workouts. The morning of June 4, he might have used "angel dust"—a powerful animal tranquilizer known to induce hallucinations, and ecstasy, another hallucinogen, and maybe cocaine, too. Drug and alcohol use is a common partner to domestic abuse, experts say. Whatever illegal drug cocktail he ingested that particular June night, he took out his paranoia and rage on Spencer the morning of the 4th.
Awakened by a loud crash around 7 a.m., Hall ran to her housemate's door to find Bell standing over her, a mallet in his hand, blood on Spencer's bed. Hall screamed for him to stop and pulled him off her friend.
"What are you doing!?!" "Get out!" "Leave her alone!"
Bell dropped the hammer next to the bed and ran out of the house, jumping into Spencer's green Toyota Camry and speeding away. Hall called the police and gathered up her friend, who was bleeding profusely, and put her in her own car to drive her to the University of Mississippi Medical Center emergency room, about two miles away.
Spencer's head required "three rows of staples in her head from front to back," JPD Officer John Young, who met the two young women in the UMMC emergency room, wrote in his report. Heather's long brown hair covered 57 staples, and she also had a finger splint on her left hand and a thick spring wrap on her right wrist.
JPD charged Bell with felony domestic aggravated assault the day of the attack, but inexplicably reduced the charges to domestic simple assault several days later. Spencer's handwritten statement is on a form headed "Adult Misdemeanor Charges," and in a June 12 police report, Det. Kent Daniels described the injuries as "not being life threaten (sic)." Daniels, who now works for the Hinds County District Attorney's office, said this week that the charge was reduced at Spencer's request, which her mother disputes, but said it certainly qualified as aggravated assault.
The confusion over the assault charge is just one of the details of the Spencer-Bell saga that many people see as a failure of the judicial system.
"At the time, when it was first reported, they said it was not life threatening, which is just so not true," Francomb told the Jackson Free Press last week. "It was totally life threatening. If anyone gets a hammer on their head, it's life threatening."
Jackson police never arrested Bell for the June attack. In fact, they didn't even bother to go to the scene of the crime on their own accord. Three days later, on June 7, Officer Young retrieved the weapon Bell used to brutally beat Heather, a hard rubber-headed mallet, but only after Hall and Francomb called police to come get it. They had found it by the bed and knew Bell must have brought it with him.
Despite JPD's reducing the original felony aggravated assault charge against Bell to a misdemeanor simple assault, Assistant Attorney General Heather Wagner believes most police officers understand the difference between what constitutes aggravated assault and what would make for a simple assault charge.
"Actually, most law enforcement officers are very understanding," she said. "We try to explain the difference between bodily injury and serious bodily injury."
What's serious, Wagner said, is life-threatening or affects bodily function, including, according to the statute, an attempt to cause that kind of damage. Shooting at someone and missing, in other words, counts.
Still, she doesn't have a good explanation of why JPD would have lessened the charges against Bell.
"It's hard to speculate on why that would happen," Wagner said. "I can't speak to what went on internally. To me, looking at it, it satisfies the elements of an aggravated assault, domestic violence."
Jackson police made no overt attempts to apprehend Bell, and neither police nor UMMC provided any counseling for Spencer, according to her mother and her close friends. Whether their inaction was the result of a lack of resources or understanding, a lack of compassion for the victim or some fast-talking in Bell's defense is all a matter of speculation; neither the police nor the accused have divulged details.
"A lot of it may be resources," Wagner said. If police have cases where they know perpetrators are in Jackson, they'll pursue those before a case where a perpetrator has fled their jurisdiction.
Sandy Middleton, executive director of the Center for Violence Prevention in Pearl, thinks she has one possible explanation for the police reducing the assault charge on Bell.
"The problem with aggravated assault is that a lot of police officers misunderstand what it is," said Middleton, who works daily to save the lives of women and children who are victims of domestic abuse. "A lot of them think that there has to be a broken bone, or there has to be a severe bodily injury. The definition of what makes it an aggravated assault is out there, but no one seems to know what it really is."
And it can be confusing. The descriptions for aggravated assault and simple assault both use the term "bodily injury" and "with means likely to produce death or serious bodily harm." Aggravated assault, however, adds the word "serious" to the first phrase, along with "extreme indifference to the value of human life." Without some additional guidance, therefore, the charge is frequently left to the discretion of the police.
"We got into a big discussion with law enforcement on a case not too long ago," Middleton said. "A woman was beaten senselessly. I mean she was black and blue all over, but she didn't have any broken bones, so they wouldn't charge (the perpetrator) with aggravated assault."
