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story.lead_photo.caption Laura Webb, run over twice and left for dead three years ago, said she was unprepared for the roadblocks that awaited her after she was physically able to start rebuilding her life. - Photo by Benjamin Krain

Laura Webb was lost in thought.

Photo by Staton Breidenthal
Rep.Charlotte Douglas (left), R-Alma, asks a question Wednesday morning during a meeting of the legislative Administrative Rules and Regulations Subcommittee about changes to the Child Maltreatment Central Registry in this file photo.
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A few strands of long mahogany hair slipped over her left eye. She didn't blink; only stared out the wall of windows in the sunroom that opens to acres of woods behind her recently built, ranch-style brick home.

Snapping out of her trance, Webb shifted in a red canvas lawn chair. The only other furniture in the new home was a matching seat to her left.

Her lips curved, and permanent crinkles around her mouth gave evidence to Webb's humor and the attitude with which she faces life.

"I bought these fine pieces special for today," she said, laughing.

The humor flitted across her face, only to be quickly overtaken by a tightened grimace, the nervous twitch of her left hand and sheer panic in her deep-brown eyes.

"You can't put where I live," she emphasized, leaning forward. "And you can't say where I work. He'll find me. One day, he will come for me again."

Three years ago on a spring day, Webb was in a medical helicopter fighting for her life after her husband, Mitchell Webb, ran over her twice with his truck and left her for dead during a weekend getaway at Mount Magazine State Park in Logan County.

What followed for Laura Webb was an intensive-care unit stay, months of treatment and dozens of surgeries to rebuild her body, followed by endless therapy and grueling counseling sessions that still continue. Her diminished lung capacity, permanently damaged bones and fragile emotional health are a lifetime sentence.

Mitchell Webb, a law enforcement agent with the U.S. Postal Service, was sentenced to three months in the Logan County jail.

He was convicted by a jury in May 2013 of third-degree domestic battery, driving while intoxicated and leaving the scene of an accident involving personal injury or death.

"He had no empathy. None," Laura Webb said. "He was a sociopath with a federal badge."

When contacted, Mitchell Webb said he did not want to talk about his past with his ex-wife.

"This situation is over and done with for me," he said. "My testimony was 100 percent true, and that's all I'm going to say."

Her Champion

In 2012 -- the year Laura Webb nearly died and the latest for which statistics are available -- Arkansas ranked 17th in the nation in domestic-violence deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An estimated 420,000 women and 375,000 men in Arkansas have been victims of physical abuse, rape or stalking by an intimate partner at some point in their lives, CDC statistics show.

There were 154 domestic-violence homicides in Arkansas from 2003 to 2012, according to FBI statistics. The same statistics show that of the 358 female homicide victims in Arkansas from 2003-2012, 106 died as a result of domestic violence.

Arkansas had a female domestic-violence homicide rate of 1.34 deaths per 100,000 women in 2012. By comparison, Illinois -- the state with the lowest rate -- had a domestic-violence homicide rate of .27 death per 100,000 women.

Arkansas has seen its fair share of high-profile domestic-violence homicides.

On New Year's Eve 2011, 21-year-old mother of three Laura Aceves was shot in the head in her Berryville apartment with her newborn baby lying by her side.

Before her slaying, Aceves had reported repeated assaults and had obtained a restraining order against her ex-boyfriend, Victor Acuna-Sanchez. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison after pleading guilty to first-degree murder.

This year, LaRonda McElroy, 28, died from multiple gunshots in the early morning hours of April 13. She was found lying in her front yard in the 700 block of West 29th Street in Pine Bluff. Her boyfriend, Chris Fletcher, was arrested and is facing a capital-murder charge.

Nena Bolton shot and killed her husband, Larry Bolton, on Sept. 15, 1998. On June 15, 2006, six months after she was released from an Arkansas prison, she stabbed her grandfather, McNeil Mayor Ralph Ward, to death as he sat in his recliner. Nena Bolton is serving a 30-year prison sentence for that slaying.

The daunting statistics and horrifying stories make Webb fighting mad.

"It's past time to change things," she said, her hands curling into fists. "It's a societal problem. It was really hard for me to understand."

Webb said she was unprepared for the roadblocks that awaited her after she was physically able to start rebuilding her life.

She and her mother, who was living with Laura and Mitchell Webb, temporarily lost their home. She had to face her ex-husband in criminal court. Then, he sued her for alimony because he no longer had a job because of the charges.

"Can you believe that?" her sister, Beth Moore, asked, throwing her hands in the air.

"It wasn't that he assaulted Laura and left," said another sister, Leslie Boone. "He kept assaulting her. He's still assaulting her."

In frustration, Webb took to her computer keyboard. She pounded out a letter to legislators and leaders, asking "Who will be my champion?"

Rep. Charlotte Douglas, R-Alma, answered the call to action.

