How Indianapolis' system failed to protect Sarah McKinney
By Madeline Buckley | May 8, 2016
Sarah McKinney’s ex-boyfriend stood over her as she lay bleeding from four gunshot wounds, she said, and held a gun to her face.
She thought she was going to die. She begged for her life.
Just one day earlier, McKinney had called police, pleading with them to arrest her ex-boyfriend, 38-year-old Paul Thompson, whom she had recently left after what she described as years of abuse.
And police were obligated to do so. Prosecutors had charged Thompson nine days earlier with felony intimidation after he threatened to kill her.
Still, for nine days, authorities never tried to serve the arrest warrant. Not that he was hard to find.
On April 15, the day before the shooting, Thompson walked into a Marion County courtroom packed with sheriff’s deputies and court security officers. He dutifully appeared for his hearing in another case. But no one bothered to arrest Thompson on the felony warrant.
Instead, he remained free to make good on those threats. The next day, Thompson approached McKinney at her job at a Marriott hotel on the city’s southeast side, prosecutors later alleged in court documents, and shot her four times. Police say he fled and shot a man at a home about 3 miles northwest of the hotel. Thompson was jealous of her friendship with the man, McKinney said.
Six days later, McKinney lay hooked up to machines at Eskenazi Hospital, propped up by pillows on an unadorned hospital bed. Rhythmic beeping enveloped the room, where the 23-year-old mother of three children — Thompson is the father of the two youngest — lay with bandages encasing the feet she couldn't feel.
She couldn’t control her bladder or bowels. She could barely walk a few painful steps at a time, and only with the help of a walker, physical therapist and medication.
McKinney thought she had taken the necessary steps to protect herself. She secured a protective order. She told police about the threats. She pressed charges, even though she feared Thompson would come after her if he wasn't arrested.
But McKinney was failed by those expected to protect her, thanks to a lack of communication between law enforcement agencies, a court error and a single arrest warrant floating among hundreds issued each week.
“If he would have been arrested in court like I was told he was going to be, I wouldn’t be here right now,” said McKinney, lying in her hospital bed, crying. “I wouldn’t be shot.”
A system that failed
For several hours April 15, McKinney felt a respite from her daily fear of Thompson’s threats. She assumed he would finally be arrested after his court hearing.
Her struggle to escape the regular outbursts of abuse began around Valentine’s Day. Thompson was drunk and angry, she said, and held a gun to her head, then put it inside his mouth. She said he then fired shots into their bedroom.
She was afraid, and she felt trapped. There was a time two years ago, she said, when he forced her face into a car dashboard, injuring her. And when she was in the early stages of pregnancy with her third child, she said, he slammed her to the ground, then casually told her mother she was pregnant.
She finally moved out in March, she said, and took the children to her mother’s house. Yet Thompson continued to threaten to kill her, according to the affidavit that charged him with intimidation. She told police of the February incident and showed them a text message in which Thompson wrote, “Don’t make me kill you, (expletive),” the affidavit says. She heard gunshots on the street outside her mother’s home, she told police.
Leaving Thompson was a risk. Experts say domestic violence victims face a heightened danger when they end the relationship.
“When a victim takes that step to separate themselves is when the escalation of violence occurs,” said Laura Berry, executive director of the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “(Abusers) try to gain back control of that relationship.”
Thompson's public defender, Elizabeth Klees, did not respond to a request for comment on Thompson's behalf.
McKinney said an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department detective told her Thompson would be arrested at his April 15 hearing. The hearing, court records show, was to determine whether he had complied with the terms of his probation in a separate misdemeanor case.
IMPD, however, disputed that account. According to Capt. Rick Riddle, a department spokesman, the detective said he never spoke to McKinney about the April 15 hearing and was not even aware of it.
McKinney learned that Thompson hadn't been arrested when she spoke with one of his family members. McKinney then received a call from a friend who told her that he had seen Thompson after his court hearing, and that Thompson had threatened to kill McKinney.
She called police again that night, McKinney said, and asked why Thompson had not been arrested. Riddle confirmed that McKinney spoke to an officer that night, but he did not know specifics of the conversation. McKinney told IndyStar she informed the IMPD officer that Thompson's death threats continued after the hearing and throughout the day, and asked whether police could arrest Thompson. She said the officer told her there was nothing he could do, and that an error was the likely reason Thompson wasn’t arrested in court.
