Melinda Henneberger

‘Victims have to help themselves,’ says OP cop. Tabitha Birdsong did that and died anyway

A post from one of Tabitha Birdsong’s multiple Facebook pages
A post from one of Tabitha Birdsong’s multiple Facebook pages

Even a protective order the size of a blanket and made of Kevlar might not have saved Tabitha Birdsong from the man her friends say stalked and abused her for nearly a decade before he was charged with her murder.

After she was found stabbed to death near Kansas City’s Roanoke Park on Nov. 6, with a restraining order in her back pocket, police arrested the man whose name was on that piece of paper — her estranged husband, 42-year-old Gene Birdsong.

This was not one of those cases where a victim’s loved ones are left to wonder how they’d missed signs of trouble, or to wish that she’d gotten help. She’d moved out, and hidden out, too, off and on as she could afford it. She’d sought support, obtained multiple protective orders and reported him over and over when he violated them. “She called several times a week with things that were going on,” said Overland Park Detective Doug Rison.

Yet he added that “victims have to help themselves.” And she was, wasn’t she? “And she was,” Rison said.

A protective order is just “a piece of paper,” he said, “if you aren’t calling us” to report violations of it. But hadn’t he just said she called three times a week? He went on like that, saying that all the resources in the world wouldn’t help someone who wouldn’t use them — and then also saying that Tabitha Birdsong did use them.

When I asked Rison if he’d ever feared that her life would end this way, he said he really hadn’t, huh-uh. “She seemed to be staying up on trying to help herself out, and you don’t see that a lot with victims. But that didn’t cross my mind, no.” Then again, “I don’t really know her that well,” having only met with her face-to-face three or four times. Rison will meet Gene Birdsong for the first time in court, at his trial.

Gene “should have been in jail,” says Tabitha’s friend Heather Mosbacher. Sometimes he was — just this year, he spent several months behind bars — but then he’d get out and find her again. “He would call Tabi’s phone 100 times and talk the grandma into telling him if she was there or not. Or he’d steal her food stamps — she had a seizure disorder, a disability — and use that against her,” withholding her access to food to get her to drop yet another no-contact order. “He was a master at hacking her Facebook pages and manipulating friends into telling him things.” He also made them fear for their own safety.

Domestic abuse isn’t just a crime against one person, but can terrorize everyone in that person’s world. And the world of Tabitha Kasper Birdsong, who wrote poetry and was always ready to help if she could, was a lot smaller than it should have been: She’d even lost custody of her now 5-year-old daughter, first after Gene called child welfare claiming she was an unfit mother, and later because she herself came to the conclusion that she couldn’t keep the little girl safe from him.

Her constant fears, punctuated with an occasional burst of hope, were all over her Facebook pages, in her own words and in the little sayings and cartoons — many of them the opposite of inspirational — that she posted. In one of these, someone standing over a figure hanging onto the side of a cliff by her fingernails calls down urging her to hold on: “It gets better!” The cliffhanger responds with an expletive.

“I cannot wait to get back to K.C.,” she wrote on July 7 while hiding out in a hotel. “I am sick to death of sitting here alone talking to myself.” When a friend asked, “Gene back in jail?” she answered, “[I don’t know] where he is. People keep telling me he has called saying he’s in Utah, then it’s California ... It reminds me of Where’s Waldo, lol.”

She posted favorite old photos of her daughter, stories about women killed by their partners and ahead of her birthday in August, a request for donations to an organization for abuse survivors.

Several weeks ago, an acquaintance phoned Tabitha and begged her to come over to help her with her kids. When she did, Gene was there.

Around that same time, Heather had to tell Tabitha that she was so sorry, but she couldn’t move in with her. “I said, ‘I wish I could bring you here, but I have a child, and he’s so dangerous I can’t.’ She just said, ‘I know you love me.’ ’’

On Oct. 25, Heather left a four-minute phone message for Detective Rison. “I told him Tabi was in grave, grave danger.” That same day, Tabitha wrote on Facebook, “I finally got a new phone today, with a new number so my ex can’t keep calling and stalking me.”

