An American dream undone: Domestic violence in Calif.'s Del Norte County (Part 2)

By Emily Cureton and David Grieder 

To trace a cycle spanning generations, pick a point and follow it around, forwards and backwards through time. 

Try October 2, 2015.

Another 911 call about domestic violence reaches the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office. 

It’s a sunny morning in Klamath when DNSO Deputy Neal Oilar flips on his body camera in front of a neat blue two-story house on the Yurok Reservation, where a man is reportedly holding a woman against her will. 

Deputy Oilar and a partner are met by a man on the street. His name is Cliff Moorehead and he’s 30 years old. 

Moorehead tells the deputies that his wife’s emotions are out of control, and that’s why a passerby called 911. He denies wrongdoing. 

Deputy Oilar leaves Moorehead outside with his partner, walks up to the house and knocks.

Twenty-six year old Tara Williams opens the door.

“Hi Tara... What’s going on today?” he asks. 

“I don’t know,” she sobs. 

She says she isn’t married to Moorehead, but they live together with three kids. 

She says she’s scared. 

“Did he hold you against your will?” the deputy asks, referring to Moorehead.  

Tara nods: “I didn’t necessarily want to leave. I just wanted to go outside and get away from the situation.”

The deputy goes through a checklist of questions, the ones he’s required to ask victims of domestic abuse. 

He asks if she wants a ride to the emergency shelter, Harrington House. 

She says no, she doesn’t want to go back there again. 

He asks if she’s injured. 

She says no, and rolls up her sleeves to show her arms don’t have any marks on them. 

He asks if she wants an emergency protective order, a temporary measure to ban Moorehead from coming near her, or having firearms.

 To this she echoes, “I don’t know,” over and over. 

“I’m having a really hard time thinking right now,” she tells Oilar.

“I don’t want to lose my family. But I don’t want to be scared anymore,” she cries. 

She doesn’t tell the deputy that she’s gotten a protective order against Moorehead before. 

Meanwhile, the kids upstairs turn the TV volume up to blast. 

Before turning to leave, the deputy asks Tara again about getting that court protective order. 

“I’m just kind of scared of the retaliation,” she says.

“He’ll be going to jail,” the deputy assures.

“But when he gets out, he’ll be really mad,” she quietly counters.

“Well,” the deputy shrugs. “Alright.” 

He walks out and arrests Moorehead under suspicion of false imprisonment.   

Before the deputies take him to jail, Tara asks Oilar how long Moorehead will be there. 

“He’s going to be booked in. He’s going to stay for the day, probably the weekend. You go to court Monday,” the deputy says. 

In theory, that’s how it works. Accused people are supposed to be in front of a judge within 48 hours of arrest. This means prosecutors should have an arrest report as soon as possible, to decide whether or not to actually charge a defendant with any crimes before they’re released from police custody.

In reality, Moorehead pays $1,000 in bail and is released within hours of his arrest. The court date is set for a month later, not the following Monday. Meanwhile, the deputy’s all-important arrest report doesn’t reach the District Attorney’s Office for more than three weeks, on Oct. 29, when Moorehead is charged for crimes against Tara Williams that allegedly happened Oct. 2.  

Within days of charges being brought, Tara’s life was cut short. 

A truck she was driving home to Klamath from Crescent City careened over an embankment on U.S. 101, around Oct. 31. 

On Nov. 3, charges against Moorehead were dropped at the DA’s request.

Tara was buried on Nov. 6. 

Hitting home 

“There were probably 500 people at her funeral,” recalled Sandra Schwenk. 

Tara knew her as Koochas, the Yurok word for grandmother.

You can see a bend in the Klamath River from Schwenk’s house. A rich wood smell emanates from walls lined with baskets and traditional handicrafts. The pantry is full of smoked salmon, game meat and canned vegetables. 

Schwenk points to an outdoor table where her granddaughter used to fillet fish as a teenager. She remembers how quickly Tara mastered the tricky art of separating flesh from bone. 

Schwenk retired recently from her job as an outreach worker for the United Indian Health Services Clinic in Klamath, a position she said put her in lots of homes with DV going on.

“I had to handle them all differently. And I think I did a pretty good job, except for my own granddaughter.”

Schwenk said she felt powerless to influence Tara’s situation for a number of reasons, her granddaughter’s evasiveness key among them.

“When I’d ask her any questions, she would avoid the subject. If I started to say something, she would say something first to keep me from asking the question I wanted to ask,” Schwenk said. 

She described the first time she saw Tara with black eyes, more than five years ago.  

“I said, ‘Tara, what happened?’” 

She said, ‘Oh, I fell Koochas. I fell down the stairs.’” 

“I said, ‘It looks like it.’ Then, she knew that I knew.”

Schwenk said a lot of people knew. 

She said one of the hardest things to deal with now is the outpouring of regrets from community members since her granddaughter’s death. 

“Everyone that I talk to, starting out is always how great and beautiful she was, how wonderful she was, and how caring she was to her children. And then they say: ‘Oh, but I’m sorry she was abused, and I saw this or that happen to her,’ or ‘I saw the bruises on her.’” 

Schwenk said the people who tell her these stories “all have a sadness that seems like more than just her passing away, a sadness for the life she had to live.”

A history

Now a single parent, Moorehead has never been convicted, nor is he currently charged with any crimes against Williams. 

He did not respond to requests for comment on this story. The information here comes from court and police files. 

While apparently ready to proceed with the charges against Moorehead until Tara died, in a written statement to the Triplicate from December District Attorney Dale Trigg characterized the Oct. 2 arrest as a “no physical contact, no physical injury domestic violence incident involving a man with no history.”

Del Norte County’s Department of Child Welfare Services took at least four calls concerning the family since 2010, information also made available to prosecutors in October. 