They would only charge that perpetrator with simple assault—a scenario that repeats itself over and over again in the state when women try to press charges against men who tried to kill them.
"We need another degree in there, and we need a better definition of what constitutes domestic violence or what constitutes aggravated assault," Middleton said. "We need an attempted murder charge that we can use."
Most people in Mississippi are convinced that the state doesn't have such a charge on the books. State code does, however, have an "attempt to commit offense" statute, which prosecutors have used to charge perpetrators with attempted murder or other serious attempted felonies. The punishment—up to 10 years for a capital offense—is not as severe as aggravated assault, however, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 years.
"I guess the only hold-up for prosecuting this is that you have to prove intent," which can be difficult, Wagner said, "unless you have a whole constellation of facts where the person actually says, 'I'm going to kill you,' and they try it and fail. Technically, people are right that there's no actual 'attempted murder' statute, but this (statute) is a fallback."
'No One Called'
Regardless of legal nitpicking, Spencer's friends and family clearly feel that JPD let her down after the first beating. "I have photographs I took after the first incident of the staples and the bruises and the swollen hands and everything that happened then, and no one has ever picked up the phone and called me. No one called her. No one called her family," Francomb said.
"If someone is brought to the hospital and has been shot with gun, police are going to go start looking for whoever shot her," Stafford said. "With this, women come into a hospital who are beaten, I don't believe that there's any type of law that actually help women stay away from the person who was beating them or give them information or give them to the right people."
"I don't think they ever looked for him," Stafford said. "We were all in shock. We didn't know what to do."
That's not what supposed to happen, though. Domestic-abuse victims' resources are out there, but not always distributed or used to the victim's advantage.
"What's supposed to happen when victims file charges, when victims sign affidavits, police are supposed to give them a packet of information. In that packet it tells them different places that they can call—our shelter number is in there—(and) their victim rights. They have this whole packet of information and more times than not, the victims never receive that packet. In the hospitals, they should see a social worker, but you've got this problem in the hospitals where they don't have enough social workers to see everybody they need to see. These people may get treated in the ER and then released, and if it's at night, or they don't have a social worker on duty, nobody sees them," Middleton said.
Doctors and nurses in Mississippi haven't received adequate training on how to handle domestic-abuse situations, she said, and they should be trained not to take injuries at face value.
"Medical personnel need to be able to recognize and question women as to what happened. Get the perpetrator or the husband out of the room. What they'll do most of the time, the guy just stays in the room. The doctor is in the room examining the victim and the abuser is standing behind him. She is not going to say, 'He just beat me up.'"
Middleton suggested that there should also be reporting mandates for domestic violence just as there are for child abuse and elder abuse, but it's different when a grown woman is knowingly staying in an abusive situation. "Who would you report it to?" Middleton asked. Reporting a situation to the police could further endanger a woman who is being abused.
"It takes time and effort," Middleton added. "It takes someone going that extra mile."
While Spencer was being treated at UMMC, Bell fled Jackson in the Camry he stole from her. He called family or friends to let them know the car was in the parking lot of the Vicksburg Home Depot, where Spencer's friends later retrieved it. Where he went from there isn't altogether clear—rumors put him in Mexico or Arkansas—but about four or five days later he turned up in an Oklahoma drug-rehabilitation facility.
'Man of the Castle'
Following that first beating of Heather Spencer, George Bell III spent roughly three months in a Narconon facility in Arrowhead, Okla., as a voluntary "student," dealing with his drug problem.
The controversial Narconon program—which includes extensive sauna sessions, massage, and heavy doses of vitamin and mineral supplements—uses the rehabilitation concepts of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who was not an addiction specialist. Its addiction cure-rate claims and its methodology have come under professional, media and legal scrutiny in the United States and internationally, and many locales have decided against using Narconon as government-recommended or sponsored rehabilitation providers.
But people around Bell wanted to believe it would work, and helped convince Spencer that it would rehabilitate him. Drug addiction could be cured. Stand by him, his family reportedly urged her.
"(Heather) told me that (Narconon) told her it was a one-time thing; that he was not an abuser," Stafford said. "It was because of the drugs, which was not cocaine; it was PCP. If she knew he had a drug problem with cocaine, she may not have known of anything else."
But just dealing with a drug problem doesn't necessarily deal with the core set of beliefs that lead men to abuse women. Those beliefs can include male privilege, where men think of "their" women as property, and an overriding need to control women by any means necessary.
