On a Friday afternoon in October 2020, Matthew Tucker had his wife April Tucker in a headlock at their home in Meridian. She later told police he was strangling her, and when he finally let go, she vomited.

He held a kitchen knife to her neck and threatened to kill her, she told law enforcement. The incident report from the Lauderdale County Sheriff’s Department documented cuts and bruises on her neck.

Less than two months later, a few days before Christmas, he followed through on his threats. He strangled and beat her to death, according to her death certificate and law enforcement.

Law enforcement also believe he killed their 14-year-old son Bryce Tucker, April’s mother Beverly Fulton and his own grandmother before leading police on a chase that ended when he took his own life. While the case is still officially open, law enforcement say that based on the evidence, they believe Matthew is “solely responsible” for the deaths of his family members.

In the October incident, April managed to get away by persuading her husband to let her go pick up their son from school and promising to come right back, according to Andrea Goodwin, a longtime friend and co-worker of April.

April was always a peacemaker, a negotiator. When she worked in Goodwin’s medical clinic, she could diffuse people’s anger when they’d call in upset about a medical bill. Like many victims of domestic violence, she had learned her fair share of coping skills, including calming others down.

But as soon as she got out of the house and into her car, she drove directly to the home of Goodwin and David Bonner, Goodwin’s husband and April’s cousin.

Dr. Andrea Goodwin and her husband, David Bonner, who is a nurse. Bonner is the cousin of domestic violence victim April Fulton Tucker. It is the belief of law enforcement that her estranged husband Matthew Tucker is solely responsible for her death, their son Bryce, her mother Beverly Kaiser Fulton, and his 90-year-old grandmother Virginia Jay. Matthew Tucker later died of a self-inflicted gunshot after a police chase in Lamar County. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

“She came flying up in the driveway, and all of a sudden we hear screaming,” recounted Goodwin. “She was absolutely hysterical and crying, saying, ‘He’s trying to kill me, he tried to kill me.’”

They immediately made sure all the doors to the house were locked, and Goodwin, a family medicine doctor, checked April’s injuries. She saw the cuts, bruises and abrasions on her neck, and she also had a swollen spot on the back of her head where she hit her head after Matthew grabbed her off a stool, Goodwin said.

While Goodwin was tending to April, Bonner called 911 and told the operator the authorities better get to their house before Matthew did.

Two deputies arrived, and April told them she and her husband were separated. He had come to their house to get some of his things to take to his mother’s house, where he was staying at the time. They began to argue and “it turned physical,” the incident report states.

“She said that Matthew grabbed her and then grabbed a knife from the kitchen. She said that he put it to her throat and was threatening to kill her. She said that he kept screaming ‘I’m going to kill you’ over and over again while he held the knife to her throat,’” Lauderdale County Sheriff’s Deputy Ethan Mckee wrote.

“He then put her into a head lock and started choking her. She said that Matthew choked her so long in the head lock that when he finally let go, she vomited,” the report continued. “Sometime during the altercation Matthew scratched her neck and left abrasions on the inside of her mouth.”

The state’s domestic violence law mandates strangulation — and even an attempt to strangle — be considered an aggravating factor, or a felony. And this was not Matthew’s first time assaulting, or choking, someone. He had been convicted of simple assault on a minor in 2000 after a then-14-year-old girl’s mother accused him of choking her daughter, threatening to kill her and throwing her against a wall.

But on that day in October 2020, Matthew was charged with simple domestic violence, a misdemeanor. He was placed in jail for 12 hours and given a $1,000 bond.

April was assessed by a paramedic, given a brochure on domestic violence, and sent on her way.

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Mississippi law states a person is guilty of simple domestic violence if he or she attempts to harm a spouse, romantic partner or certain family members, negligently hurts another with a deadly weapon or means likely to produce serious harm, or attempts to put another in fear of imminent serious harm.

The charge is a misdemeanor, and the punishment is a fine of up to $500 or up to six months in prison.

A person is guilty of aggravated domestic violence if he or she “attempts to cause serious bodily injury to another, or causes such injury purposely, knowingly or recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.” This charge is a felony, which carries a fine of up to $1,000 or up to five years in prison.

The person is also guilty if he or she attempts to cause injury to another with a deadly weapon likely to produce death or serious bodily harm, or if he or she strangles or even attempts to strangle another.

But law enforcement and advocates for domestic violence victims say there is a reluctance to charge and prosecute aggravated domestic violence — particularly in the case of strangulation — because it is difficult for prosecutors to get a conviction in court.

In 2019, 8,952 simple, or misdemeanor, domestic violence cases went through the court system, compared to 564 aggravated domestic violence cases, according to court records compiled by the Center for Violence Prevention.

