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Trigger warning: This article contains descriptions of graphic violence.
My sister Jessie decomposed in her home for four days in the Arizona summer, her bodily fluids pooling with those of her murderer and long-time partner, Dallas Augustine, who put a bullet first through my sister’s brain and then through her own.
The bullet that killed my sister entered near the top of her head from inches away and exited her lower jaw, destroying her beautiful face, before it lodged in her shoulder. Because her body slumped forward, the decomposition was advanced to the point she was unidentifiable without dental records. Her murderer remained upright with a single clean shot through her temple. That bullet was found in their couch.
The smell in the house was indescribable. The police removed the bodies and the evidence from the scene but left the ghastly clean-up to our family. Seemingly gallons of rotting blood soaked the floor. The professional cleaning crew couldn’t come right away, so we worked for days around the awful stain, the smell clinging to our clothes and imprinting us with another level of horror.
If you happen to see the "documentary" on my sister on the Discovery Channel's aptly nicknamed "murder porn" sister network, Investigation Discovery, I'd like you to know the reality of my sister's execution by the one who was supposed to love her best — versus the glossy production values of TV and the whispered innuendo of love gone wrong.
Investigation Discovery offers a salacious "real-life soap opera" that dramatizes extramarital affairs — stretching to include flirtations and suspicions of affairs — they twist to culminate in a murder.
The host is a sultry well-known soap opera actress who attempts a seductive narrative of passion and betrayal based on actual crimes. The half-hour plots are delivered via soft-focus reenactments and often silent overacting — likely to avoid paying SAG wages — interspersed with crime-scene photos and snapshots of victims and killers in happier times.
Murder is never in soft focus. There was nothing glamorous, sexy, or theatrical about the way my sister was executed in 2012.
On the show, crime "experts" in suits sit in front of authority-lending bookshelf props, describing events no one witnessed, offering commentary on the internal dialogue of dead people they never met. The story is slickly packaged and the reveal saved for the final minutes, though the police reports and news accounts have long been public record.
At the time, the medical examiner told me not to attempt to visually identify my sister's body because it would be too gruesome and disturbing to me, and to this day, I have never viewed pictures from the crime scene of her murder. But the Discovery Channel has, and they have now aired these blurred images for all the world's entertainment.
My family has lived with the reality of my sister's murder for two years. The details are seared in our brains, and the facts of the case are not in dispute. It wasn't about a bar flirtation or a love triangle gone wrong. It was about substance abuse, domestic violence, and access to a gun — the recipe for most domestic murders in this country.
My sister's killer was an unstable, depressive alcoholic with a history of violence and suicidal tendencies. She didn't value her own life, and when my sister finally had enough, her killer put a bullet in my sister's head rather than let her leave. Then she killed herself with the same gun and left us with no hope for justice.
We couldn't control the media then, and we can't control the continued exploitation of our sister's life and death by people who make their living on the backs of others' pain now. All we can do is tell the truth, and the truth isn't even close to the segment being aired. That is so far from the truth only the names carry any resemblance to actual events. Yet viewers recognize those names and think they know something about my family.
My family all declined to participate in the Investigation Discovery documentary once we saw the angle in which they were heading. To have done so would have been an insult to my sister's memory.
The reality is that Jessie's murder occurred on a quiet street in a quiet neighborhood. A neighbor heard a commotion, but didn’t investigate or call the police. Later, he would claim to the press they “fought like cats and dogs.” There were few signs of a struggle — a single broken plate, several empty liquor bottles, and a gun.
A gun that should never have been there.
Dallas Augustine graduated the week prior from the Arizona Department of Corrections Academy. She was scheduled to report to Florence maximum security prison the day the bodies were discovered. At the academy, they trained her to use firearms, including the type of firearm she used to murder my sister. The ADC has refused to tell us if they issued the murder weapon to the killer, but we found her firearms qualifications card among their affects, dated just days prior.
Whether they supplied the weapon or simply put one in her hand for training, they broke federal law and their own hiring policy. You see, Dallas was convicted of domestic violence in 2010 — two years before the murder.
She beat my sister outside a bowling alley in Henderson, Nevada. Our family didn’t know about the incident — many abused women keep such secrets from loved ones — but the Arizona Department of Public Service knew. We found their letter rejecting her on the basis of that conviction. She also had a history of DUIs, substance abuse, and financial instability. She owed the IRS over $80,000, and they were in the process of seizing her assets.
Why she was ultimately hired, we don’t know. The ADC won’t tell us, despite formal and informal inquiries. Barring a subpoena, they don’t have to.
I hope they asked themselves how it happened. I hope they conducted an investigation into hiring and screening policies to make certain prohibited persons aren’t hired, trained, and armed by the state. They did issue an $800 check to my sister’s estate, the total of Dallas’s retirement fund contributions. Otherwise they have been silent on the issue.
The night she was killed, Jessie was trying to leave. Her overnight bag was in her car and her bag was packed with her favorite jeans. She and Dallas had been fighting for months over an affair of Dallas’s. Some of the fights were physical, but I didn’t know this until the neighbor told the press.
I don’t know if Jessie was leaving for the night or for good. I don’t know how far she would have made it; they had both been drinking heavily. I will never know what her last moments were like: If she saw the gun, if she begged for her life, if she was terrified or furious, if she thought of us. Those thoughts will haunt my family always.
What we know with little doubt: If her murderer hadn’t illegally possessed a firearm, it would have been just another fight.
Which is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Investigation Discovery's re-traumatization of my family — a missed opportunity to influence change. Murder is not entertaining. Domestic violence is not romantic. Soft-focus reenactments and glib innuendo ensure voyeuristic detachment and prevent any chance to enhance understanding of this devastating national epidemic.
Certainly, the limits of human nature are fascinating to observe. When the context is so recklessly distorted, it is irresponsible in the extreme. It is dangerous to present these stories with no hint of a larger message — no domestic violence hotline, no appeal for substance abuse counseling — only ads for Clorox and Friskies aimed at the 30- to 60-year-old, mostly female demographic watching to convince herself she is safe because she can name the ways her life differs from those portrayed. The demand for this programming is as appalling as the supply and doesn't abate despite front-page headlines and national awareness campaigns about the real human cost of domestic abuse.
Jessie was my best friend, a vibrant, beautiful woman with a ready smile and an enormous love for life. She was sharp, funny, engaging, and fiercely loyal. At 50, she was still looking forward to the best of life. She loved to travel, to entertain, and to write. She never stopped looking for ways to be better, to live better, and to love better. She was determined and willful, too. She loved our brother and me with the ferociousness only an older sister can embody.
It was my sister's conscientiousness in the end that kept her from leaving a terrible situation until it was too late. She cared what happened to people.
By contrast, reality television has a very wobbly moral compass. There is the occasional phony nod to "getting help" or a smarmy veneer of fake concern is fronted. Maybe something about "awareness" is muttered by the host or an 800-number is flashed on the screen.
Perhaps,this is the one aspect in which I would applaud Investigation Discovery.
Because it doesn't bother pretending to have a conscience at all.