Child sex-abuse victim fights back

Kelly Bowles

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For Kelly Waldron Bowles, preparing for the civil trial was the hardest part.

Working with her lawyer, she had to relive the many years of physical, psychological and sexual abuse at the hands of her former stepfather.

She had to anticipate the anxiety involved in airing those details in front of him -- and her loved ones -- in open court.

But Bowles, 27, felt as if she had little choice.

Bringing his actions into the open would re-expose his crimes, ones he had managed to escape jail for because of a previous plea deal.

The trial also would help Bowles heal.

Berkeley County Circuit Court Judge Stephanie McDonald awarded Bowles a staggering $14.1 million in August in her civil suit against Donald Baxter. But she said the money means little.

"I will never see a penny. I knew that," Bowles told The Post and Courier. "But because it's such a large amount, it's going to bring publicity to the fact that this does happen. It happens everywhere. It's not just a certain sector. It happens everywhere."

"People are going to start watching and being more careful," she added. "Sometimes there are no signs. Sometimes, people are so scared, like I was, that you keep it a secret for a very, very, very long time."

Going to trial

Bowles said she likely never would have pursued a civil trial against her stepfather if she had been satisfied with what unfolded years ago, when criminal charges were brought against him.

In 2003, Baxter pleaded guilty to assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature.

He received a six-year prison sentence, suspended upon two years probation, and never had to register as a sex offender.

Charleston attorney Joe Griffith, who took Bowles' civil case, said prosecutors didn't necessarily drop the ball. After Bowles talked with police, unbeknownst to prosecutors, Baxter threatened her. She recanted her claims.

Bowles said Baxter had led her to think she was responsible, that he would hurt her or her mother if she spoke out, and that he would kill her by snapping her neck.

"There were nights I would go to bed, and I would pray to God that I wouldn't wake up in the morning," Bowles said. "That's not what a 10-year-old should be praying for."

Griffith said Bowles' allegations and her later change of heart aren't unusual in these kinds of cases.

"It becomes difficult from a criminal-prosecution standpoint, where the standard is beyond a reasonable doubt and the main witness is giving conflicting statements," he said. "It's typical of what happens -- and the conundrum the victims are in and the prosecutors are in."

Bowles said the sexual abuse ended around the time she turned 11, but the threats continued years after that.

After the criminal case played out, Bowles moved back to Florida, where her biological father lives. She entered what she now calls her "dark period."

"I was basically falling apart, trying to come to terms with what happened," she said.

"I was drinking a lot, not worrying about my future. I was just a wreck."

Then she met Billy Bowles Jr., who would become her fiance, then her husband, and began putting her life back on track. She stopped drinking, moved back to the Lowcountry and began therapy.

"He's basically been a shoulder to cry on for me, a godsend," she said of her husband. "It wasn't my fault that it happened, but I still feel very ashamed. That's what he (Baxter) would tell me: that it was my fault, that I asked for it."

The trial arrives

Bowles also began to consider pursuing a civil suit. Her mother, Donna Baxter, picked attorney Joe Griffith's name out of the phone book.

Griffith told Bowles not to pursue the case in hopes of a big payday.

Once he was convinced she was pursuing the case for the right reasons, he agreed to work with her.

They began preparing for trial in June, but it was postponed twice.

"I could tell she was emotional, and I was trying to do it in a way that was sensitive to her and not evoke emotions from her that would cause her to be unable to continue on, but there was no easy way around it," Griffith said. "We kind of tiptoed through the history, but we had to go in graphic detail of a number of incidents."

"It was quite difficult for me, just as a lawyer, just to ask these very pointed and personal questions," he added. "I have never been so uncomfortable in a courtroom in my life. I would look back, and all of Kelly's family were in the pews behind us. I could just see them grimace when we had to touch on one of the sexual-abuse examples."

Bowles said she was so anxious in the weeks leading up to the trial that she had trouble sleeping and eating. She lost weight.

When the trial arrived, she told herself she had to keep going "because I was afraid if I broke down all the way, I wouldn't be able to testify the way I needed to and I wanted to. It was hard because my husband was there, and he had never heard details. My dad was there. It was very uncomfortable. The whole time, Don Baxter was just staring me down. It was scary the look he was giving me. It was a rough day, but I made it."

As she took a break, she had trouble standing up.

"My legs felt like jelly. I had to catch myself."

The cross-examination was easier, with Baxter's lawyer apologizing in advance for having to ask her questions. It was all over in a few hours.

While the case essentially was a he-said, she-said question, Griffith said Bowles had two facts backing her up. First, Baxter's 2003 plea determined that his assault on her involved "taking indecent liberties." Second, Bowles had saved answering machine messages that Baxter left her after her mother kicked him out of her house.

"I see how I screwed up your adolescent years, um, I'm very sorry girl," one message said. "I screwed up real bad with you Kelly," another said.

Ongoing trials

Bowles suffers from post- traumatic stress disorder, depression, sleep disorder, panic and anxiety attacks, and trichotillomania, a compulsion to pull out her eyelashes, according to one of her psychiatrists who testified in her case.

Bowles expects to continue to wrestle with these problems, possibly for the rest of her life. She said she has good days and bad ones.

McDonald ordered Baxter to pay $7 million in punitive damages and slightly more than $7 million in actual damages.

"Defendant's conduct was so extreme and outrageous as to exceed all possible bounds of decency and must be and is regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable," McDonald's order said.

Baxter's attorney did not return a message asking whether his client will appeal.

Bowles, who lives in the Charleston area, said she was shocked when she heard about the award.

"It was all so much I was going through," she said. "Just to have the courage to get up there and testify and face him was a personal victory. He's a monster. The way he acted on the stand, he was not remorseful."

"I had to go through with it, or else nobody would know who he was, what he had done," she said. "I didn't want there to be other victims."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.