"Even if you get somebody cleaned up, you still have that 'man of the castle' concept," Middleton said. "You're changing the intensifiers of the behavior, but not changing who he is."
"People want to make it simple; judges and police officers want to make it simple," Middleton said, but every case must be looked at individually to come to the right combination of drug rehab and behavior modification. Without that individual attention, the problems just recur. "These guys are coming right back out and reoffending."
The Center for Violence Prevention has been instrumental in getting a batterer's intervention program in place in the tri-county area. The program is based on the Duluth Model, first implemented in Minnesota in 1981.
The model provides a blueprint for community response and inter-agency coordination to stem the tide of domestic violence. It recognizes that social and justice systems work best together to protect victims from ongoing abuse, which is the overarching goal of every action within the model. For example, police, prosecutors and judges need guidelines and training to respond to domestic abuse situations appropriately—including putting offenders behind bars—while social agencies provide victim safety and programs designed to give abusers the opportunity to change.
Under the model, judges order abusers to take part in a 24-week intervention program, intended to confront the abuser with his behavior, allowing him to take responsibility and break his personal cycle of violence. The classes delve into abusers' beliefs, including male privilege—abusers frequently believe that they have the right to dominate their women and families simply because they are men—and how they use intimidation and emotional and economic abuse to control their victims.
"The way to change that is not to change the way he handles his anger," Middleton told the Jackson Free Press in July. "You have to get down into his core belief systems. For the first time, (we'll have) the opportunity to address the cause, not just the result (of domestic violence)."
Middleton indicated last week that she's no longer waiting for victims to come to her. The program has an advocate in the courtrooms looking for victims and offering help on the spot.
"We're being aggressive. If we know there's a woman out there seeking a protective order, we're calling her," she said. Batterers are being referred to the program, while victims are being offered help through the shelter.
'All Robbie Has Left'
While Bell was away in rehab, Spencer gradually convinced herself that Bell's June attack on her was an aberration. It was the drugs that were at fault, she wanted to believe, not the man she loved, even though she had witnessed his dealership going under, probably because Bell was paying for drugs instead of paying his bills.
"I think, more than anything, she was trying to convince herself and the rest of us that it was the drugs that did it and not him," Spencer's mom Linda Francomb told the Jackson Free Press just days after her murder.
It might have had something to do with the amount of time Spencer spent with Bell's mother, while her own mother lived at a distance in Michigan.
"I'm all Robbie has left," she told her friends when they questioned why Spencer was working 12- and 14-hour days for the man who brutally beat her, while canceling outings with them. Instead, nearly every day Spencer came to Robbie Bell's house to sort through boxes of paperwork, reconciling titles and contracting creditors, finance companies and lawyers.
"There were a lot of missed dinners and a lot of missed lunches and a lot of missed phone calls because she was staying up so late, literally working her fingers to the bone on his business, and I think Robbie basically—I hate to say brainwashed—but basically made her feel she had to help," Stafford said.
Like many victims of domestic abuse, Spencer was convinced that Bell would get better if she helped him, and she was doing her best to salvage what was left of his business while he was in rehab.
In frequent contact with Bell by e-mail and cell phone, Heather told friends that Bell was getting better and that she was looking forward to his coming home. But Spencer became more and more isolated from anyone outside Robbie Bell's sphere of influence in that short span of time, while trying to convince everyone that she was in control of the situation.
"I'm not going to jump back in and do anything. I'm going to give it time," Spencer told her mother. "I'm not going to get back into the same kind of relationship we had before. I'm just going to take my time."
In August, James L. Kelly, Bell's attorney, submitted Spencer's request to drop all charges against Bell to JPD Investigator Daniels.
"I would like to drop all charges I have filed or caused to be instituted against George Bell III. ... I do not believe George Bell III to be guilty of any crime against me and because he has and continues to receive treatment for his problems. I do not wish to see him prosecuted. As I have stated to the police before, I do not believe that Bell ever intended to harm me. He was out of his mind and did not know what he was doing. I have never seen him that way before and have not since," Spencer wrote in the request.
Spencer's statement had no effect on the charge, however, which was still on the books Sept. 11. It's not uncommon for abuse victims to attempt dropping charges against their abusers. Frequently, they are forced to do so by the perpetrators, who threaten to hurt them again if they don't recant. For that reason, police can become the official complainant and pursue the case, even if a victim drops charges against the perpetrator. Prosecutors say they do not like pursuing such cases without the victim's assistance, but from a legal point of view, the police are supposed to simply step in as complainants.