On Oct. 26, she posted a photo of her final protective order, and on Nov. 4, she wrote about a nightmare in which she was blown up by a bomb she’d built herself.

The next night, her last night alive, her closest male friend heard her knock on his door around 9:30, but then he looked out the window and saw that Gene was outside, too, and was afraid to let her in because he was with her. The next morning at 6, Gene showed up at a friend’s house, babbling and covered in blood, according to the charging documents in the case. At 7:22, strangers found her body a block away from the friend whose door she’d knocked on, with what court records called “obvious head injuries and no apparent signs of life.”

Her loved ones had done everything they knew to do, and the answer just cannot be that Tabitha herself should have done more. “You think if you check all those boxes, you’ll be safe,” says Maryanne Metheny, the CEO of Hope House. “But that isn’t always the case.”

“Did the system fail? We’ve asked ourselves that” and will continue to, said Detective Rison. “I really don’t know the answer.” I don’t, either, but if a guy keeps a former partner terrified for years — he was first found guilty of battering her in 2009, the same year they married — shouldn’t there be some way to keep him off the street? At that, Rison laughed. “You do know you’re talking to a cop, right?” Of course there should.

The best shot at that may have come in 2008, when Gene Birdsong was charged with raping another woman. But then, he was found not guilty at a trial in which it was the victim who was painted as unstable. Later, Tabitha told Heather that some of the same odd things that woman had alleged — like that he’d shoved both thumbs down her throat — he had also done to her.

It’s true that we’ve come a long way on domestic abuse; when I was covering Dallas police in the ‘80s, to say that a call had turned out to be a “domestic” meant pfft, not that big a deal. Though hopefully no one would say that today, the detective Tabitha turned to for help still keeps mentioning what victims could and should do, as if right behavior could save them.

Three women are still killed by a partner every day in this country. According to the Centers for Disease Control, intimate partner abuse still costs us $5.8 billion a year in the U.S. and still accounts for 40 to 50 percent of all murders of women. Look into mass shootings, and you’ll see that one thing many perpetrators have in common is a history of domestic abuse. So we know now that “domestics” could hardly be a bigger deal.

Does the system fail? Often. And you don’t need a PhD in criminology to know that Heather Mosbacher was right: Gene Birdsong should have been in jail.

After Tabitha’s death made the news, some gun owners said that if only she’d been armed, she might still be alive. In fact, her severe seizure disorder would have made using a firearm impossible — just as driving a car was — even if she hadn’t been afraid of guns. “She could have been dead sooner” if she’d been armed, said Metheny, but “I understand why people say those things, because it makes it easier” to believe there’s a simple solution.

There isn’t, of course. The local jail is overcrowded, and the shelters for victims have a shortage of beds, too. But Jean Peters Baker, the Jackson County prosecutor, is considering a promising new program of “focused deterrence” for those most likely to keep committing domestic violence. The High Point Domestic Violence Intervention Program, developed by David Kennedy at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, uses an approach that’s worked well in controlling gang, gun and drug violence. In its first two years in a pilot program in High Point, N.C., the share of homicides caused by intimate partner violence dropped from 33 percent to 6 percent.

Unlike Kansas City, High Point didn’t have a domestic violence unit at all before, and Peters Baker worries about the unintended consequences of “a proactive knock on the door: We want no more harm. I’m not positive that makes a victim safer, and that’s our dilemma.”

She’s also looking for “the right case” to audit, in an effort to learn what can be done better. It won’t be this case, because it has yet to go to trial. But Tabitha Birdsong’s nine-year attempt to survive her marriage does demand that we figure out how a woman who spent a quarter of her life flagging down cops died at 40 anyway.

“There’s only so much we can do,” Rison said. Easy for me who wasn’t taking her three calls a week to squint my eyes at that. But we cannot accept that there isn’t so much more that can be done.