A history of violence

The notorious murder of Amanda Ross exposes the plight of domestic violence victims

Oct 28, 2009 at 5:00 am
A history of violence
Photo by Sarah Kelley

It was still dark when Amanda Ross walked out the front door of her downtown Lexington townhouse on the morning of Sept. 11, 2009, embarking on her regular weekday commute to the state Capitol.

Two days earlier, Ross left work at 1 p.m. following a terrifying encounter with ex-fiancé Steve Nunn. The pair’s volatile relationship had ended in early 2009, and a domestic violence order prohibited Nunn — a former state lawmaker and the son of a past governor — from coming near Ross.

After that unexpected meeting in Frankfort, Ross told a co-worker how Nunn stared her down. She went on to make the grave, matter-of-fact prediction that he was going to kill her.

Despite that foreboding, Ross was determined to carry on with her life.

As Ross approached her car in the gated Opera House Square Townhomes on the morning of Sept. 11, investigators say the man she so desperately feared confronted her again.

A scream pierced the pre-dawn silence, followed by several gunshots. Neighbors spotted a man fleeing from the dimly lit parking lot.

Police arrived on the scene at 6:35 a.m. and found Ross lying on the blacktop in the back corner of the complex. The 29-year-old was rushed to University of Kentucky Medical Center, where she died a short time later due to multiple gunshot wounds.

Given the domestic violence order and past allegations of abuse, police immediately issued an all-points bulletin in an effort to locate Nunn.

As law enforcement across the state searched for the suspect, detectives questioned his friends and family. They learned that in recent weeks, Nunn, 56, had become increasingly depressed and preoccupied with talking about his own death. Those who knew him best suggested he might have fled to his family’s farm in Barren County, or possibly to the Hart County cemetery where his parents are buried.

Upon arriving at the rural graveyard, they spotted his car in the parking lot.

Troopers located Nunn crouched down next to the gravesites of his mother and father, former Gov. Louie B. Nunn. As officers approached, Nunn allegedly fired a single shot from a .38-caliber pistol, the same type of weapon used to murder Ross. The stray bullet struck no one, and officers apprehended Nunn, who had slit his own wrists.

While en route to a Bowling Green hospital, Nunn made a number of incriminating statements, according to a subsequent arrest warrant filed in Lexington. Detective Todd Iddings wrote in an affidavit that the suspect spoke of getting even and going to the penitentiary; he suggested that the domestic violence order caused him to lose his job and made him a burden on his family; he said he was “at the end of his rope.”

When asked directly whether he shot Ross, however, Nunn refused to answer.

A search of Nunn’s vehicle uncovered a seven-page letter that further discussed his legal troubles and how the domestic violence case had affected his life. The hand-written diatribe reiterated his desire for revenge and referred to Ross in derogatory terms.

On Sept. 14, police charged Nunn with first-degree murder and violating a protective order.

Since then the case has garnered vast media attention, undoubtedly because the accused killer is a well-known politico from a prominent family. The high-profile murder also has raised questions about whether state law and the justice system go far enough in protecting victims of domestic violence.

Politicians were quick to weigh in, with House Speaker Greg Stumbo leading the charge. A mere two weeks after Ross was gunned down, Stumbo and 13 fellow legislators pre-filed a bill that would enable judges to require abusers in some domestic violence cases to wear electronic tracking devices. With the permission of the Ross family, the proposed legislation is called “Amanda’s Bill.”

“Sometimes it takes a very tragic incident to focus public attention on what may be a large flaw with the system,” Stumbo said during a recent press conference in the Capitol. “I would like to see (the bill) run through the legislative process as quickly as possible, signed into law by the governor, and be in effect literally before the end of January.”

In addition to supporting this specific bill, the Ross family is hoping their loss will draw attention to the plight of abuse victims, ultimately leading to changes in the way domestic violence is both handled and perceived.

It’s a sentiment shared by local victims’ advocates who, although cautiously optimistic about any promising new legislation, are equally concerned with shedding light on an under-reported and misunderstood epidemic — a form of violence that often results in victims unfairly shouldering much of the blame.

That skewed perception surfaced early on in this case when Astrida Lemkins — Nunn’s former attorney — shared this point of view with the Lexington Herald-Leader: “(The domestic violence order) caused Steve Nunn to lose his job, reputation and drove him to slit his wrists… If there does turn out to be a relationship between the death of Amanda Ross and Steve Nunn, it is not because the DVO failed, but rather because the DVO was issued.”

The attorney, whom Nunn fired last week, further opined that Ross is partly to blame for any past altercations that might have transpired: “Things are not black and white. There’s a lot of gray in there.”

It is estimated that more than a quarter of all women will experience domestic violence at some point in their lifetime, but only a fraction will ever seek help from the justice system. And while men also suffer abuse at the hands of spouses and partners, women account for more than 85 percent of domestic violence victims, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

About one-third of all female murder victims are killed by domestic violence, compared with only 3 percent of male murder victims. And every day in the United States, at least three women are murdered by a current or estranged intimate partner.

Throughout modern history, domestic violence has been largely ignored, if not outright accepted. Although that remains the case in some parts of the world, the United States has progressed — albeit slowly and only in recent decades — as have our laws protecting victims.

Kentucky first established a state domestic violence law in 1984, a statute that made civil protective orders available to victims of abuse. Since then, there have been additional strides, including the creation of a national computer database tracking protective orders, the passage of legislation that makes stalking a crime, and enhanced penalties for repeat abusers.

Despite these measures, some victims still cannot escape the cycle of violence.

“The Amanda Ross case is an example of what can happen in our community when domestic violence just totally spirals out of control,” says Denise Vazquez Troutman, president of the Center for Women and Families, the region’s largest counseling and resource facility for victims. “I think her case has brought light to the issue of domestic violence, which can happen to anyone in any ZIP code.”