"I'm seeing a shift in the attitudes of a lot of judges in these cases," Wagner said. "In the past, these have been sort of nuisance cases. 'This is something that should have been handled at home, why are you bringing it to my court. If I do something this week, you'll be back in my court next week with another thing.'
"I think that was a lack of education on the part of some of these judges of the big picture, all the dynamics of what's going on in the situation. Granted, there are probably a good share of nuisance cases that are still coming in to their courts, but they're starting to learn that they have to look at these cases individually and not lump them all together as 'those darn domestics.'"
Wagner believes judges are getting more educated all the time. "The judges are really wanting to know how best to handle these cases, and I found that to be true for city court judges and trial and appellate court judges as well. They're really wanting to learn," she said.
Wagner clarified how an arrest for domestic violence works: "If a person is arrested for domestic violence or for violating a protective order, they have to have an independent bail hearing within 24 hours. It's not that they're automatically held for 24 hours. I do think that judges are more accepting of that," she said.
The problem is that if someone is arrested at 10 p.m. on a Friday, a judge has to be available by the phone, and that still remains a challenge. She also feels there ought to be some kind of minimum penalty. Right now, misdemeanor cases can get a victim up to six months in jail or $500 fine, or they could walk away without any penalties.
Women are more knowledgeable about getting protective orders and getting more of them faster, according to judges and court clerks, Wagner said. They're more aware of the remedies and relief for domestic violence. And people are more aware of what domestic violence is, especially that it doesn't always consist of physical violence.
As for that pending assault charge against Bell, the police finally arrested him for iton Sept. 11.
By then, Spencer was dead.
On the night of Sept. 10, 2007, Robbie Bell—then an executive at the Mississippi Business Journal—came home around 8 p.m., according to a wrongful-death lawsuit later filed by Francomb. Just two days before, Robbie Bell had reportedly celebrated her son's return to Jackson from the Narconon facility, months shy of the initial estimate for treatment of his addiction. What she found when she walked into her North Jackson home at 4652 Trawick Drive is a matter of speculation, as neither mother nor son has ever told their stories publicly.
Col. John Hanson, a field supervisor for Security South, a private security company that patrols in Robbie Bell's North Jackson neighborhood, believes he may have seen Spencer on Trawick Drive at 1:27 a.m. Sept. 11.
He saw a young woman fitting her description and stopped to ask if everything was OK. The woman was out looking for her dog, she said, "a Jack Russell terrier, white in color except for a black head," Hanson said in a statement dated May 30, 2008.
The dog the woman was looking for fits the description of George Bell's dog. "Nothing in the woman's conduct, verbal or nonverbal, indicated any stressful or unusual situation," he wrote. Once she found the dog, she returned to 4652 Trawick Drive, Robbie Bell's house, Hanson noted in his activity report for that night.
Hinds County Coroner Sharon Grisham-Stewart stated in her report that Spencer died around 3 a.m. on Sept. 11, some seven hours after Robbie Bell came home the night before and roughly 90 minutes after Hanson claims he saw her. She also puts the time of the injury at 3 a.m.
The morning of Sept. 11, Elizabeth Hall awoke about 7:30 a.m. to the sound of her dog barking. George Bell was at her Parkwood Place house, driving Spencer's Camry. He had returned to Jackson just three days before.
"Bell came and sat on the bed just wanting to talk," Hall wrote in a statement to police. "He told me that he had killed his baby, meaning Spencer, and that he did a lot of coke."
Bell was agitated and acting irrationally, telling Hall that he had done something very bad, that he had killed the only person that he loved. Hall told the police that he dumped more cocaine on the glass coffee table in the living room and snorted it; he turned on the shower at one point, and he blew his nose with a kitchen towel, leaving it on the counter.
Then he pulled a gun "and said that he had to kill himself," Hall wrote. "But he said before he did that he wanted me to have sex and give him a blowjob."
When Hall refused, he forced her at gunpoint into the green Camry and drove back to his mother's Trawick Drive home, where the mother and son escorted her into the house, according to Hall's police statement.
"I looked at Robbie and (asked) her if all of this was true," Hall wrote, "and she said yes. She had been held up all night long."
But Robbie Bell had not called the police, not even while her son was away from the house. In fact, her cell phone records for the night show no calls between 7:32 p.m., Sept. 10 until 9:19 a.m., Sept. 11, when she checked voice mail.
