MANSFIELD -- Less than a week before she was found dead, Gaberien Clevenger was denied a civil protection order against her estranged husband, Alec Blair, now charged with her murder.
Clevenger, 22, went to Domestic Relations Court without legal representation when she sought the order -- which was denied by Magistrate Sharon May.
It doesn't have to be that way, local experts said.
Kathy Ezawa, executive director of The Domestic Violence Shelter, and Carl Anderson, an attorney with Legal Aid of Western Ohio, both said there are options available for domestic abuse victims to receive free legal assistance.
Legal Aid of Western Ohio (LAWO) is a non-profit law firm that provides free legal assistance to low-income individuals.
LAWO serves 32 northwest and west central Ohio counties including Richland, Ashland and Crawford counties. LAWO can be reached toll free by calling 1-888-534-1432. Residents outside of LAWO’s service area can call 1-866-LAW-OHIO or visit Ohio Legal Help's website to find a legal aid service near them.
According to the Ohio Access to Justice Foundation, 8,904 survivors of domestic violence achieved justice through a legal aid agency in Ohio in 2018.
Richland County residents seeking a civil protection order, as Clevenger did, can also be paired with an advocate through the law director’s office, prosecutor’s office or the domestic violence shelter.
Advocates are not lawyers and cannot help fill out paperwork. But they can be there to offer general advice about how to navigate the legal system. They are also allowed by law to accompany individuals in court, Ezawa said.
“Richland County has an amazing network of collaborators working to end domestic violence and or assist domestic violence victims,” Anderson said. “There are amazing domestic violence resources within the community and they are free. The services are all free, the shelter’s free, legal aid is free.”
Having an attorney or advocate can be crucial for survivors. Ezawa said the process of obtaining a protection order can seem complicated to those unfamiliar with the legal system. Survivors are often unaware of what type of evidence they need to obtain for a protection order.
“There are laws that have to be followed in how you fill out these petitions,” Ezawa said. “The court is looking for specific things.”
The standard for what is considered domestic violence in a court of law is outlined in the Ohio Revised Code. It can include “attempting to cause or recklessly causing bodily injury,” placing another person by threat of force in fear of imminent serious physical harm, stalking or committing aggravated trespass, any instance of child abuse or a “sexually oriented” offense.
Ezawa said when a person files for a protection order, it’s important to give the court as much information as possible.
“I think it's important for folks to understand that every detail, no matter how small, is important and is relevant even if they don’t think so,” she said.
“Giving the context to law enforcement or the judge or magistrate in a CPO case is really the critical component when you’re dealing with domestic violence or past acts that may not be physical harm or bodily injury, ” Anderson said. “The victim may have a lot of information that the judge or magistrate wouldn’t have and so they can’t put the threat into the context of it being a threat."
Regardless of whether or not an individual is pursuing legal action, The Domestic Violence Shelter can provide support to victims of domestic violence and abuse. The shelter offers emergency housing, financial assistance, counseling referrals and other support services. It can also help individuals form safety plans and escape plans.
The shelter can be reached by calling the 24-Hour Crisis Line at 800-931-7233.
At the time of her disappearance, Clevenger was living with a friend in Shelby, who reported her missing Monday afternoon. Her body was found Tuesday around 4 a.m. by Shelby police and the Richland County Sheriff's Office near Bowman Street, south of Ohio 96. Her husband, Alec Blair, 21, led police there.
Clevenger filed a potential for an emergency domestic violence civil protection order against Blair on Jan. 22. Richland Source acquired audio recordings of that hearing and the follow-up hearing on Feb. 5.
In her petition, she wrote that Blair “has been harassing me over the phone. Shows up at my house and breaks my things. Screams in my face. Shows up at my work and starts things to upset/embarrass me. Keeps sending me threats.”
During the hearing, she said she had called Shelby police about Blair in the past. She also stated that Blair showed up at her workplace the day before to drop off some of her things. She claimed her boss felt uncomfortable letting her go outside alone to meet him, so he sent two co-workers to accompany her.
“He got mad that I had people with me and he (sic) backed up and about hit two of the employees and drove off,” she said. “He’s been showing aggression like he actually wants to hit me.”
She also said she was living at a friend’s house out of fear for her safety.
May denied the petition, ruling Clevenger had not presented sufficient evidence of domestic violence. May, a magistrate for less than a year, ordered that Clevenger and Blair appear for a full hearing on Feb. 5.
Both showed up to that hearing without witnesses or legal representation.
When asked what acts of domestic violence Blair perpetrated against her, Clevenger said he broke her coffee table and a lamp and harassed her with profane text messages. She also stated she believed Blair had broken into her home a few weeks prior.
She submitted two pieces of evidence: a Facebook post and a series of text messages from Blair. He confirmed that both were from him.
In the Facebook post, which was posted Jan. 30, Blair said that he shouldn’t have taken his anger out on Clevenger and that he had “controlling issues.”
Blair did not make direct threats in the text messages, but did write “I (expletive) HATE YOU AND HOPE YOU DIE” and “HOPE YOU ARNT AROUND MUCH LONGER.”
In court, Blair admitted he had anger issues and that he shouldn’t have sent the messages.
“If I get angry, I won’t think to do something, I’ll just do it,” he told the magistrate.
The protection order was denied a second time by May.
“At the full hearing, (Clevenger) failed to testify to any acts of domestic violence. Rather she presented two marked exhibits of social media messages sent to her by (Blair),” May wrote in her decision.
Domestic Relations Court Judge Heather Cockley, who oversees the work of magistrates, said she was unable to comment on the ruling, but issued a statement upon Clevenger’s death.
“The Court is deeply heartbroken to hear of the passing of Gaberien Clevenger. The Magistrate assigned to this case has extensive experience in cases dealing with domestic violence, and working as a prosecutor and as an advocate for victims of domestic violence.
"The Magistrate assigned to hear this case is responsible for applying the facts, as presented, to the law, and found that domestic violence had not been proven by a preponderance of the evidence.”
May passed the bar in 2008. She became a City of Mansfield assistant law director in 2008 and failed in a bid in 2017 in the election for Ontario Law Director. She became a magistrate April 29, 2019.
Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence or abuse, there is free help available. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached 24/7, 365 days a year at 1-800-799-7233.