Trigger warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of domestic violence and the deaths of children.
To the outside world, Mary Jean Pearle was living the perfect life. Her charming, handsome husband of seven years made a good living as a CPA. She was an antique dealer living in one the wealthiest enclaves in Texas with two beautiful daughters. But behind the walls of her fashionable Highland Park home, her life was turning into a private hell.
She had noticed flashes of John Battaglia’s temper early in the relationship. He could be fun and giving, but those sparks of temper worried Mary Jean. Battaglia became verbally abusive. She was encouraged to “work it out” by well-meaning family and friends. How could she throw away her perfect family?
Mary Jean tried harder. She suggested counselling, but Battaglia refused. The vicious verbal tirades lasted longer and longer, until he would rant at her for up to 20 minutes, calling her every name in the book.In an interview with Deborah Roberts of ABC News Mary Jean detailed the incident that convinced her to leave.
“He got real close, and his eyes were bulging out, and veins, and the whole thing, and he said ‘I’ll knock your fucking head off, bitch…And I said, ‘John you need to step back.’ And he got about an inch closer. So he’s about an inch from my face and he screamed it again at me, and so I stood up and I turned to the bathroom, and I walked in there, picked up the phone, called 911.”
She left. But as victims of domestic violence know, leaving doesn’t make you safer. Statistics show that leaving is actually the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship. The intensity of the assaults ramps up as does the stalking and controlling behavior. 60% of dating violence and a quarter of all murders of women occur after the abused partner has left.
Leaving didn’t protect Mary Jean Pearle. Christmas 1999, Battaglia arrived to visit with the girls. Although the girls had witnessed the abuse their father heaped on their mother, he had never raised a hand to the girls and had full visitation. At some point during that Christmas day, Battaglia became angry. Pearle would later recall, “I saw him coming, and so I just grabbed my head and I fell onto Liberty’s mattress, and I covered my head. He was just pounding on me as hard as a man can pound on, on the back of my head. And I’m screaming ‘Call 911! Call 911!’”
He beat Mary Jean with his fists, pulled her hair, threw her to the floor and kicked her. All the while, the girls were crying and begging him to stop. Although she was black and blue, Mary Jean refused to let paramedics take her to the hospital. She insisted on cooking Christmas dinner for the family and trying to pretend everything was okay.
Battaglia plead guilty to Assault Causing Bodily Injury, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. He was placed on two years’ probation. He was forbidden to have contact with Mary Jean and for 30 days he was not allowed to visit the girls. Then the visitations were resumed.
Mary Jean felt protected. She still worried Battaglia might harm her but “I really thought it was only directed at me. I never thought he’d hurt the children.” In fact, a study of ‘intimate partner homicides’ found that 20% of the victims were not the abused partners themselves but other family members, neighbors, friends, or first responders. Abusers often use children as a means to control their partners, treating them as hostages to the adult drama.
At the time she married John Battaglia, Mary Jean was unaware of his dark past. She knew he had been married before. He only told Mary Jean that there had been ‘an argument’ between him and his prior wife, but the truth was so much worse. Battaglia was extremely abusive and violent with his first wife, Michelle.
Once, while arguing in the car with Michelle, he tried to get at a gun. He was violent with her son from a previous marriage and even hit Michelle while she was holding their infant daughter, Kristy, causing her to drop the baby. After she left him, he stalked her. He made false credit reports. He called her employer and showed up at her work. He tapped her phone. He showed up at her home, banging on doors and windows in spite of a protective order forbidding him to be there. Although Michelle made reports, there weren’t stalking laws at the time and there was little the police could or would do.
One night, she woke with him standing over her, knife in hand, wanting to have sex. She refused and to her relief, he left. January 1987, He chased her on the highway and tried to force her car off the road.