Whether Bell attacked Spencer before his mother came home that night or after is a matter of pure speculation, as is the question of whether Spencer was alive for any length of time after the attack, contrary to rumor. Still, questions remain about Robbie Bell's behavior that night, and why, even when Bell left the house and showed up in Hall's bedroom, she never called the police or an ambulance.
Currently in Mississippi, failure to report a crime is not illegal, nor does the state have Good Samaritan laws for non-medical laymen. Such a law would generally mandate that everyone must give aid to someone who is in immediate need of lifesaving medical care, and release them from liability for giving aid. But 15 years ago, there weren't many laws against stalking, either.
"Her failure to act is morally objectionable, but not every morally objectionable thing is (illegal). I can't say that what she did is a crime," said Matt Steffey, a law professor at Mississippi College. He added, "This may be the kind of case that nudges the law in a new direction."
Robbie Bell's first two calls on her cell phone that morning were to check her voicemail. Then, at 9:49 a.m., she called her brother-in-law James Bell, asking him to come to her house "urgently," according to the statement he gave police. When he arrived, Robbie Bell led him through the house into the backyard.
"I saw blood on the floor of the living room and den," he told police. His nephew, George Bell III, was in the yard behind the house with Elizabeth Hall. Someone, most likely Robbie Bell, asked him to speak with her son confidentially, in his capacity as a lawyer.
"I came to the conclusion that my nephew might have killed his girlfriend last night and her body might be somewhere in the house," he wrote in his police statement. "(Hall) told me that Bell had been take (sic) cocaine and that when he took the drug he wasn't himself like he was possessed by demons. I learned that he had a gun somewhere and that he had been psychotic and he had been hallucinating that he had been seeing SWAT Officers behind every corner."
James Bell said that he prayed with his nephew, and then asked him to go to the police.
"[H]e told me that he didn't see a reason why he should be alive," James Bell wrote in his statement, adding that both he and Robbie Bell tried to talk the young man into turning himself in. When George Bell went inside the house to use the restroom and get a drink, James Bell took the opportunity to get Hall away from the house.
"I asked Robbie to come with us," he said. "Robbie stated that she wasn't going to leave her son."
Steffey says he believes that James Bell acted appropriately. "He secured Elizabeth, got her away from Bell and contacted police," he said.
When James Bell and Elizabeth Hall followed Sgt. Wall to the Highland Village parking lot around 10:30 a.m., they stopped by the red double-decker Java Werks bus on the east side of the lot, off Old Canton Road, where Wall called for backup. Sgt. Grant Parker, Officer H. L. Bullock and Officer Freddrick Samuel converged on the location, where Wall briefed them on what he knew. The policemen began strategizing how they would approach Robbie Bell's Trawick Drive house.
It was then that James Bell got another call from Robbie Bell, informing him that she and Bell had left the house. Her son was scared that the uncle would call the police, she told him. Was he going to turn himself in? James Bell asked her.
"Not yet," she replied. "I'm trying to talk him in to it."
Robbie Bell told James Bell that her son wanted to get cigarettes and a drink, and the older Bell told her to meet him at the BP gas station at the corner of Northside Drive and Interstate 55, near McWillie Drive.
James Bell told police officers the gist of the conversation, at which point Wall saw Robbie Bell's 2006 black Infiniti G35 driving west on Northside Drive. The officers followed the car to the station, and Parker informed the others that "the white male in the vehicle" was armed, and they took up combat positions surrounding the car.
Wall could see Bell hold a silver gun to his head, putting it in his mouth and under his chin. The gun, a .38 caliber Smith Wesson 442 that sells for around $600, was registered to Robbie Bell.
Sgt. Parker cautiously approached the car, and saw the door opening. Robbie Bell was trying to get out on the driver's side of the car, and Parker saw that George Bell had hold of her arm, preventing her from leaving. "Let go of her," Parker demanded, and after a few moments, Bell let her loose. Parker told Robbie Bell to get the keys out of the ignition, but she didn't.
Parker took the mother to his cruiser, where, he wrote in his report, she called Bell on his cell and handed it to the officer. Bell told Parker that he was "in the process of going to see his lawyer and turn himself in but that he wanted to do this on his own time."
The officers called for a hostage negotiator, the Jackson SWAT team and medical personnel, while evacuating the BP station. Lt. Gerald Jones, the negotiator, and the SWAT team relieved the officers and took control of the situation. With numerous SWAT guns trained on him, Bell held them all off for nearly four hours, the gun pointed at his head. At one point, police gave Bell water and cigarettes. His father, George Bell Jr., arrived on the scene around 12:30 p.m.