“His exact words were, ‘It’s Marion County,’” McKinney said of the officer.
Riddle said it was not an issue of taking McKinney's complaint seriously. It was an IMPD detective who ensured the warrant on the intimidation charge was processed immediately. But why, then, was no arrest made? Riddle explained that IMPD did not know Thompson's whereabouts at any point during the nine days. The address on the warrant wasn't current.
After a warrant is filed, one of two things typically occurs: Marion County Sheriff's Office deputies seek out the accused and serve the warrant, or an officer arrests the accused when their paths cross, such as during a traffic stop.
No one in the sheriff's office attempted to serve the warrant, confirmed Katie Carlson, a sheriff's spokeswoman. When asked why, Carlson said that even though violence-related warrants are a priority, about 135 to 150 warrants are issued each day in Marion County.
In short, deputies had just not gotten around to it.
Still, the most egregious oversight occurred when Thompson walked into court. A court bailiff, employed by Marion Superior Court, should have checked whether Thompson had an outstanding warrant.
Marion Superior Court Administrator Emily VanOsdol could not say exactly how the process failed but acknowledged that an "error by court staff" resulted in the failure to arrest Thompson.
VanOsdol said the court is reviewing the case to determine just how the error occurred.
The bottom line is that each of the three agencies could have attempted to arrest Thompson before the shooting. But no one tried to take him into custody until after McKinney and her friend were shot.
"We had done everything we could possibly do,” said McKinney’s mother, Amy New. “I feel like the system failed us.”
'I knew I needed to beg’
McKinney remembers the emotions that flooded through her at the Marriott hotel April 16. There was the initial surge of fear before the shooting, then the strange calm that came after. And, finally, relief in the ambulance.
Her matter-of-fact recounting of her story was punctuated by bursts of grief and tears.
McKinney was working the front desk at the Courtyard Marriott at 4650 Southport Crossing Drive when Thompson called her.
“He called me, and we spoke, and the last thing he said to me was, ‘Is there any way we would get back together?’” McKinney said. “I said no.”
Twenty minutes later, she said, Thompson showed up at the hotel and raised the gun at her. She ran, and he fired four shots at her back.
She was hit twice in her left hip and once in her right thigh, and one devastating shot lodged in her vertebrae.
She fell to the ground and realized she couldn’t stand. Then, she said, Thompson hovered over her motionless body.
McKinney recalled the moment when she looked into the barrel of a gun while she lay bleeding on the floor of the hotel. She was determined to survive.
“I knew I needed to beg him,” McKinney said.
She said she looked straight into his eyes, and said, “Please, babe, don’t.”
Thompson then ran away, she said. Soon after, police say, Thompson shot McKinney's friend in his home.
Thompson remained free until later that night, when police in Illinois arrested him while he tried to flee to Chicago. He was extradited to Indiana and is being held in the Marion County Jail on a $100,000 bond. He faces two counts of attempted murder and one count of illegally possessing a handgun — in addition to the intimidation charge. His next hearing is scheduled for June 14.
As McKinney rode away in the ambulance, she felt free.
“Because I just knew that from this point, I would never have to deal with him again,” McKinney said, “and my kids would never have to deal with him again.”
A long recovery
McKinney lies in a sterile, white room at Eskenazi Hospital. It has a sweeping view of the city, and the window ledge is bedecked with cards and flowers.
She can barely move. Her feet and legs are numb. She feels helpless, unable to care for her three young children, Riley, 4; Dominic, 2; and Jayda, 1.
Dominic and Jayda are too young to understand what happened. Riley, though, is angry.
“He knows Daddy shot Mommy,” McKinney said. He overheard a phone call, she said, and understood what happened.
McKinney can’t run and play with her children. She hopes to someday.
“I can’t be with my kids. I can’t be running around with them. I can’t be taking care of them by myself,” McKinney said, crying.
Her doctors think she will be able to walk after extensive physical therapy. She has since moved from the hospital to a rehabilitation center.
The doctors can’t say whether the numbness in her feet and legs will completely go away.
“I’m going to do everything I can, go through the therapy, so I can get as close to normal,” McKinney said.
Right now, that means gripping a walker and taking a couple of steps a day.