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[Fatoumata Ceesay for The Trace]

Ricochet

Fearing COVID Chaos, Her Abuser Got a Gun. Now She’s the One Who Is Terrified.

"Looking back, I can’t believe how easily the abuse kind of became normal for me," says Michelle Jankowski.

All Michelle Jankowski could think of as her ex-boyfriend pinned her to the brown sofa and pointed a gun at both of their heads was her daughter, watching from a few feet away. If he pulled the trigger, 3-year-old Gwendolyn would see her parents’ blood sprayed across the cream-colored walls and onto the ceiling. 

Michelle sternly told the girl to run to the neighbors’ house. 

Gwendolyn took a few steps toward the sliding glass doors before her father’s voice warned: “No baby, stay here,” according to the police report, which Michelle corroborated. 

“Yes, Gwendolyn, go outside and go to the neighbors’ house,” Michelle repeated. 

The child ran to the back door. Her father leapt from the couch and grabbed her by the armpit. Finally out from under his weight, Michelle bolted down the front stairs and out a different door, running across the yard in her nightgown. “He has a gun!” she screamed at a young boy walking his dog.

Months after Charles Dickson got a gun because he feared national chaos stemming from the pandemic, he sits in an Oshkosh, Wisconsin, jail. But he’s been charged only with misdemeanors in connection with the June 6 incident, and Michelle lives in fear that authorities will release him. “However long he’s in jail is the length I have left to live,” she has told the prosecutor. 

Michelle and Charles went on their first date about five years ago, after Michelle split from her husband of 14 years. Michelle was 36, the mother of four young children. She was looking for someone to have fun with, not a serious commitment. Charles seemed perfect. She remembered that when she was in high school he’d spun vivid, creative stories as the dungeon master in Dungeons and Dragons. Green-eyed, with a wiry build — a little wild, a rule-breaker. On their first date, Charles called her “Nerd,” the same nickname he had used for her years before, and he jumped off his bar stool, waving his arms excitedly, as he told her a funny story. 

Their breezy, relaxed courtship didn’t last. Within weeks, Michelle became pregnant. “I couldn’t imagine getting an abortion,” she said. “I invited him to move in with me and we would raise the baby together and see how things went.” She knew Charles had been charged with beating his ex-wife years earlier, but the charges had been dropped. Michelle shrugged it off, knowing that breakups can be messy. 

In the early days, Charles was warm and responsible. He cooked dinner some nights, and picked her kids up from school when she had to work late. Her youngest son, who was 6 at the time, quickly grew attached to the new man in the house, who called him silly nicknames and took him fishing on the weekends. When Michelle’s 12-year-old had a backyard birthday party, Charles showed up with eggs for an egg fight. “I thought, oh my gosh,” she said. “But the kids loved it, and it was really fun.” 

Things changed after Gwendolyn was born. Charles came home angry one night, Michelle told us. With the baby sleeping in her swing, he grabbed Michelle by the neck and hurled her into an armchair. No one had ever roughed her up before. As she lay on the carpet gasping for air, Charles apologized profusely. He said that his own mother had hit him when he was young, and his mind had flashed back to that when Michelle had raised her voice. “I always thought if anyone ever put their hands on me, I would immediately leave,” said Michelle. “But we had this new baby, and he had these issues that he hadn’t dealt with from his own childhood. Looking back, I can’t believe how easily the abuse kind of became normal for me.”

In the years that followed, Michelle teetered between forgiving Charles for his violent behavior and resolving to leave him. When he got mad, he would choke her, squeezing his hands around her neck until her vision blurred. Afterward, he would beg her for another chance. He’d blame his violence on a new medication he was trying, or on his childhood trauma. 

On occasion, she called the police. One evening, a female police officer who had come to the house several times told Michelle “someday I’m going to come here and you’re going to be dead.” The warning resonated with Michelle, and she asked Charles to move out. But the violence didn’t stop. That winter, after being charged several times with misdemeanors, he was convicted of domestic battery and sent to jail for nine months. 

After Charles was released, he was allowed to contact Michelle only through a court messaging service. But when it became clear that their communication wasn’t monitored, he started pushing boundaries, making affectionate jokes and asking to meet at her house. Occasionally, Michelle gave in, letting him play with their daughter in the yard while she watched through the window. 

This spring, during Wisconsin’s COVID-19 lockdown, Michelle and her daughter became increasingly isolated. Michelle was working full time, and also getting her master’s degree in business administration online. She had her three older children half time, and her two younger children full time. Her sisters and niece, who usually helped with childcare, stopped coming over to visit. The library, where she typically studied as Gwendolyn played and read, was closed. Reluctantly, Michelle started leaning on Charles again. “He would take her to the park and play and she would ride her little tricycle around the block. He seemed like he was a good dad to her,” she said.

The relationship blurred. She told him that they were not a couple, but sometimes he stayed over. “I don’t take responsibility for all the things that have happened, but I take some responsibility for not being firm and saying ‘No, you’re not coming around anymore,’” she said. 

It was during the lockdown that Charles told Michelle that a friend had given him a gun. Like millions of Americans who feared the uncertainty of life during the global pandemic, Charles told Michelle that he wanted a gun to protect them if their community became unsafe. That scared Michelle. Soon enough, he started using the gun to intimidate her. One time he called her at work and threatened suicide, accusing her of going on a date with another man. He described loading the gun. He cocked it close to the phone’s earpiece so that she could hear it click. It was then that Michelle called Charles’s parole officer. She knew he wasn’t allowed to have a gun. The officer told her that without proof of the gun’s existence, there was nothing she could do. 

David Keck, a Wisconsin attorney and domestic violence advocate who has been representing Michelle pro bono for several years, said he grew worried for her safety. “I was concerned that he was going to kill her,” he said. Eric Haywood, a public defender representing Charles, said he has no comment “based on the presumption of innocence and the disputed facts in the ongoing litigation.” A spokeswoman for the Winnebago District Attorney’s Office also declined to comment.

On June 5, Michelle and Charles argued after he found out she had been on a date. Early the next morning, Gwendolyn looked out the window and said, “Daddy’s here!” Michelle’s stomach dropped like she was in a broken elevator. Charles asked to come in, and she said no. Then he asked for a glass or water, saying he would wait outside. But as soon as she turned to walk up the stairs, he was behind her with the gun, chasing her from the kitchen to the living room, first holding the gun to his own head, then holding her down on the couch while Gwendolyn watched. 

A security video from outside Michelle’s home shows her bursting from the door and running barefoot across the driveway in her nightgown. A moment later, Charles, wearing black and holding what Michelle says is her cell phone, runs out of the house and to his truck. As he gets in, he appears to take something black from the back of his waistband. Michelle says that’s the gun. But Michelle said prosecutors have told her a distant video and the testimony of Gwendolyn may not be enough to convict Charles. When police pulled him over a short time later, there was no gun in the car, according to the police report.

Charles is still in jail only because his new arrest, on misdemeanor domestic battery and domestic disorderly conduct charges, violated his probation, allowing him to be held for up to nine months. A judge has not yet ruled on how long he will serve. For now, Michelle is struggling to make her children feel safe when she doesn’t feel safe herself. She said her 10-year-old son feels responsible for protecting her, spinning tales about how he will intervene if Charles ever tries to hurt his mom again. Gwendolyn jumps at every loud noise.