He called one of the partners at the law firm where Michelle was an attorney and claimed she was “having an affair with another partner and he would go public if she didn’t drop the charges.” The law firm took steps to make sure he didn’t have access to their office. He went to jail and for a while, he seemed calmer. But that was a false image. While picking up Kristy, he again assaulted Michelle and she again pressed charges.
He showed up one day as she was picking her son up from elementary school. He told her that “if he was going to jail, might as well be worth it.” He beat her unconscious, dislocated her jaw and broke her nose. Then he threatened to do the same to her seven year old son. Michelle left the state to escape him.
When Easter of 2001 rolled around, Faith Battaglia was 9 and Liberty Battaglia was six. Faith, who resembled her father loved playing soccer and the violin. Liberty, who favored Mary Jean in appearance, wanted to be a ballerina.
Mary Jean sent an Easter gift to Kristy, the daughter from Battaglia’s first marriage. Battaglia was livid. He left a message on her answering machine. “Mary Jean, the next time you give my daughter $50 why don’t you tell her how you screwed her out of her college fund, you fucking pig. How does that feel, pig?” Contacting her was a violation of his probation. In addition, Battaglia had failed a drug test. A warrant was issued and on May 2, 2001, he was told by a police officer that he needed to turn himself in. It was the day of his scheduled visitation.
The girls didn’t want to go. While making plans over the phone, Battaglia told the girls they weren’t going out to dinner. He told them he was too sad to eat because he was going to jail. Liberty hid under the bed, but Mary Jean assured her it would be okay. To keep Battaglia away from her house, they always met at neutral locations to exchange the children. Mary Jean took her daughters to a local shopping center, kissed them and sent them off with their father for the last time.
Sometime during that day, Battaglia called Michelle, his ex-wife and left a message on her phone that Mary Jean should lose her girls.
That evening, Battaglia called Mary Jean’s mother to tell her that the girls wanted to talk to Mary Jean. When she got the message from her mother, Mary Jean called him. He put Faith on the phoned and ordered her to “Ask her.”
Faith asked “Mommy, why do you want Daddy to go to jail?”
She told Battaglia not to do that to the girls. Then she heard Faith screaming, “No Daddy. No Daddy. Please don’t do it.”
She immediately called the police who broke in and found the girls in a pool of blood. Faith was shot three times and Liberty, four. Both girls had been shot in the back, severing their spines and rendering them helpless for the fatal shot, a contact gunshot to the back of the head. Detectives took seven guns from the home that night because they didn’t know which weapon had been used to kill the girls.
Battaglia had murdered his daughters and then left the scene. He went to a bar to use the phone. From there, he left a message on Mary Jean’s answering machine: “Goodnight my little babies. I hope you’re resting in a different place. I love you, and I wish that you had nothing to do with your mother. She was evil and vicious, and stupid. You will be free of her. I love you very dearly. You were brave girls. Very brave. Liberty, you were oh so brave. I love you so much. Bye.”
He then went to a tattoo parlor to memorialize his girls with two roses tattooed on his upper left arm, one for each girl. When he left the parlor, four officers moved in to arrest him. There was a loaded gun in the truck and he fought the officers.
At trial, the jury deliberated for 19 minutes before convicting Battaglia. He blamed the murders on being bi-polar, but after the jury heard from his first wife and learned about his history of violence, he was sentenced to death almost exactly one year from the death of his girls. His father continued to support him. Mary Jean told him she hoped he “burned in hell.”
But that was 2002. Today, Liberty would be 22 and Faith would be 25 if only they had a chance to be something more than an object used to hurt their mother.
Battaglia still sits on death row. He has continually fought his conviction and his sentence. He has had an execution date set multiple times and each time has been able to earn a stay to determine if he is competent enough to be executed.
He is set for execution February 1, 2018.
If you are in an abusive situation, there is help. Call 1-877-701-SAFE (7233) for help. The crisis line is answered 24 hours a day. Laws have changed an there is more we can do than ever before. If you want to help, go to Safehaven.org and click the donate button.