Rachel Shelton was finishing her shift at the Blue Cow Ice Cream Co. when a man walked up to her behind the counter, punched her in the face, pulled out a knife, and “just started slashing,” she recalled.
Hours earlier that July 12, a police officer had located a man at the shop and served him with a protective order. It was the first time Shelton, 25, had taken out such an order, against a man she says had been stalking her for years.
The man “immediately took a picture of the protective order and texted it to her and said threatening remarks, ‘You think this is going to stop me b----?’ and on and on,” said Diane Shelton, Rachel’s mother.
The same officer came back, saw the text, issued a felony warrant based on threats, and urged Rachel to go to a safe place if she saw the man again.
Later that night, police returned, arrested Jordan Lee Ornes, 26, and charged him with two counts of malicious wounding, issuance of a threat and violation of a protective order. He remains in the Roanoke City Jail without bond.
The Sheltons spent most the night in the hospital, where Rachel’s father, Marcus, was treated for injuries suffered in the attack.
Diane Shelton says she told an officer they had been to the magistrate’s office, which issues emergency protective orders, and had done everything they were told to do.
The officer “picked up the protective order, and said, ‘All a protective order is is a piece of paper.’ ”
Roanoke Police Chief Tim Jones said protective orders only authorize police to take action if they are called to a scene where a person is violating an order. He said often people misinterpret protective orders as providing 24-hour police protection, which they do not.
“We could literally come into your house, execute an order of protection, give you your copy, walk out the front door, the person named as having no contact with you come in the back door, and harm you,” Jones said. “There’s nothing we can do about it. That is kind of the travesty of the protective order process.”
Meant as a deterrent
From the magistrate’s office, to the police department, to the courts, a protective order is a legal tool designed to check abusers — and penalize them when they misbehave.
Most times, protective orders can be effective deterrents, according to advocates who work in the domestic violence realm. But, they say, survivors of abuse should know such protective orders alone cannot protect them.
As J. Emmette Pilgreen IV, a criminal defense and family law attorney based in Roanoke, put it, “A protective order will not stop fists, it will not stop a knife, it will not stop a bullet.
“If somebody’s a really bad person, a protective order is not going to keep that person away from you,” Pilgreen said. But for the “law-abiding person,” the order tells them, “Oh, this is serious. I need to take a deep breath and take a step back,” he said.
In Virginia, a protective order violation is at least a Class 1 misdemeanor, which brings either a year in jail, a fine of up to $2,500, or both.
More severe violations of an order — such as if a person is armed at the time — can be considered Class 6 felonies, which can carry between one and five years imprisonment.
Trey Gregory, co-founder of Domestic Abuse Disruption, says protective orders are useful to elevate a civil matter into a criminal one. An order can force an offender from a property.
“The police can get involved. They can actually sit in jail until their court date,” Gregory said. “It is a strong deterrent.”
Still, protective orders can be deterrents only to “a reasonable person,” cautioned Stacey Sheppard, director of housing and human services of Total Action for Progress, a Roanoke anti-poverty group that provides domestic violence services, among others. Mental health and substance abuse issues, of course, affect a person’s reasoning ability. Sometimes a protective order wouldn’t be a good idea if it could likely lead an offender to retaliate, she said.
“We get people in here all the time that say, ‘I want a restraining order,’ ” said Sheppard, whose organization can help people navigate the process. “Sometimes they don’t know what all is involved.”
How they work
Virginia allows for three types of protective orders: emergency, preliminary and simply protective.
A magistrate can issue an emergency order, which lasts up to 72 hours. A person must go before a judge to get a preliminary order, which can last up to 15 days. A “permanent” order can be in effect for as long as two years.
Generally, people can take out protective orders if they have been injured or directly threatened with their life, or are in a reasonable position to expect they could be killed, sexually assaulted or injured. Both Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, and General District Court handle protective orders, depending on the relationship of the people involved.
The first step is almost always to get an emergency order, according to advocates and police.
Emergency orders are fairly straightforward to get, Pilgreen said. A person can go on their own to the magistrate’s office, which is open 24 hours a day on the first floor of the city jail complex. Since these expire after 72 hours of being issued, people can seek a preliminary order to extend coverage before a hearing takes place on a longer-term order.