After the Legislature in 2010 added strangulation as an aggravating factor to the domestic violence law, “it’s never really taken off,” explained Luke Thompson, the chief of the Byram Police Department and former president of the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police.

“The reality is most DV choking (strangulation) cases are prosecuted as misdemeanors … It is a symptom of a much larger problem within the criminal justice system in Mississippi,” he said.

The reason is because intimate partner violence cases are generally difficult to investigate and prosecute, he said. There are often no other witnesses, victims may often be uncooperative, and sometimes, physical evidence of abuse is not always obvious.

Over the course of more than two months, Mississippi Today asked for information from and interviews with experts in the state attorney general’s office, which serves as the primary state agency that educates and trains law enforcement and prosecutors in domestic violence cases. None of the requests were filled, including those for information about what the agency teaches surrounding strangulation and aggravated domestic violence.

Cherie Wade, president of the Mississippi Prosecutors Association, declined to answer specific questions about prosecution of these cases but did issue a statement saying the association provides training to prosecutors and investigators and that it “recognizes the serious nature of domestic abuse, how dangerous domestic violence situations are and how quickly they can become deadly.”

Research shows that when an abuser strangles his victim, it can be a significant predictor for future deadly violence. It is also a highly dangerous form of abuse because as little as 10 seconds of pressure on the carotid arteries in the neck is enough time to deprive the brain of oxygen and cause a loss of consciousness.

If the pressure continues, brain death can occur in only a few minutes.

Sandy Middleton, the executive director of the Center for Violence Prevention, describes strangulation as the “pinnacle” of intimate partner violence.

The victims her organization serves must sometimes go through “repeated abuse” because of this breakdown in the system.

“It is a face-to-face demonstration of power and control that can result in the death of a victim,” she said. “It’s attempted murder.”

“We see many cases in our minds that should be aggravated domestic violence, but they aren’t charged at that level,” said Middleton, noting she has heard different interpretations of what constitutes aggravated domestic violence.

“We had a case years ago, this woman was beaten to a pulp. She was black and blue all over, had been dragged — it was the most horrific beating I’ve ever seen, but they would not charge her offender with a (felony) because no bones were broken,” Middleton said.

Registered nurses practices during a sexual assault examination a training for nurses at St. Dominic in Jackson, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Beth McCord is the director of Bridge Forensic Services, an organization that provides medical services to victims of interpersonal violence and human trafficking, and is a certified Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE). A nurse practitioner, she’s been trained by the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention, which provides the most current and up-to-date education on domestic violence and sexual assault strangulation crimes.

She said there’s more education needed in the state when it comes to strangulation, not only for law enforcement but also for medical professionals.

“When somebody’s been strangled, you always look to the neck, but you may not see anything there. If you don’t have the proper education, you don’t know that there could be evidence in other places like in the eyes, behind the ear, or inside the mouth,” she explained, adding that bowel and bladder incontinence is another little known symptom of strangulation.

McCord remembers a case from her early days as a nurse in the emergency room that she’ll never forget. There was a patient who had been sexually assaulted, and she told her there had been pressure applied to her neck during the assault.

“I remember looking at her neck and not seeing one thing. Then weeks later, after we’d lost touch with her, she had a stroke,” she said. “When I took this class (at the Institute) my eyes were opened to the effects of strangulation and how it can affect (victims) up to one year after. I kept thinking, ‘Could her stroke have been tied to that incident? Did I miss petechiae (tiny red spots due to ruptured capillaries) in her eyes, or did we miss it in her mouth and ears?”

McCord’s mission with Bridge Forensic Services is to provide medical services, including forensic exams, to victims who are receiving services from the Center for Violence Prevention, one of the state’s domestic violence shelters and an organization that serves victims of interpersonal violence and human trafficking.

But she also wants to strengthen partnerships with law enforcement and hospitals to ensure victims are receiving assessments and services by highly trained professionals like herself.

While there are only 12 SANE-certified nurses in the state, including her, there are many more who have received the 40 hours of SANE education but have not sat for the national exam to officially be counted as certified. The number of SANE-trained nurses is not tracked, so it’s unclear how many there are across the state.

Since the creation of Bridge Forensic Services in late 2018, McCord has offered her services in strangulation assessments to law enforcement in the metro area, but so far, only a few have taken her up on it.

And when law enforcement and medical professionals aren’t adequately educated on strangulation, the impact can be grave for victims.

“Victims who do not receive these forensic assessments are less likely to receive appropriate medical care, are more likely to suffer subsequent health issues and prosecutors are less equipped without the forensic evidence to support successful prosecutions,” said McCord.

When responding to and investigating domestic violence crimes, it is important for law enforcement to get context, said Thompson, the police chief. In his own department in Byram, Thompson implemented the lethality assessment program (LAP), a tool used by law enforcement on domestic violence calls that allows them to assess how much danger a victim is in. He also trains other law enforcement around the state on the tool.

