NewsChannel 5 Investigates learned more about the case of two Tennessee women who helped inspire four bills meant to better protect domestic violence victims.
Marie Varsos and Debbie Sisco may have done everything to protect themselves, but family members said the pair continued to fall through the cracks of a broken system meant to protect domestic violence victims.
Marie's estranged husband Shaun Varsos murdered the mother and daughter April 12, 2021 before he turned the gun on himself.
Alex Youn — Marie’s brother and Debbie’s son — has spent months researching his family's tragic case from his home in San Francisco.
He said it’s hard to find even one element that went right.
Youn said he will never forget the April morning he woke up to a Facebook notification from Shaun Varsos. Youn programmed his phone to receive these notifications after Shaun assaulted his sister a month prior.
“I clicked into it, and I started reading the first couple lines. I quickly realized this was a suicide note,” Youn said.
The first few words read, “So Marie Varsos killed me. She lied to me and destroyed me. This is my dying declaration.”
Shaun described a tumultuous relationship with Marie’s family and how he was upset over an affair he claimed Marie had.
Marie already filed for divorce at the time and had moved in with her mother in Lebanon.
That April morning, Shaun parked his car across from Debbie's home. For 45 minutes, he waited for the first glimpse of Marie and Debbie before chasing them with a shotgun.
Marie and Debbie ran in-between homes while on the phone with 911 dispatchers. Marie was armed at the time and managed to shoot Shaun multiple times before he ultimately shot and killed both women.
Neighbors watched in horror as they described what was happening to dispatchers. Shaun drove off, leading Lebanon Police and Metro Nashville Police on a manhunt that ended when they discovered his car not far from their Nashville home. Shaun had sustained multiple injuries but died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
“I called my mother’s boyfriend. Eventually connected with him. I said, ‘is everything OK?’ He said no, it’s not OK,” Youn said.
He hung up the phone and began screaming.
“I don’t know what more anyone could have done to protect themselves,” Youn said.
It’s not so much a question for Youn as it has been a call to action. He said it starts with having a better understanding of how the family got here.
On March 7, 2021, Marie returned to the home she shared with Shaun in their Bellevue neighborhood. Shaun was waiting at the door, so Marie began recording on her phone and hid the phone in her pocket.
Marie asked Shaun to let her through, but Shaun insisted that she had no right to be there. A scuffle is heard before Marie tells Shaun she’s calling the cops. Shaun replied, “No, you’re not.”
“I probably called Marie maybe three to four times. Wasn’t able to get a response and eventually picked up,” Youn said.
Marie explained that Shaun had strangled her until she was unconscious. Marie woke up to Shaun holding her at gunpoint. She sat terrified for hours before Shaun eventually let her go. Marie later found out that Shaun had taken her cellphone out of her pockets and sent text messages to her friends claiming that Marie was willing to give the relationship another try.
“Shaun mentioned to Marie that if she told any law enforcement or talked to anyone at all that he would kill her, kill us and kill himself,” Youn said.
Youn and Marie went anyway to MNPD that night to file a report. Multiple calls to the Hermitage precinct show they waited nearly six hours before an officer finally arrived to take Marie’s statement.
Officers claimed they had no one available to take the statement at the precinct at the time. They charged Shaun with felony aggravated assault and misdemeanor false imprisonment. Police couldn't find Shaun, so Marie filed an order of protection.
There was just one problem. It would take several more hours for those warrants to appear on Shaun’s record.
Shirley Bean — the Deputy Chief of Civil Warrants Division for the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office — said deputies called Shaun that day and gave him the option of being served at the office or having deputies come to his home.
Shaun agreed to turn himself in. He picked up his papers and walked right back out, with two warrants for his arrest.
“I hate to put another victim in that particular spot, but that’s the law,” Bean said.
Nashville is one of few places where the sheriff’s office doesn't arrest criminals. They mainly handle civil cases. Police handle criminal cases, and there is no policy in place that requires the two departments to coordinate on warrants.
“It is as simple as a phone call, but also we can’t detain anybody,” Bean said.
It wasn’t until Marie tracked Shaun down at his mother’s house and told police that they arrested him two days later.
Once again, another setback.
Shaun was released on a $30,000 bond just six hours after his arrest and was told not to contact Marie as a condition of his release. State law requires domestic violence suspects to spend 12 hours in jail before posting bond. But that didn't happen in this case.
The sheriff's office admits someone made a mistake. They told Youn in an email that “because the releasing clerk (not an officer) posted the 12-hour hold in the wrong place when S Varsos posted bond, the 12-hour hold did not trigger, and he was held only six hours and released on 3/11/21. A victim notification was not completed in this case because of the releasing error.”
No one can seem to explain the mistake, but NewsChannel 5 Investigates learned they suspended the person who processed this document for one day as a result.
Youn sent NewsChannel 5 Investigates a recording of Marie where she called the sheriff’s office to ensure her contact information was up to date. What she didn’t know at the time is that she was not entered into the system for updates.
“I wanted to make sure my contact information was correct because both times when he was served with an order of protection and when he was arrested, I never got a notification,” Marie said.
Youn has since teamed up with Kathy Walsh of the Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic Violence. Together they’ve drafted four bills sponsored by legislators to protect victims in the future.
These bills are:
- SB2746/HB2533 (Sen. Dawn White/Rep. Bob Ramsey) Service of process
- SB2032/HB2006 (Sen. Becky Massey/ Rep. John Gillespie) Notifications by law enforcement regarding orders of protection
- SB2379/HB2020 (Sen. Page Walley/Rep. Clay Doggett) Setting of bail in domestic violence cases
- SB2615/HB2135 (Sen. Shane Reeves/ Rep. Bill Beck) GPS monitoring of a defendant
Coming up Wednesday, NewsChannel 5 Investigates heads to Capitol Hill as the team will dig deeper into what these bills could mean for Tennessee.
That includes updates from the Davidson County Sheriff's Office and Metro Nashville Police. We'll also hear from Youn as he testifies in front of lawmakers on why he believes these bills could ultimately save lives.