Break the Cycle: Woman who shot abusive husband urges domestic violence survivors to get help early

Domestic Violence Awareness

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Four years of severe abuse led to what Breanna Sullivan called a “fight or flight” moment in her marriage in 2017.

The 21-year-old mother was no stranger to pain. She’d been married to her husband, Antonio, for four years. They shared a 3-year-old daughter and a home, but their life was not happy.

Court records show that Sullivan’s husband frequently abused her, leading to black eyes, bruises, and hospitalizations. Her husband was charged with domestic assault three times. The charges were dropped each time, and the couple reconciled.

“I stayed because I was like, oh this idea that we’re going to have a family, a kid, all of that,” Sullivan said.

Their life together ended on July 16, 2017, when Sullivan shot and killed her husband during an argument. In an interview with 10 On Your Side, Sullivan said she tried to leave their Virginia Beach apartment with her daughter, but her husband wouldn’t let her. She said he threatened to kill her, and she was afraid for her life.

“He said, ‘I’m going to kill you,'” Sullivan said. “I tried to take my daughter, then he said, ‘No you’re not.’ He stepped forward with his fist raised, said he was going to hit me, and I shot him.”

The Virginia Beach Police Department arrested Sullivan and charged her with murder. That charge was later dropped to voluntary manslaughter. A Virginia Beach Circuit Court judge tried Sullivan’s case in December 2018. The judge reviewed the long history of abuse and trauma that Sullivan experienced, including medical records and pictures of her injuries.

“It was a raw moment, having all that footage shown,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan’s attorney argued that the shooting was self defense. The judge ultimately found Sullivan not guilty.

“I’m a very rare statistic,” Sullivan said. “On one side of it, fighting back its still very often the victim ends up killed, when you do try to fight back. Even if you don’t, most of the women I’ve been able to connect with who have been through something like me, they didn’t get the not guilty.”

10 On Your Side reached out to Antonio Sullivan’s mother, Ellen Hollie. She issued the following statement:

First, I want to say that I am sorry for what Bre had experienced, and I also wanted to say that my family, we are having a difficult time dealing with the death of Antonio. For me, in order to make it through the day, I lean on Jesus for strength. For the people watching the news, if they are in a domestic violence relationship, that they do not try to take action into their own hands, if they can get out of a dangerous situation they’re in, do that first, then reach out to a domestic violence crisis hotline. I can’t stress enough that a person in a domestic relationship get out as soon as possible for everyone involved. Get out and seek help.”

Ellen Hollie

Jonathan Yglesias, policy director for the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, said that stories of survivors fighting back, and sometimes killing their abusers, were more frequent between the 1970s and the 1990s. At that time, domestic violence wasn’t recognized as a serious issue.

“There were a lot of women who were fighting back and killing their abusers, and [they] were being prosecuted for those crimes,” Yglesias said.

Those cases became rarer as more survivor services became available; however, advocates in Virginia have noticed an alarming trend during the coronavirus pandemic. As people are sheltering in place during the pandemic, domestic violence incidents are on the rise — and the number of survivors fighting back is increasing.

“While survivors and victims are being forced to shelter in place with their abusers during the pandemic … we’re also seeing an increase in the number of survivors who are choosing to fight back, and are sometimes using lethal means to do so,” Yglesias said.

Kristen Pine, chief program officer and co-director of the YWCA in Norfolk, said advocates in her office are noticing survivors fighting back more frequently, as well. She said that data on domestic abuse survivors fighting back isn’t commonly tracked, but advocates in Norfolk have seen a 45% increase in danger shelter placements and a 57% increase in crisis hotline calls since the start of the pandemic.

“When you are sitting at home with your abuser, and the violence is escalating, that’s when we see people really having to defend themselves,” Pine said.

Although the coronavirus has made many challenges more difficult, domestic violence advocates across the state are working to offer emergency shelter and services to help survivors find a safe escape.

“You can start to imagine your life not with that abuse. We’re open. We’re here. There are options,” Pine said.

Sullivan said her message to survivors is one of encouragement — encouragement to escape an abusive relationship as early as possible and before it escalates to a deadly encounter.

“This isn’t a good ending. It’s just a safe one. Try to get the safe ending that is actually good, years before this situation comes up,” she said.

If you believe you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence or child abuse, 10 On Your Side has compiled a list of local and national resources to help you.

For the full list of resources, click here.

10 On Your Side has compiled a list of local and national resources for residents to fight and prevent domestic violence and child abuse.

In the United States, about 1 in 4 women and nearly 1 in 10 men have experienced intimate partner violence (IPV) including sexual violence, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Domestic Violence Prevention Resources

10 On Your Side is committed to help Break The Cycle of domestic violence in Hampton Roads. 

Here is a link to all of the local groups or agencies we have highlighted. The page also shares testimonials of survivors.

Here are some local and national resources for victims in need of help.

Transitions Family Violence Services in Hampton

YWCA South Hampton Roads in Norfolk

Avalon Center in Williamsburg

  • Phone: 757-258-5022
  • Offers transitional housing, emergency shelter, youth services, legal advice, and counseling.
  • 24-hour Crisis Hotline: 757- 258-5051

Samaritan House Inc. in Virginia Beach

  • Phone: 757-631-0710
  • Offers counseling, emergency shelter placement, and safety planning.
  • 24-hour Crisis Hotline 757-430-2120

HER Shelter in Portsmouth

  • Phone: 757-485-1445
  • Offers emergency services, court assistance, shelter, employment, housing assistance.
  • Hotline: 757-485-3384

National Domestic Violence Hotline1−800−799−7233

Virginia Domestic Abuse Hotline1-800-838-8238

About 11 million women and 5 million men who reported experiencing sexual violence, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime said that they first experienced these forms of violence before the age of 18.

At least 1 in 7 children have experienced child abuse or neglect in the past year and in 2018 nearly 1,770 children died of abuse and neglect in the United States, according to the CDC.

Prevent Child Abuse America – Coronavirus Resources & Tips for Parents, Children & Others.

Child abuse and neglect are serious problems that can have lasting harmful effects on its victims. For more information on preventing child abuse and neglect check out resources from the CDC or call The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 for help.


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