At approximately 3:15 p.m., Bell finally put down his gun and gave up to police. Mother and son were transported to police headquarters in Officer Samuel's cruiser, where Bell was later charged with capital murder and kidnapping.
Among Bell's effects was $1,178 in cash. While both declined to provide statements, Bell admitted to Det. Jerry Shoulders at the station that he "had been doing cocaine all night and was exhausted."
Todd Burwell, Robbie Bell's current attorney, did not immediately return calls.
The Crime Scene
Around 11 a.m. on Sept. 11, while the standoff drama was just beginning at the BP station, Jackson Deputy Chief Brent Winstead ordered Sgt. Eric Smith to 4652 Trawick Drive to investigate. He, Lt. Joseph Wade and Sgt. Alfred Cooper met Officer Donald Broome, who had already arrived at the house. The door to the four-bedroom house wasn't locked. Two dogs, Bell's terrier and Spencer's peekapoo, Hobie, met the officers at the door.
After a brief search, they found Spencer's body in a bedroom to the right of the foyer.
Officer Broome's statement says that the officers saw blood spatter on one of the doors in a hallway, and a "large area of coagulated blood" on the floor, which is where crime scene investigators place the assault. Pushing open one of two closed doors, they found a motionless body partially covered with towels, the head bloody. They saw a large flashlight, which would later be identified as the murder weapon, on the bed.
When American Medical Response personnel arrived, they quickly determined that Spencer was dead. Removing the towels, they saw she was wearing only a purple tank top. Crime-scene officers found her white pants and panties near her body.
Among the evidence logged from the scene was a piece of Spencer's skull. The autopsy—cited by JPD Det. Derrick Jordan in a statement he gave to secure a warrant for capital murder and sexual battery against Bell—confirmed "severe lacerations to the brain, stress fractures" and evidence of anal rape. The cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head.
On Feb. 4, 2008, George Bell III pleaded guilty to capital murder and kidnapping and received life in prison without the possibility of parole plus 30 years.
Much attention turned immediately to the role of Robbie Bell, a scion of Jackson society, in the case. The attorney general's office, for instance, tried to find evidence of an "affirmative" action she took to prove that she helped her son get away with his crimes.
Then-District Attorney Faye Peterson charged Robbie Bell as an accessory after the fact. However, Hinds County District Attorney Robert S. Smith and Attorney General Hood—who says he was asked by Elizabeth Hall's family to investigate—had to drop the charges against her in March 2008 for lack of evidence.
Convicting someone of an accessory after the fact charge requires proving that person "concealed, received, or relieved" a felon, or actively aided the felon "to escape or to avoid arrest, trial, conviction or punishment."
The attorney general's investigators looked for evidence of "affirmative" actions the mother might have taken to help prove that she helped her son with the crime, or to get away, but couldn't find any.
"Our office helped get subpoenas to pull bank records and phone records to see if (Robbie) gave him money," said Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. "He sold a trailer that day. That's where he got the money to go buy (cocaine). He had some money on him when he was arrested. ... We thought that was going to be his escape money and that (Robbie had given him) that money, but we didn't see any withdrawals like that."
"Everybody was outraged that (Robbie just) sat there in that house, including us," Hood said, "but our job is to figure out what cases we can bring, what were the violations of the law. Our folks looked at everything. I had our whole criminal division, pushing them to find me something that would help Robert (Smith) to charge her with something. (Former D.A.) Faye (Peterson) charged her. ... I think that got the ball rolling, where everyone thought there was a crime, when it wasn't. It was a moral crime, absolutely, but as far as being a crime, a violation of Mississippi statutes, it's not there."
Peterson indicated that prosecutors often bring cases to a grand jury during an investigation in anticipation of finding the necessary evidence to convict them. Although the case was two years ago, she told the Jackson Free Press this week that she remembered a statement that Robbie Bell seemed surprised when Bell returned to her house with Hall, indicating her possible intent to help him flee. But apparently, the evidence did not support the theory.
Steffey agreed, saying: "What evidence is there that Robbie Bell did something affirmatively to hinder prosecution, hide him, or help him avoid arrest? To the contrary, it seems she tried several times to get him to turn himself in. ... It does not look like there's much of a case, based on what we know."
