Without cooperation, charges are unlikely

Published May 24, 2007

The latest turmoil surrounding Elijah Dukes has raised many questions about the Devil Rays rookie outfielder. And, for some, maybe just as many about his estranged wife.

Why did NiShea Gilbert stay in an embattled relationship so long? Why did they marry after years of problems and paternity suits? Why did she not attempt to extend several temporary restraining orders that she sought, and received, since September.

And why, after she said he came to her middle school classroom and threatened to kill her and their children, then threatened her again on her answering machine, did she call the St. Petersburg Times instead of the police?

The answer, Gilbert says, is because she wants him to get the help he needs without affecting his baseball career.

"I don't want to see him go to jail," said Gilbert, who met with her attorney Wednesday to discuss filing for divorce. "He needs help. ... I really think this is going to help him. One day he will thank me."

She added, "It's a cry out for help for my husband because I've gone to the Devil Rays and his agent."

Linda Osmundson, executive director of Community Action Stops Abuse, said people in abusive relationships hesitate to press charges for a multitude of reasons. They may rely on their partner for financial security. Or they find it difficult to send a loved one to jail.

"This is criminal behavior on the part of anybody," she said. "And to have it done by someone who has pledged to love you makes it doubly scary."

The latest restraining order against Dukes, granted May 17, goes to court May 30. Of the three since September, one was thrown out because she didn't show up to the hearing, another was absolved when the couple agreed to counseling and the other was dismissed because the court said she waited too long to file.

When she did follow up in October 2004, she got a yearlong domestic violence injunction.

Gilbert, a teacher at Beth Shields Middle School in Ruskin, says she married Dukes because she wanted their children to grow up in a two-parent home.

"(It) has to do with the kids, " she said, "the kids trying to have an actual father- and mother-type of environment like the one I grew up in."

But she now says the only reason Dukes married her was to avoid paying child support. In 2004, according to Gilbert, he was ordered to pay $1,333 a month, which included payment toward $23,337 in back support, for their first child. When their second child was born in June 2005, she was added to the child support request.

Shortly thereafter, Dukes proposed, and they wed in February 2006. The second child was never added to the support order because they were married and Dukes acknowledged paternity. A request by Dukes to get the remaining support canceled was denied around the time Gilbert filed for divorce three months later (which she later withdrew).

Two months ago, the remaining child support was dropped, and the back payment waived, after mediation. Now, Gilbert said, Dukes does nothing to support the children. He moved out of the couple's Brandon townhouse nearly a month ago and, according to Gilbert, has not seen the children, ages 3 and 23 months, since.

"I work every day to support myself and my kids," she said. "If he would just take care of his kids, there would be no problem."

Despite Gilbert's frightening account of her husband's behavior, including, she said, a picture of a handgun sent to her cell phone, police say there's little they can do unless she files a complaint.

Hillsborough County sheriff's Sgt. Trey Hassell, who has investigated domestic violence complaints for more than 20 years, said his agency is inundated with such cases. In most, the cooperation of the victim is essential.

"For us to seek out a victim when we've got so many people who are legitimately looking for our help ... we've got to have the cooperation of the victim," he said.

Hassell said that without Gilbert's input, police would have difficulty knowing how to proceed. For example, there's nothing illegal about sending someone a picture of a gun.

"We've got to hear her say that was intended as a threat," he said. "Otherwise, as far as we know, he's showing her a picture of the new gun he bought."

According to statistics cited by CASA, about one-third of all calls to law enforcement are related to domestic violence.

In Florida, police are required to make an arrest if they find physical evidence of violence when called to a scene, Hassell said.

But cases typically fall apart if victims won't help law enforcement.

"A lot of times they'll call us to get the violence to stop," Hassell said. "But by the time I get there, they realize, 'How am I going to pay the rent next month if he's going to jail?'"

Times staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report.