"I will be your champion," she wrote.

Changing Lives

Webb and Douglas have been inseparable since the day they met in June 2013, both passionately forging full speed ahead.

Both are schoolteachers. Both are bulldogs.

Webb has gone from an unassuming, quiet life to becoming a voice for domestic-violence victims in Arkansas and around the nation. She has worked diligently by Douglas' side along with law enforcement officials, judges and many other legislators to bring new laws to the state to combat the epidemic.

Webb has told her story hundreds of times in hundreds of venues.

"As a legislator, we get thousands of letters, all asking us for help," Douglas said. "For some reason, Laura's spoke to me. I cannot explain it. There was just something in her voice."

Having had no personal experience with domestic violence, the first question Douglas asked Webb was, "What do we need to do to fix it?"

Two years later, at the end of this year's legislative session, Webb and Douglas -- as well as Aceves' mother, Laura Ponce -- stood behind Gov. Asa Hutchinson as he signed one of about half a dozen new domestic-violence laws, an unprecedented number from one session.

Act 877 of 2015, sponsored by Douglas and known as "Laura's Law" in honor of Aceves, requires police to ask victims a set of questions to assess their level of risk of being killed in a domestic dispute. The lethality assessment is intended to help officers identify those most at risk and increase intervention efforts.

Act 876 of 2015, sponsored by Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville and co-sponsored by Douglas, allows for victimless prosecution of domestic-violence cases. Prosecutors and law enforcement officials now have the power to investigate and prosecute related crimes without the victim having to testify.

Act 952 of 2015, sponsored by Douglas, requires Arkansas schools to include dating-violence awareness in their health curriculums. The hope, Douglas said, is to make teenagers aware of the early signs of abusive behavior.

Act 873, sponsored by Douglas, is known as "Laura's Card" in honor of Laura Webb. It requires law enforcement to hand out a victim's-rights and resource card on each domestic-violence call.

Act 608 of 2015, sponsored by Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, and Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, allows domestic-violence victims to have a voice at offenders' parole hearings.

Act 304 of 2015, sponsored by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs; Rep. Marshall Wright, D-Forrest City; and Douglas House, R-North Little Rock, criminalizes the distribution of photographs, videos or audio recordings of a sexual nature of a family member or a person in a current or former dating relationship.

Arkansas Code Annotated 9-15-103 (4) was amended to include in-laws in the definition of family members who can obtain orders of protection from domestic-violence offenders.

"This is huge. Spectacular," said Rebekah Tucci, the director of the domestic-violence program at the Administrative Office of the Courts.

"I think the lethality assessment was the top law passed this year, but it goes hand in hand with the victimless prosecution law.

"Police officers and prosecutors can move forward and pretend like they don't have to have the victim there to testify. In doing this, it makes it easier for the victim to leave the abuser. They're not going to be relied upon for evidence. When I saw that had passed, I started dancing."

Never-ending Battle

For all the success the past legislative session, Douglas said the fight is just beginning.

She was disappointed that her push to establish a domestic-violence registry in the state did not pass. Such a registry would allow the public access to information on whether a person has had an order of protection filed against him.

Funding for the initiatives also will always be an issue, Douglas said.

"Our focus needs to be more proactive. We need to get in on the early stages," Douglas said.

"We need to develop more programs and get more people involved. We have to keep fighting."

Tucci said her job is not to advocate for victims or abusers, but to educate the judiciary to make sound decisions concerning domestic violence.

"We need to ask what are the dynamics and how can we provide them to judges so they can make evidence-based decisions," Tucci said.

A University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service student, Tucci's ultimate goal is to establish a Family Justice Center.

Tennessee has been on the forefront of a similar initiative, offering one-stop access for domestic-violence victims to obtain orders of protection, get legal services, talk to a prosecutor and obtain help with food and child care.

"In Arkansas, you have to go to five different places, and sometimes victims don't have access to transportation. This makes it easier," Tucci said. "Arkansas is not only trying to catch up, but after this last session I believe we're now ahead of the game."

As for Webb, her fight -- for herself and for other victims -- will last her lifetime.

"He's a waiter ... He is trained to wait until just the right time to pounce. I'm always going to have to be looking over my shoulder," Webb said of her ex-husband. "I didn't want to be the face of domestic violence. It wasn't my choice."

"You may have been meant to speak out," Moore, her sister, chimed in.

Webb gazed straight ahead, then she and her sister let out simultaneous delighted squeals as a roadrunner crossed in front of them.

"You know ... through everything, every turn, there was always some sort of angel there for me. There was always an escape route, an answer, divine intervention," Webb said. "Maybe this is my calling. This is where God is leading me. Maybe I am supposed to be someone else's champion now."

SundayMonday on 05/24/2015

Print Headline: For survivor, changing laws, lives now a calling

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