But the burden of proof in civil cases is not as stringent, and both Linda Francomb and Elizabeth Hall filed civil suits against Robbie and George Bell III, charging negligence, among other things. Robbie Bell settled her suit with Francomb this past summer for an undisclosed amount.
Spencer's friends are hopeful that Hall's suit may still force Robbie Bell or George Bell III to finally fill in the missing pieces of the events of Sept. 10 and 11. Francomb's suit against George Bell III, and Hall's suit are still in process. Recently, Francomb added Narconon, the rehab facility in Oklahoma where George Bell III went between the first and second attacks on Spencer, to the suit.
"Discovery is continuing in the case, and our investigation into the facts is continuing as well," Francomb's attorney Eric Stracener said.
Meantime, Heather Spencer lives on through the people her death has motivated to speak out about domestic abuse and the failures of the system—and to help domestic-abuse victims get help before it's too late. Her friends and family started a non-profit group, Heather's T.R.E.E., which is holding its second annual benefit Saturday, Oct. 17, at Hal & Mal's to raise money and awareness.
"I feel like my best friend could have been saved," Stafford said. "When we look at what police did, we don't understand why she was murdered."
What You Can Do
• Call, write or e-mail your legislator to ask for stronger laws.
• Volunteer with community organizations dedicated to ending domestic violence, or at women's shelters.
• Learn the warning signs of domestic abuse. If you think a woman in your life is being abused, offer your support and help her formulate an escape plan.
• Learn about how domestic abusers control their victims.
• Stop blaming the victims. When someone asks, "Why doesn't she leave?" ask in response, "Why does he abuse?"
For more information contact the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence (http://www.mcadv.org, or call 601-981-9196), Catholic Charities (601-366-0222) or the Center for Violence Prevention (601-932-4198). The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also has an excellent resource Web site (http://www.womenshealth.gov/).
For information on the Duluth model and batterers intervention programs, contact the Center for Violence Prevention (601-932-4198) and see the Domestic Abuse Intervention Program Web site (http://www.theduluthmodel.org).
Past JFP coverage of case:
Bell Denies Responsibility - Aug. 13, 2008
DA and AG Dismiss Case Against Robbie Bell - March 26, 2008
Bell Pleads Guilty, Sentenced to Life - Feb. 4, 2008
Most Intriguing Jacksonians 2007 - Dec. 27, 2007
'None of This Is Good News': Robbie Bell Turns Self In - Nov. 7, 2007
BREAKING: Mother of George Bell Indicted - Oct. 30, 2007
Grant Me Justice: Two Women Killed in Two Weeks - cover story +PDFs of police reports of first attack, Sept. 26, 2007
Updated Oct. 8 to correct typos.
Police Reports (PDF)
- Thank you for bringing further awareness to domestic violence. Can you post the reports? I'd love to read a copy of them. I appreciated how the report was posted from the June beating. It's nice to see JFP leading the way...
- Absolutely, Rexxie. Ronni is preparing them now. She has a huge stack, and none are redacted. She needs to block some personal information before making them public. And as the daily editor, she is really busy half the day! But she'll get there soon. Maybe some will start going up by late today. We'll comment here when they are linked so people know. Also, huge kudos to Ronni; she has been on the domestic-violence beat for us for years now. She was a vital part of the team that wrote the first big story about Heather (and Doris Shavers), in which we obtained and released the police reports from Heather's first beating -- showing that much of what was being said about it was B.S. In order to not hurt the family as it was pursuing lawsuits and the like, we had to go somewhat dark on this story for a while, other than just putting out the basics of what was happening. (Media can really hurt victims if we're not careful and sensitive about what is reported.) But her friends and family were supportive of us now putting the whole story out there now so that it can be used to try to save other women. One way to help is the Heathers Tree benefit at Hal & Mal's on Oct. 17 and the duathlon on Oct. 31. More info: http://www.heatherstree.org/. We timed the story, in part, to help with these benefit actions. May Heather rest in peace, and may we all be inspired by her story to do everything we can to fight domestic abuse.
- Robbie Bell should be behind bars. Personally I'm looking forward to the duathlon.
