Laura Miller left her ex-husband only once before she learned another fact about domestic violence: Leaving an abuser increases the risk of homicide by 75 percent.
George Rodriguez, Miller’s ex-husband and father to her three daughters, had been a jealous type but not violent during eight years of marriage in Albuquerque, N.M. “We scuffled for car keys after he’d been drinking, once,” recalled Miller.
Over time, however, Rodriguez’s drinking escalated and he grew increasingly belligerent. “He broke light bulbs. He flipped over the couches,” Miller said.
Knowing women who were beaten by their spouses, Miller considered herself lucky. “I thought, ‘He’s not hitting me,’” she said. “And I didn’t think I could make it on my own. I had nothing, no one. I’d never worked.”
But Rodriguez’s drunken tirades and badgering worsened, and Miller finally told him it had to stop or she would leave. He told her that if she ever did, he would kill her and their kids.
By February 2009, Miller could not take any more. She moved to Oklahoma City to be near her family, asking Rodriguez to stop drinking before joining her. Instead, he phoned her daily to come back. Other times, he would call drunk and sing death threats onto her voice mail.
Experts says it’s not surprising that Miller took so long to take action.
The Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault’s Jennifer McLaughlin said she’s observed a pervasive expectation that victims can stop abusive behavior. “We have a vested interest in sometimes blaming victims,” she said. “We don’t want to think it could happen to us or someone we love.”
Under the pretext of seeing his young daughters, Rodriguez visited Oklahoma City, but his attention remained fixed on Miller. When she refused to sleep with him, he destroyed her clothes and scrawled “fuck you” across her mattress in his blood. Knowing he was leaving the next day, Miller chose to stay quiet rather than stir his ire.
But then the phone calls resumed immediately. Hoping he might move on, Miller finally told him she had started dating. The questions intensified: Was she having sex? Where? How often? Did she like it? Desperate to stop the harassment, Miller told Rodriguez that if he didn’t stop drinking, they’d never speak again.
“I’m going to pour gasoline on you and set you on fire so no one will ever want to be with you again,” he answered.
Miller reflected soberly, “The longer you stay in something bad, the worse it gets.”
Out of control
A week later, on March 9, 2010, Miller was at school finishing paperwork for her nursing license when her daughter texted, “He’s here.”
Panicked, Miller rushed home to find Rodriguez in her backyard, shredding her new clothes. She begged him to stop. “I’ve got something for you,” he said, reaching behind him. Miller dashed for the fence, but Rodriguez caught her arm, splashing her with gasoline from a Sprite bottle. She batted at his hands as he fumbled for a lighter.
He managed to spark it.
Flames shot up over Miller’s head. “It sounded like when you light a grill,” she said.“Woosh.”
She tore off her flaming shirt and threw herself into the pricker-grass. “You couldn’t even walk in this field,” said Miller, “and here I was rolling in it.” She had to put her face out with her hands.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez was trying to light the side of the house. Miller ran through the living room, grabbed her girls, and raced down the street covering her naked torso. She darted into the first open door and called the police.
“I looked in the mirror and saw black, peeling,” she said. “My skin was falling off.”
Rodriguez was arrested at the scene and later sentenced to life plus 24 years.
Miller suffered third-degree burns over 30 percent of her body. Fifteen surgical procedures later, masses of scar tissue prevent her from holding her head upright, clasping with her hands, or sleeping more than a few hours at a time. She and her daughters live on $740 a month from Social Security.
“I already went through this,” Miller said, referring to her financial straits when first separated from Rodriguez. “We shouldn’t have to still live like this.”
A nursing position awaits her at the University of Oklahoma, but her injuries restrict her from performing the work. With further skin grafts, however, her plastic surgeon predicts she can resume a normal life.
The Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault is hosting a benefit Thursday to raise the remaining $7,615 needed for Miller’s reconstructive surgeries. To show support, stop by Kamp’s 1910 Cafe, 10 N.E. 10th from 5 to 8 p.m., where 10 percent of sales will be donated to Miller’s fund.
Editor’s note: Additional tax-deductible donations can be made by check payable to Laura Miller, and mailed to:
3815 N. Santa Fe Ave., Suite 124
Oklahoma City, OK 73118.