Six years ago, Moorehead allegedly assaulted a cohabitating cousin, putting him in the hospital. The police were called and Moorehead reportedly fled. He was never arrested or criminally charged for the incident. 

The cousin got a temporary restraining order and filed a civil complaint, stating Moorehead “repeatedly beat me around the face and head,” while their grandmother and other family members were in the room. 

The cousin showed up for the first court hearing, but Moorehead didn’t. 

The case was soon dismissed by Superior Court Judge William Follett.

The judge recently reviewed the 2009 file and could not recall the exact reason for the dismissal. Possibly, he said, there was no proof that Moorehead had been notified of the proceedings, or maybe the victim did not file another restraining order application in time.

The system

Tara was no stranger to restraining orders, or the process for obtaining one. 

She went through it almost six years ago. 

“The last two years have been full of DV,” she swore on court documents filed May 2010.

She included detailed descriptions of alleged incidents, as requested by the form. 

Tara told of being choked and beaten by Moorehead in the presence of a child and his grandmother. She said she was called filthy names, that he threw rocks at her car until the windows cracked. 

She said she was frightened for her life, she said that “Cliff told me that day and many other times that if I ever run to any family and tell what he does to me that he will beat my face in and he will make sure no one else will ever want me.” 

The restraining order was granted swiftly, but it dissolved in three weeks, after she didn’t come back to court to re-apply. 

The couple got back together. 

Tara was soon pregnant again. 

At the time of her death, her relationship with Moorehead had lasted more than eight years. 

Kimi Donahue was a close friend for even longer. 

Donahue said the Williams family was her support system when she needed help out of an abusive relationship, but the tables turned when Tara moved out to live with Moorehead.

“She got to the point where she was too scared to even tell me they were fighting,” Donahue said of her friend. 

A sad ending

Moorehead reported Tara missing to DNSO around 9 p.m. on Oct. 31. 

A sheriff’s deputy talked to him over the phone and filed a report about it. 

According to the deputy’s report, Moorehead said Tara left Klamath around 11 a.m. and was expected back by 3 p.m. to go trick-or-treating on Halloween. When she never came back for the festivities, Moorehead and other family members started looking for her.

The next day, Moorehead found her body. It was nearly dusk on Nov. 1.

He flagged down a passing driver at a rain-slicked curve of U.S. 101 south of Crescent City and asked the driver to call 911, according to a California Highway Patrol investigating officer.

The dispatcher notified first responders of a single vehicle accident over the embankment. An ambulance was called off once a law enforcement officer reached Tara’s body.

“Probably been here all night. Cold and blue,” he radioed out.

By then, family members were gathered on the road. 

The California Highway Patrol investigated. Officer Ted Luna’s findings indicate Tara was thrown from the truck cab as it hurtled down the steep, wooded grade known as Crescent Hill. No seatbelt. Her body landed a good distance from where trees finally stopped the vehicle. Tara’s cell phone was recovered right next to her, indicating she may have been using it when she died. 

Provider Verizon did not cooperate with requests to access her phone records, according to Luna. 

He said CHP has no plans to force the issue.

Breaking the pattern

In the weeks after Tara’s death, two women sent a letter to the Triplicate about her. They wrote:

“We don't know if she took her life, after feeling trapped with no seeming way out of her situation. We do know that many women in our county and America go to bed every night with that feeling of hopelessness.”

Philip Williams said he doesn’t believe his daughter would have committed suicide.

“She had so much to live for at that moment,” he said. “Tara lived for her babies… And she had her career. She had dreams of a business. She was going to make that happen.”

Still, Philip agreed with the women who signed the letter that domestic violence affected his daughter’s life. Even before she met Moorehead. Before she was born.

“When I was born into this world, I was born into domestic violence. My father, he was born into domestic violence,” Tara’s father said.

“I used to hate myself. I used to question, “God, why? Why at two years old did I see my mom getting her teeth knocked out? What did I do to deserve that? And then how did I see that and still repeat the process?’ I didn’t do the things my dad did, but it’s still domestic violence.”

He said he changed his outlook and his ways after getting treatment; that anger management classes helped him understand a cycle fueled by insecurity. 

“I always thought my wife would leave me, like, it wasn’t real. When you feel like that, all you have left is control, to keep that person in your life. When you go to your classes, every person there, it’s always her fault: ‘She did this,’ and ‘She did that,’ and ‘She made me do it.’ When I matured, I realized that I made the choice to do that. I had to stop making those choices. I wanted to stop the generational trauma, to show them that it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Still, he said the deck is stacked against recovery: “Trying to escape the label of being an abusive man is difficult and a very long haul.”

He thought Tara stayed in an abusive relationship because she “saw her Dad change, so she thought Cliff could change.”

Philip said his daughter’s resolve was one of her most apparent qualities, that “she didn’t want to fail. She was not going to fail. She had that determination about her,” but that “When you’re a young family trying to live the American dream. It’s a stress on everybody. The American dream is just too hard to obtain.”

And when confronted with stress and violence, it’s difficult not to react likewise.

“That is the Klamath lifestyle. If you don’t protect yourself and what’s yours, the police aren’t going to protect you. You have no help from them, no help from the judicial system.”

Philip said living without drugs and alcohol makes it easier to keep his composure. 

Tara also made a difference. 

“She was a big part of me becoming a better person, a better father and a better man,” he said. 

“When she was 10 years old, I had done something and her mother told me I needed to apologize to the children… So I said, ‘OK. I’m sorry,’ And Tara said, ‘Dad, you’re not sorry.’ 

I said, ‘Yes I am,’ And she said, ‘Do you know what the definition of sorry is?’  And I didn’t. And she said: ‘Sorry means you’re never going to do it again.”

[This story was originally published by Del Norte Triplicate.]