‘Families and neighbors need to open their eyes to cycle of abuse’
SPRING CITY—Culture would dictate that what happens behind closed doors between two romantic partners is considered private. We give two consenting adults space, even if they are family.
But what should we do if we sense something is wrong, that there are signs of abuse?
“An abuser conditions a victim to cover for them. And they are very good at it,” says Tammy Coates, mother of Kammy Mae Edmunds, who was murdered by her live-in boyfriend, Anthony Christensen, in 2017.
March 31 will be the fifth anniversary of her death. In memoriam, Coates started a local domestic violence organization called the Kammy Mae Foundation.
“We are trying to promote awareness of domestic violence” in our community, Coates says. “It’s so important that we get the word out there [for people] to be proactive in what’s going on in their neighborhoods.”
Coates hopes to be there for other women suffering in silence from abuse. Until Coates is able to get a women’s shelter set up in North Sanpete, she has been working with New Horizons, a women’s shelter in Richfield with a satellite business office in Ephraim.
The First Signs
One of the first signs her daughter was suffering from physical abuse occurred just after Anthony moved in with Kammy Mae in Mt. Pleasant. Her daughter said she had accidentally slammed her face into the vehicle’s gear shift. Then she changed her story, saying she had stepped out of her car upon pulling over, and had tripped and fallen face-first. “But no one does that,” Coates says. “You throw your hands out and catch yourself.”
When Coates saw Kammy Mae’s black eye, “It was like she had a boxer stunt right between the eyes.”
Coates begged her daughter more than once to tell her if Anthony was hitting her, but Kammy Mae would always deny it. “She swore, ‘I would tell you. I promise that he’s not hitting me.’”
Then Kammy Mae had an incident where she had a black eye, and the blood vessels in her eyes were broken. “She worked at Family Dollar, and she said, ‘I dropped a box on my face. I can’t believe I’m so clumsy.’”
“Then she had scratches on her neck and arms, and she said, ‘I was locking up. I was on my front porch, and I fell into the rose bushes.’”
Coates was angry that her daughter wasn’t tell her the truth. “It killed me. I was trying to get her out of there, and I couldn’t believe that she wouldn’t leave. He would do it again, and she would just lie to me.”
Since Kammy Mae’s death, Coates has done a lot of research on domestic violence and has a better understanding of what her daughter was going through during the last few months of her life. She now understands that Kammy Mae’s maternal instinct had kicked in. She acted as a shield to protect her two children, as well as other members of her family. including Coates.
The Cycle of Abuse
Domestic violence occurs in a cycle—abuse occurs, which is followed by making amends.
After hitting her one night, Anthony would come the next day, tail between his legs, and say, “I’m clean, I’m sober. I’m not going to do that again. I’m going to make my life better,” Coates says.
And then, without fail, the cycle would repeat.
Often the abuser is outwardly charming to prevent observers from becoming suspicious.
“Anthony was a brilliant liar. He could charm and lie to anyone,” Coates said. “I thought he was just an arrogant idiot the way he acted.”
But behind closed doors, or in the privacy of an online chat, an abuser becomes a different beast. He has a special kind of radar to draw in the right kind of victim, someone who will be submissive, someone he can isolate from friends and family, and ultimately control.
“Kammy Mae had been trained by her kids’ dad,” Coates says. Donny Lopez, who has since passed away, had a problem with alcoholism and a tendency towards violence. “Kammy Mae had finally gotten away from him, and she had made it back to Sanpete County.”
From the Outside
A lot of people don’t understand why a victim of abuse can’t just leave, Coates says, “but they have no financial way to leave. They may not have a vehicle, and if they leave, they may never see their kids ever again.”
To compound the problem, Kammy Mae was paralyzed by fear. “People don’t understand the brainwashing and the crap an abuser will put you through.”
Over time, Kammy Mae had lost her self-esteem. “Abusers make victims feel like they (the abusers) are the only person who will trust them or have anything to do with them,” Coates says. “Ninety percent of victims just want someone to love them. He makes it feel like it’s her fault, that she deserved it” (the abuse).
Coates’ daughter continued to be drawn to Anthony like a moth to a florescent bulb. He ratcheted up the sweet talk, convinced her to rent a place of her own, and soon they had the goal of living together. But the living arrangement would only last two and a half months.
Friday, March 31, 2017
When Coates was expressed concern about her daughter’s recent clumsiness, Kammy Mae agreed to go to the doctor. The doctor recommended an MRI, which needed to be scheduled at a future time. But the very night after the doctor visit, at 3 a.m. on Friday, March 31, 2017, neighbors heard loud voices and screaming next door. They thought it was just a cat and didn’t bother to look out their window.
Later that morning, police received a call from a distraught Anthony Christensen, who claimed he had found his girlfriend’s body in the bathroom upon waking up that morning.
But forensic evidence indicated that sometime during the night, Anthony had caused her death using blunt force trauma to the head and that he had tried to cover up the crime.
Detectives also discovered Christensen had previous convictions in Wyoming for violent offenses. Within 24 hours, he was arrested for the murder.
It would take three years for Christensen to plead guilty. The plea occurred only after the prosecution was able to establish that Christensen was a “habitually violent offender.” He was sentenced to five years to life on the charge. At that point, he realized he was going to prison for a long time, even in the unlikely event a jury found him innocent of murder. He dropped his demand for a trial and pleaded guilty.
Building a Foundation
Through her tears, Coates showed a stiff upper lip at Kammy Mae’s funeral in April 2017.
“My daughter did not die in vain. She’s not going to be silenced by this. We are going to be her voice,” she said at the time.
Coates held fundraisers in Fairview, Spring City and Mt. Pleasant for the Kammy Mae Foundation. In 2017, then Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox spoke at the fundraiser in Spring City.
In November 2020, the organization held a clothing drive and received more than a truckload of items from people throughout Utah. Coates gave everything they received to the New Horizons women’s shelter in Richfield.
In addition, her family and friends have marched in local parades in Kammy Mae’s name.
“Kammy Mae is not the only victim of domestic violence murder in Sanpete County,” Coates says. “I don’t know if people are aware of it, but it’s happening right under our noses, and we’re not doing enough.”
Women who find themselves in an abusive or toxic relationship need assistance from trusted friends to get out.
“The most dangerous time for domestic violence is in their attempt to leave,” Coates says. “They have to make a plan. It has to be secretive. They shouldn’t tell anyone that they don’t trust.”
Kammy Mae’s children have lived with Coates since July 2020 when their father, Donny Lopez, died, and both are doing well. Despite emotional scars from their mother’s violent death, Franky, now 17, goes to online school and has a part-time job he enjoys. Sophya, 9, is habitually happy but, from time to time, still gets sad and misses her mom.
Presently, the New Horizons shelter, although located in Richfield, serves battered women throughout Sanpete County.
If you or someone you know is experiencing signs like Kammy Mae and needs help with a domestic violence situation, contact New Horizons or Coates at http://kammymaefoundation.weebly.com/contact.html.
The phone number for the national domestic violence hotline is (800) 799-7233.