PATTERSON — When Sheree Lustgarten helped gather toys for a shelter before the holidays, she wasn't just going through the motions expected of a civic leader.
For the newly elected city councilwoman, scars physical and emotional of domestic violence and homelessness are something personal.
"I can understand their plight," Lustgarten said. "I get it all. I've been through it all."
Most of the 1,665 people who voted for her Nov. 6 likely had no idea she was battered in a former marriage, in another place and time that she'd like to forget. Her campaign focused on open government, but she kept the book on her former life tightly shut.
Knowing that political opponents could at any time bring up tricky financial questions from her past, including bankruptcies and foreclosures, Lustgarten toted a binder to an early October candidates' debate. It was stuffed with evidence of having survived domestic violence, she said, in case someone wanted to press the point.
No one did, until The Bee determined after her narrow victory, by a mere eight votes that she had not been truthful on a pre-election newspaper questionnaire.
So it's time to come clean, she said.
"It's not something I should be ashamed of. This is my past," Lustgarten said.
"Actually, I'm kind of looking forward to having the story out for a change," she added. "I'm happy to have an opportunity to tell my side of the story. I hope it helps somebody."
Attempts to reach Lustgarten's ex-husband, who now lives in a different state, were unsuccessful.
Nude and locked out
Lustgarten had two young sons from a previous relationship when she met a former Marine in 1988 in Southern California. They married the next year and things seemed OK, she said, until about the time that her third and fourth sons came along, starting a couple of years later. A daughter was born in 1995.
"He started drinking heavily," Lustgarten said, and often came home drunk in the morning after a graveyard shift.
When noises from young children woke him, "That was my fault," she said.
The oldest two called their stepfather "Dad" but weren't treated the same as his biological children, said the oldest, Brandon Surico, now 28. He was small when a daybreak argument started over him and ended when his stepfather shoved his naked mother down the stairs and out the front door, which he promptly latched.
"She was crying, 'Let me in!' and begging, and he was calling her profanities," Surico recalled. "He could give a crap about her dignity."
She rammed the door and unhinged it, they said, allowing her to get back into the home.
Another time, Lustgarten said, she jumped on the hood of her husband's car during a fight and he slowly drove around until police showed up.
A few days before Christmas in 1996, friends came for a party and her husband got plastered with a buddy playing Santa.
"They started screaming and he hit her square in the face as hard as he could," Surico said. "She was knocked unconscious, with her eyebrow split open.
"My shop teacher at the time was a volunteer firefighter who came with the cops," he continued, recalling humiliation added to shock as his stepfather was hauled off in handcuffs and his mother was taken to the hospital. "That's something that sticks in your head," he said.
Lustgarten's ex-husband pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of spousal abuse, but that didn't change much, she said. She got a restraining order in January 1998, after he pinned her by her neck against a wall, her feet off the ground.
In an affidavit reviewing her abuse history, she wrote that injuries required 18 stitches above her left eye, nine by her right and six above her lip.
Homeless with five kids
A couple of months later, their home was repossessed and she took the five children to a shelter for abused families. Lustgarten didn't know at the time, she said, that it was operated by a woman who had provided court-ordered counseling to Lustgarten's husband as a condition of his probation. She never has understood how he was allowed a room on the "single" side of the shelter while his victims were on the family side.
When times were good, the family had enjoyed a large garden and pulled a wagon with excess tomatoes and zucchini to share with the shelter. "I had no idea I would end up in that shelter," she said.
The same counselor had vouched for Lustgarten's husband in a letter to the court, asking that he be allowed more time to complete probation requirements, including an anger management program. Having never assessed his wife and relying on his story, the counselor wrote that he was the "primary caregiver for his wife who is mentally challenged, reportedly bipolar with psychotic features."
"I was a mess, under such stress and fatigue" and on the verge of a nervous breakdown, she acknowledged, but she said the description was false and dogged her for years. "Everywhere I went to get help, he was there with that letter."
