Before she and two others were shot dead near Ardmore on Sunday, Debra Ann Rivera twice had asked a judge to order her ex-husband to surrender his guns because of alleged abuse.
The request was denied both times.
According to the Limestone County Sheriff’s Office, Darwin Brazier, 43, used a semi-automatic SKS rifle with a high-capacity magazine to shoot his ex-wife and two other victims multiple times and then shot himself to death near his home in Madison County.
In addition to 41-year-old Rivera, the Sheriff’s Office said Brazier killed her husband Radex Rivera, 41; and their roommate, Timothy James Hayward-Boger, 59.
Deputies responded to a call at 27774 Pinedale Road near Ardmore at 1:44 p.m. Sunday, according to a statement by the Sheriff's Office. The caller "advised dispatchers she had received a text from Brazier saying he had just killed his ex-wife, her husband and a man named Tim and he was going to kill himself," according to the statement.
Brazier fired 30 high-powered rounds at the scene, the Sheriff's Office said, then headed to Madison County.
Beginning about 2:40 p.m., Madison County deputies assisted in the search for Brazier using K-9 units and then a SWAT unit.
Lt. Donnie Shaw, public information officer at the Madison County Sheriff's Office, said a car owned by Brazier was found near Macedonia Road in Madison County. The SWAT unit set up a perimeter and began a grid search.
About 30 to 45 minutes into the search, "They thought they were receiving gunshots from an unknown person," Shaw said. "They set up a tactical approach to where the gunshots had come from and were actually moving toward the area where the gunshots were."
That's when the deputies found Brazier's body with a self-inflicted gunshot wound about 30 feet into the woods off Cook Road near his home, Shaw said.
Debra Rivera most recently petitioned Limestone County Circuit Judge Chad Wise for a protection-from-abuse order March 1. Wise granted it on a temporary basis, but on April 10 terminated the temporary order and denied her request for a permanent order.
“He calls my husband threatening to hurt both of us,” Rivera wrote in the court filing. “(He) drives by my house all hours of day to check where I am. He is upset I am now married and don’t want to be with him. He has been physical in the past, pulled a gun on me. … I know he has anger toward me and in past has caused physical pain to me.”
Rivera said in the petition that Brazier was stalking her and that he called her so frequently that she had to change her phone number.
According to court documents, Rivera and Brazier divorced in 2005. They reconciled after the divorce and had two daughters, ages 11 and 5. After a contentious custody proceeding, Wise on Dec. 17 granted custody of the girls to Rivera and provided Brazier with visitation rights.
“All of this activity has been going on for a year but has become worse since I was given custody of the kids,” Rivera wrote in her abuse petition, which requested that Brazier be enjoined from having contact with her.
In a one-sentence response, Brazier’s lawyer denied the allegations by Rivera, who was not represented by an attorney. Rivera and Brazier attended a hearing in Wise’s courtroom April 10 and on the same day he issued an order denying the petition.
Wise did not return a call Monday.
Rivera also had petitioned Wise for a protection-from-abuse order on March 14, 2017, including a request that Brazier be required to surrender any firearms. Wise denied the petition March 31.
In the 2017 petition, Rivera alleged that Brazier had stolen her personal contacts and had placed a GPS tracker in her car. She claimed he provided personal information about her to a convicted felon so the felon could harass her.
“The defendant has verbally abused me by, saying he will take my kids, that I made my bed and now I have to lie in it,” Rivera wrote.
While Rivera did not have a lawyer for the protection-from-abuse petitions, she was represented in the custody case by Huntsville lawyer Amy Alexander.
“She was one of the nicest people that you could ever meet,” Alexander said Monday. “She was happy with life most of the time, except for the strain and stress of this (child-custody) ordeal.”
Rivera had expressed concerns for her safety, Alexander said.
Judges have a difficult time evaluating protection-from-abuse petitions, Alexander said, because they sometimes are used as part of a litigation strategy.
“The difficulty the legal system has with them is that when you’re in a divorce or custody battle, that’s often alleged — people crying wolf,” Alexander said. “It’s hard for the judge to determine when there is an actual issue, or if someone is just alleging it because they’re in the midst of a domestic case.”
Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, has sponsored multiple bills related to domestic violence since 2014.
“I’m very curious to know why the (protection from abuse order) was denied,” Scofield said Monday. “Obviously, my hope is that judges throughout Alabama would take this issue very seriously and treat each one with great care so that this sort of thing doesn’t happen.
“ … At the end of the day, it rests with a judge and you hope they’d take these claims very seriously. One would think that to go through this application process, (applicants) do feel threatened.”
Violating a protection order is a Class A misdemeanor and punishable with up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.
According to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, in 2016, domestic violence, including that committed by an ex-spouse, was indicated in 4,611 violent crimes, including 43 homicides and 4,235 aggravated assaults.
SyRhonda Smith is a domestic violence victims' services coordinator in Morgan County for Crisis Services of North Alabama. Part of her job includes walking people through the protection from abuse order process. It begins at the county circuit clerk’s office, and there’s no filing fee.
“There is a narrative page, where the victim describes the abuse in their own words,” Smith said.
Based on the written testimony, and sometimes oral testimony, a judge can issue an emergency order.
“Generally, there are hearings within 10 days for a permanent order,” Smith said.
Smith couldn’t speak to the situation in Limestone County, but said in her experience in Morgan County, protection orders are granted more often than they’re denied.
If Smith could make any changes to the protective order process, she said it would be in enforcement, including cleaning up a “gap” between when an order is issued and when it is served to the defendant.
Crisis Services of North Alabama has a variety of free resources to victims of domestic violence, including help navigating the protective order process, trauma counseling and safety planning.
“It’s so important to have all those pieces working together because it increases their chances of success,” Smith said about victims leaving unsafe relationships.
Crisis Services serves Morgan, Limestone, Madison and Jackson counties. More information is available at csna.org.
Rivera's death is not the only time, according to police, an area woman was killed by an ex-husband after being denied a protection-from-abuse order.
Kay Letson Stevens requested a protection from abuse order on Oct. 15, 2014, after filing for divorce that May. She was shot dead at a bakery she owned in Decatur in November 2015.
Her petition asked the court to prevent Roger Stevens from contacting her at home or at work. It also asked that he be ordered to surrender all firearms.
Morgan County Circuit Judge Jennifer Howell denied the request from Kay Stevens on Oct. 20, 2014, stating Roger Stevens’ alleged actions were “not a definition of abuse in accordance with Alabama Law for Protection from Abuse,” according to court documents.
Roger Stevens was charged with capital murder and remains in the Morgan County Jail.