The implementation of the LAP, along with other trauma-informed best practices in his department, led to a sharp decrease in domestic violence calls after it was implemented, along with a decrease in the outdated practice of “dual arrest,” when both parties in a domestic violence situation are arrested.

“The problem with dual arrest is it re-traumatizes the victim,” explained Thompson.

All of the tools available to law enforcement have one thing in common: they take into consideration the context of a particular incident.

“The old Joe Friday mentality is when an officer asks someone to tell him what happened, and they start telling him what happened last week or last month, and he responds, ‘No, I don’t want to hear that, I want to hear what happened today,’” he described.

But domestic abuse and the risk a victim faces are centered around patterns of behavior and a build up of power and control by the abuser over time. Without that historical knowledge, police officers can’t accurately assess how dangerous the abuser is — not only to his victim, but to the police officer.

“85% of people who kill police officers have domestic violence in their history. If we know those things happen, law enforcement, I believe, has a responsibility to evolve in the way we’re doing these things,” said Thompson.

Goodwin, who listened to the conversation on that October afternoon between Apriland the Lauderdale Co. sheriff’s deputies, said she remembers April telling them about an event the week prior in which her son and her mother witnessed Matthew beating her, and another sheriff’s deputy had come to their house.

But that day, the deputy indicated on the report there was no prior history of abuse and that the lethality assessment program was not utilized.

The LAP, which the Lauderdale County Sheriff’s Department trains its officers in, includes a 12-part questionnaire. A “yes” response to any of the first three questions, including whether the abuser has ever threatened to kill the victim or himself, indicates the victim is in imminent danger of being seriously hurt or killed by her abuser.

When following the protocol, law enforcement would then connect the victim to a domestic violence shelter while on the scene.

If that had been done, Goodwin said, it would’ve been “obvious” the situation was high risk. Matthew had not only abused and threatened to kill April, but he had also made threats to kill himself and was seeing a psychiatrist, she said.

Attempts to reach McKee, the deputy who charged Matthew with simple domestic violence in October of last year, were unsuccessful.

Lauderdale County Chief Deputy Ward Calhoun said he was not sure why the LAP wasn’t used in this particular case, but he guessed it either could have been done informally or the particular deputy wasn’t adequately trained in it.

He said April was given the contact information for the Care Lodge Domestic Violence Shelter in Meridian.

Bonner, a nurse who describes April as more like a sister than a cousin, has always believed in his ability to see that justice was done, or a wrong was righted.

April Tucker and her son Bryce. Credit: Andrea Goodwin

As a medical professional, he’s a natural fixer, and he prides himself on being a well-connected community member who can bring the right people together to solve an issue.

After April was assaulted, he paid an attorney to help her get a domestic abuse protection order, or an order from a court that prohibits the person named in the protection order from contacting or coming close to the victim. They are input into a database housed by the Attorney General’s office and are also readily available to law enforcement.

But the order April received from Lauderdale County Court Judge Lisa Howell stripped away law enforcement’s ability to even know it existed.

“… this matter shall not be reported or enrolled to the local law enforcement or placed upon the records of NCIC (National Crime Information Center) by agreement of said parties and violation of the terms of this agreement shall be punishable by contempt proceedings only,” the order states. Below, both April and Matthew signed the document, along with their attorneys.

The language in the order meant no law enforcement was privy to its existence, and if Matthew ever violated the order, the only recourse for April was to go back to court.

It’s unclear how common these types of orders are, and questions submitted to the Attorney General’s office, which houses all domestic abuse protection orders in the state, were not answered. Howell, the judge, and Dustin Markham, the attorney for April, also did not respond to Mississippi Today’s requests for information by press time.

“Our hands are tied with orders like these,” said Lauderdale County Chief Deputy Ward Calhoun.

He said with a normal protection order, law enforcement are able to arrest the offender immediately, and they are held in jail without bond until they appear before the judge that issued the order.

Goodwin and Bonner had no idea about the specifics of this order. They said, however, that April believed it protected her, and it made all of them feel more comfortable for her to eventually return to her house after changing the locks.

Bonner has a distinct memory from that day in October after April was assaulted and came to him for help.

The deputy was walking out through the front yard to leave, and he turned around and said, “‘Now Mr. Bonner, please don’t go do anything stupid on your own and get yourself in trouble,’” Bonner recalled.

“I remember responding, ‘I’m not worried, I know y’all are going to handle it,’” he said, his voice becoming shaky. “I was confident in that.”

He doesn’t blame law enforcement, attorneys or anyone in particular for what happened to his family. He said the system as a whole is faulty.

“I had faith that the system was going to protect her, and that I could protect her,” said Bonner. “That didn’t happen.”

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.