Memories of stale doughnuts, presumably donated to the shelter, and an unpleasant odor stay with her son. "I hate doughnuts" to this day, Surico said. He craved privacy, sleeping on cots in a common room with other families, he said.
Surico preferred hotel hopping, because the family could have their own space, but remembers fear of drug dealers and users hanging around cheap rooms.
And his stepfather kept coming around.
"People who don't understand domestic violence say, 'Why doesn't she just get out? It's her own fault.' But there was no where to run to," Lustgarten said.
The scourge of violence
One in three women around the world suffers violence, usually at the hands of someone close to her, according to www.domesticviolencestatistics.org. In the United States, a woman is assaulted about every 15 seconds, the FBI says; each day, three are killed by a husband, boyfriend or ex-partner, the U.S. Bureau of Justice reports.
Domestic violence injures more women than car accidents, muggings and rapes combined, and abuse is the third-leading cause of homelessness for families.
Agencies throughout Stanislaus County receive more than 3,000 domestic violence calls every year, according to the Stanislaus Family Justice Center. The Haven Women's Center of Stanislaus helps about 2,600 women and children annually.
"Most victims have a number of obstacles to leaving, the most important being their safety and that of their children," said Belinda Rolicheck, Haven's executive director. "Financial concerns are also very real. Many victims are reluctant to leave the relationship if they do not have the means to support themselves and their children."
Blood and bruises
Lustgarten's family eventually found stable housing, but mother and children could not get by, Surico said, without his stepfather's income. At one point, Lustgarten's husband smashed the computer she used for medical billing, she said.
A neighbor saw him punch Surico when he was 12 and throw him out a door where he lay crying and moaning, according to the woman's affidavit. Another time, his stepfather, in a drunken rage, threatened him with a baseball bat when the boy tried to defend his mother, attested the neighbor, who bought a gun for protection.
Surico grew bigger and stronger. He began stepping between his stepfather and mother, absorbing blows and delivering some of his own. A fight in the family van sprayed blood from his stepfather's nose inside the windshield.
"(Abuse) causes you issues," Surico said. "I was a very angry teenager. I always had to go to school pissed off because I had to fight with my dad. I was in fight mode all the time."
October 2000 brought another arrest on a parole violation. The next month, he begged to bring Lustgarten a birthday present. She agreed, the meeting turned sour and he drove around Orange County with her in the passenger seat, repeatedly striking as she covered her face with her arms, she said. Photographs taken later by authorities show deep bruises up and down her arms.
He stopped for coffee and cigarettes at a convenience store, telling her he would run her down if she left, she said. She scribbled a note: "Please call police. I'm in trouble with a spousal abuser and he won't let me out of the car. Please help."
She slipped it out a window, a passer-by called authorities and her husband who had been in and out of jail with four misdemeanor convictions finally faced a felony spousal abuse charge.
Six months later, Lustgarten, as the prosecution's main witness, wasn't allowed in the courtroom and doesn't have a full understanding of why he was acquitted in a one-day trial. The main prosecutor went on maternity leave just before and her fill-in didn't seem prepared, Lustgarten said. Jurors questioned why she didn't bolt from the car, she learned later.
A brighter day
But the break this time was final. She divorced him, he moved near his parents in another state, and she eventually remarried and moved to Patterson four years ago.
"To come out of that was nothing short of amazing," said her husband, Jeff Lustgarten.
Her story was among many cited by former state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, who wrote more than 50 laws addressing domestic violence.
Sheree Lustgarten, now 51, quietly wept while relating her story, supported by arrest records, court documents and newspaper reports.
"I haven't cried over this in seven years," she said.
Abuse victims need understanding and support, she said, to maintain hope and a will to survive.
"It's not easy to get out of that situation, especially when you have children," she said.
When she was homeless, penniless and on the verge of a nervous breakdown, she said, election to public office could not be further from her mind. Perhaps others can look at her story and regain hope, she said.
"Now, 12 years out of it, I can look back and say I'm not crazy or schizo and there are good things I've done," she said. "It's been a long, hard haul. I was crushed (once), but I'm tough and it made me more determined."
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Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.