Jones said he encourages people who take out protective orders to contact police so that law enforcement is aware of the backstory.
Often, police are already involved. When police place domestic violence or assault charges, they are required by law to obtain a protective order, said Sgt. Kenny Sauls, who oversees the Roanoke Police Department’s special victims unit. Depending on the situation, the order could require no contact between parties, or “peaceful and lawful” contact.
Sauls said a magistrate hand-delivers protective orders, often multiple times a day, to the police department, where they’re entered into the state’s criminal information database. Patrol officers access this on their computers. The department strives to have two officers each day devoted to serving protective orders and other warrants, Sauls said.
An order is only in effect — meaning a person could be charged criminally for violating it — once both parties have been served with the papers.
“That’s the problem we run into a lot of the times with the emergency protective order,” Sauls said. “Because we’ll get the paper, and we may not find the person for a day or two.”
That was the case in August, when police had not yet served David Lee Gravely and Kimberly Jeanette Gollop with protective orders. Days later, a shooting outside the Family Dollar left Gravely injured, his friend Felicia Poindexter dead, and Gollop in jail, accused of shooting both.
Gollop was recently deemed not competent to stand trial, pushing her court date to Oct. 29.
“The criminal justice system is not perfect, and there are gaps,” Jones said, “and when you’re dealing with protective orders and emergency protective orders, the gaps are plenty, in spite of people’s best efforts.”
Permanent order rare
Last year, the magistrate’s office in Roanoke recorded 676 emergency protective orders through General District Court and 46 through Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, according to data compiled by the Supreme Court of Virginia.
Roanoke’s office also recorded 1,499 emergency orders specifically designated “family abuse” — the fifth highest out of 126 localities statewide. (The court does not track the number of emergency orders requested that are denied.)
Preliminary and so-called permanent protective orders can be harder to get. Data from 2017 suggest Roanoke’s General District Court is more liberal with granting “permanent” protective orders than preliminary ones, though the numbers are fewer.
In Sheppard’s rough estimate, only about half of survivors follow through to try to get longer-lasting orders. Sometimes, petitioners will request an order but drop their case, which could be one explanation for the disparity in the number of preliminary and permanent orders issued.
Roanoke judges granted 121 out of 123 petitions for permanent protective orders. The court also granted 115 of 290 preliminary protective order requests, or about 40 percent.
Statewide, out of 135 General District Courts, judges granted 47 percent of permanent order requests and about 65 percent of preliminary protective order requests, according to a Roanoke Times review of data.
Last year, Roanoke Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court received 397 requests for preliminary and permanent protective orders. (The data does not distinguish.) It issued 258, or 65 percent, of these petitions.
In Virginia, 126 juvenile and domestic relations courts received 16,310 preliminary and permanent protective order requests, and granted 15,785 of them, or 97 percent.
Victim blaming an issue
Some jurisdictions have a more “zero-tolerance” policy toward domestic violence than others, according to Sheppard, whose work extends across the Roanoke Valley. Still, she said, time and again she has seen bias and stereotypes about survivors of assault infect the system.
“Culturally, there’s a lot of victim blaming,” Sheppard said. “We see it at the magistrate’s office. We see it at the clerk’s. We see it in court.”
Within the past month, a magistrate denied an order to a woman who said she had been threatened but not physically assaulted, Gregory said. He says this has recurred over the six years of his work.
“They’re told, ‘Well, he didn’t hit you, he didn’t hurt you, so you can’t get a protective order.’”
Stephen Poff, chief magistrate for Roanoke, declined to discuss the office’s actions except to say that all practices are outlined in the Magistrate Manual. The manual cites the law, which at various points says direct threats of harm can warrant an order.
Recently, one Roanoke woman attempted to renew a two-year protective order because her ex-partner, who had abused her throughout the relationship, was coming out of jail.
“They would not extend my protective order because there was no imminent threat on my life,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation from her abuser.
She said individual discretion plays a major role in how the laws are applied.
“It’s all the flip of the coin,” said the woman.“You get the right cop. You get the right judge. You get the right time of day.”
The judge who granted her the first permanent protective order was helpful and understanding, she said.
Since the experience can be grueling, the woman said, people should be aware of the burdens the system requires of survivors of assault.
“My advice to someone getting a protective order is just keep fighting.”