- Rex, I think most of us agree about Robbie Bell's apparent behavior. However, state law just isn't there to make her in/actions a crime and wasn't when the crime happened. (I am glad that Peterson had her arrested anyway, though; rendered some good photos that we've used repeatedly.) Still, her inactions aren't the worst part of this case; what we can know about were execrable, but the autopsy report indicates that Heather died immediately. That would indicate that the mother could not have saved her by calling the police. The more urgent lesson in this story, beyond the ugly mother part, is that state laws against domestic abuse aren't strong enough, and the ones that are there are not enforced correctly. That is where we all should focus like a laser beam. It would be tragic to miss the big picture because of disgust with R. Bell's behavior. Fortunately, we don't have to choose. We can tell the story of her actions to the best of our ability, put all the actual facts out about the case AND we can work to get laws changed and enforced. Look at the part where Kent Daniels reduced George's charge to a misdemeanor because, supposedly, the crime wasn't "life-threatening." What in hell does it take for an assault to be "life-threantening"!?! Oh, right: not to be against a woman by a man she loves.
- The laws and sentencing really need to be changed. My best friend used to live w/ a guy who beat her all the time. She finally got out and a few years ago he beat his wife to death (while on parole for beating her previously). A few months ago I saw him , he'd already been released.
- And I thought the coroner placed her time of death at an hour when R Bell was in the house.
- Oh don't get me wrong, Rex: All indications are (even though it's circumstantial) that Robbie Bell was in the house when Heather was killed about 3 a.m. So I'm not saying she could not have *stopped* the attack; I have no idea what she was doing, and apparently neither can anyone else. That's a huge hole in the case for everyone who has touched it, it seems. My point was that at least the coroner didn't say that Heather lived past the 3 a.m. attack; thus, it's not accurate to indicate that Bell could likely have *saved* her after the attack. We know that Robbie Bell was alone in the house with the body, though, at around 7 a.m., so even if she had been whacked out with sleeping pills or something during the attack and couldn't have heard such a vicious attack (no indication of that, either, just the best possible scenario one could come up with other than her being tied up), she was apparently loose and alone in the house with a dead body and blood everywhere after daylight when George brought Elizabeth there, and then called her voicemail and her attorney, but not the police. That part is just ... there are simply no words to describe it ... but there is no law that she violated based on the facts known. That is clearly an opening for stronger laws, although they would likely apply to other situations as well where the witness is more sympathetic. Thus, the problem. But George did for sure violate some laws he wasn't pursued or arrested for the first time around, and that happens often. It is nothing new, or unusual, and people really need to pay attention to that part, too. I'm rather always amazed when the first response to this case, such as yours, is to talk about what the mother did. It was disgusting, but for God's sake look closely at what George Bell did, too. Not to mention the system that let him get away with almost killing her so he could come back and finish the job.
- Folks, to leave a tribute or comments directly to Heather's mother, Linda, and the rest of the Heathers Tree folks, just go here: http://heatherstree.org/blog/?p=13#comments
- The first set of police reports are uploaded. See the link at the end of the story.
- Brilliant work, Ronni. Thank you.
- anne mayeaux
- She was a truly good person. A beautiful woman, a dear neighbor, and another tragic victim. I knew her prior to her being with Bell, and I still can't imagine the woman I knew being with a man that abused her. That is the true indication that domestic violence can happen anywhere, can be unseen, and truly can happen to anyone. The only good that could ever come of this is shedding the light on domestic violence. It is truly an epidemic. I wish I saw less of it in my professional life.
- She finally got out and a few years ago he beat his wife to death (while on parole for beating her previously). A few months ago I saw him , he'd already been released. - Rex This sucks so much! It's awful to be a woman in this world and feel that the justice system does not have your back. I recall an instance in college when a peeping tom was watching our home, and actually he even leaned against the door to look through at me (found that out by walking out the door and running into him in the middle of hte night!) The cops came and we gave our description of the man and they were like, oh yeah, we know that guy - he has been convicted for this multiple times and just got out today. ! It is a misdemeanor, apparently, because he wasn't "in" the house. But he came back and watched us again - just outside the deck. It made me sick. I could not sleep for almost a year after that happened. Why is it so hard to see the harm done to women through constant threat of stalking, harassment, rape, attack - when will society realize that women have all this energy directed just towards protecting ourselves - and think what a world we can have if all that energy can be redirected towards building positive things and lives! I didn't know Heather, either, but I honor her.
- Until we recognize that domestic violence is a crime that affects ALL of us nothing will ever change. I have said the whole time I've lived here, almost five years, that until we really start taking crimes against women seriously in this state we might as well hang a sign at the state border that says feel free to rape, beat, and assault our women we won't really punish you even if your caught, especially if she's a women you "love". As a survivor I will say this it takes a tremendous amount of strength to leave and that is when you are in the most danger and we are not protecting these women.