NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The tragic story of Marie Varsos and Debbie Sisco inspired Tennessee lawmakers to draft several bills aimed at providing more protections for domestic violence victims.
Shaun Varsos killed his soon-to-be ex-wife, Marie, and her mother, Debbie, on April 12, 2021, before turning the gun on himself.
Victim advocates said while Marie did everything right to protect herself, it’s clear the current systems did not do enough to protect her.
Their names may be familiar, but Alex Youn knows these two women were more than their circumstances. They were his family.
“(Marie) was just the typical Tennessee girl who had dreams and loved watching sports,” Youn said.
His sister Marie was a Belmont graduate who found a love for medicine. As for their mother, friends described Debbie as more like family.
Their deaths left a huge hole not just for Youn, but for the whole community. These two women did everything they could to protect themselves. So how did the system fail them so badly?
For the last several months from his San Francisco home, Youn turned his grief into a relentless search for answers. He sent NewsChannel 5 Investigates six hours of Zoom calls with everyone from Metro Nashville Police to the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office. All with the same question. What went wrong?
“It wasn’t just one thing. It wasn’t two things. I can’t think of one thing that went right,” Youn said.
Marie returned to the home she shared with Shaun in their Bellevue neighborhood, a month before the murders. 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.
"Every day where one of these things remains not addressed is another day where someone else could experience this," Youn said.
Kathy Walsh — the executive director for the Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic Violence — said she’s lost count of how many bills she’s helped pass into law, but the number hovers somewhere around 200.
Now with Youn's help, she may have four more.
“Not only do we need strong laws and a strong response from law enforcement, but we also need resources for victims,” Walsh said.
The latest TBI report shows that law enforcement responded to 69,385 domestic violence cases in 2020, resulting in 90 murders.
Walsh said around the country one in every three women will be a victim of domestic or sexual violence in their lifetimes.
Here are the bills Walsh helped draft based on Marie and Debbie's story:
- SB2746/HB2533 (Sen. Dawn White/Rep. Bob Ramsey) Service of process: This requires a sheriff, deputy sheriff, or constable serving a summons, writ, process, ex parte order of protection to make reasonable efforts before or at the time of service to determine whether the offender has an outstanding criminal warrant. Shirley Bean of the DCSO said they did so in Varsos' care, but his warrants from Metro Nashville Police Department from the night before had yet to appear in their system. She said this is why Varsos managed to walk through their doors, accept his documents and walk out despite having two warrants out for his arrest. Police and deputies have agreed to meet and discuss ways to better communicate on these warrants since no policy exists that dictates both agencies must coordinate.
- SB2032/HB2006 (Sen. Becky Massey/ Rep. John Gillespie) Notifications by law enforcement regarding orders of protection: This requires law enforcement agency responsible for enforcing an order of protection to provide a person who obtained the order with information and a form to receive notifications when the offender is arrested for violating the order. They would also be notified when the person is released from custody. This requires a jailer or sheriff to maintain a record of the person’s request for notification and give immediate and prompt notice of such an arrest or release. NewsChannel 5 Investigates knows that Marie was not notified of Varsos' arrest days after he had strangled her and held her at gunpoint a month prior. Walsh said it’s one of the biggest obstacles for victims. Without proper notification, victims have no choice but to call day after day as Marie did.
- SB2379/HB2020 (Sen. Page Walley/Rep. Clay Doggett) Setting of bail in domestic violence cases: This requires bail be set at no less than twice what is typical for offenses charged when the then alleged victim is a domestic violence abuse victim and if the defendant strangled, attempted to strangle or made threats against the victim’s life. Varsos posted a $30,000 bond for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and false imprisonment. This bill would have at least doubled that given the physical and verbal threats made against Marie. Making it much tougher for an offender to be released before a court date.
- SB2615/HB2135 (Sen. Shane Reeves/ Rep. Bill Beck) GPS monitoring of a defendant: This requires the magistrate to order a defendant to carry or wear a GPS monitoring system device and, if able, pay the costs associated with operating that device and electronic receptor device for protection of the victim. Pertains to victims of domestic abuse and strangulation. Police said Varsos waited outside Debbie’s Lebanon home for 45 minutes on April 12, 2021, before shooting and killing both women. This bill could ensure police always know if a victim is in harm’s way. Connecticut began a similar pilot program in 2010 to monitor 168 high-risk domestic violence offenders. Three years later, not one had re-injured or killed a victim. The technology already exists in Davidson County, but its rarely used in domestic cases. Some lawmakers were nervous about any unintended consequences of such a bill, much less paying for it. Others said it needs to be broadened to apply to more domestic violence offenders.
If you or anyone you know needs help with escaping an abusive relationship, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at: 800-799-7233.