Last year, the Center for Women and Families assisted about 26,000 victims. In most cases, counselors start by helping the victim devise a safety plan, which entails mapping out a typical day and finding ways to alter that schedule, compiling a list of relatives and friends who can help, and possibly seeking a protective order from the court.

But Troutman says advocates are quick to remind victims that protective orders are not 100 percent effective: “We want them to know that piece of paper is not the end all, be all when it comes to safety.”

In crafting a safety plan, counselors also perform a “lethality assessment” to determine the dangerousness of a client’s situation.

It’s the victims in these critical cases who lawmakers backing Kentucky’s electronic monitoring bill hope to protect.

There has been no outright public opposition to the proposed use of tracking devices in the commonwealth thus far, and Troutman and other advocates say they are open-minded, but reserving judgment. “Any kind of legislation aimed at protecting victims is good, but there are still a lot of issues with this thing: Who’s going to pay for it? How exactly is it going to work?”

There are other initiatives aimed at curbing domestic violence that Troutman believes are more pressing, including a bill sponsored by Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Louisville, that would allow dating partners to seek protective orders. Such orders currently are limited to victims who were in longer-term romantic relationships with their abusers.

“That’s the kind of legislation we need to take on, in conjunction with prevention efforts,” says Troutman, adding that it’s also necessary for society to change the way it views domestic violence victims.

“People often say, ‘What could a victim have done differently?’ But sometimes there is nothing more a woman can do. Sometimes, a person with intent to harm will do so. I mean, Amanda Ross did everything she was supposed to do,” says Troutman. “That’s why it’s so important for us to continue working together to keep victims safe.”

Amanda Ross was 8 years old when her family moved from Fleming County to Lexington, where her father, Terrell Ross, founded an investment-banking firm and developed a reputation as a civically engaged businessman with political clout.

The younger of two daughters, Ross followed a similar path both professionally, in the world of finance, and politically, as a staunch Democrat.

“We all know Amanda was her father’s daughter, in politics, in business, and in community involvement,” Jim Gray, vice mayor of Lexington and Ross family friend, told mourners gathered for Ross’s funeral last month. “When I think of Amanda, I think of a young woman who could see. She could see over treetops and over the next horizon, far beyond it. She wanted to jump right over those trees.”

After graduating from Lexington’s prestigious Sayre School in 1998, Ross earned degrees in finance and business administration from Boston University. She spent several years working as an investment banker for her father, serving primarily Kentucky municipalities. During that time Ross married a fellow Lexington banker, but the relationship ended in divorce after less than a year.

Following the death of her father, Ross accepted a job with the Kentucky Depart-ment of Insurance in February 2008.

Around that time, she also began seriously dating Nunn, a man twice divorced and 27 years her senior.

From 1991 to 2006, Nunn served in the state House of Representatives. In 2003, the Republican lawmaker lost a bid for governor, and three years later he lost his seat in the legislature to his Democratic opponent. The next year, Gov. Steve Beshear appointed Nunn deputy secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Human Services.

By all accounts, the couple’s relationship evolved quickly, which came as no surprise to friends who say Ross pursued everything in life with gusto and passion.

In the spring of 2008, Nunn moved into Ross’s Lexington home; by October they were engaged.

A series of e-mails and text messages from Ross’s office computer and work-issued Blackberry chronicles a relationship that was rocky early on, and that became increasingly tumultuous. The messages were obtained through the state Open Records Act.

In July 2008, Ross wrote to a friend saying she and “55” — Nunn’s age at the time — were renting a cabin in the woods for the weekend. Upon her return, she explained, “We didn’t do too well. He is very needy and I’m not very affectionate … but we’re back on track.”

The next month, her mother, Diana Ross, wrote to see if her daughter was interested in going on a weekend trip, asking, “Can you tear yourself away from Steve?”

In October, Ross wrote to several friends announcing her engagement. During that time, she also began frequently corresponding with Mary Nunn, one of Steve Nunn’s three adult children. In an Oct. 20, 2008, e-mail, she wrote: “Mary, I am so sorry for what transpired on Saturday with your Dad. I do not want to get myself in the middle of whatever is going on, but I wanted to let you know that I do care.” The e-mail hinted at family strife, a subject revisited in later media accounts that stated Nunn’s late father had once accused his son of physically and verbally abusing several family memers, himself included.

A month later, in November 2008, Nunn moved out because the relationship had deteriorated, but the couple remained engaged.

On Jan. 10, the pair departed for a weeklong trip to Cozumel, Mexico, according to an e-mail itinerary. It would be their last getaway.

The next batch of e-mails that mention Nunn were written after Ross ended the relationship and sought an emergency protective order following a Feb. 17 domestic violence incident. According to a police report, Nunn was at Ross’s home watching a UK basketball game when he became angry, hit her four times in the face, slammed her up against a wall, broke a lamp and threw a cup of bourbon in her face.

“I called police because this has happened many times before,” she wrote the next day in seeking an emergency protective order. As a result, Nunn was placed on leave from his job at Health and Human Services, which oversees the state’s domestic violence programs.

That day, Mary Nunn sent the following text message to Ross: “Please drop the charges against my dad. He is going to lose his job in the morning if they have not been dropped.”

To that, Ross responded: “In Fayette County, you cannot drop the charges. He did some terrible things to me many times. Someone like that should be held accountable. My intent was not to jeopardize his job, it was to make him accountable and get him out of my life… And if he read the agreement, no third-party contact is allowed. He’s already violated it twice.”

Two weeks later, a Fayette County judge extended the protective order for one year, ordering Nunn to have no contact with Ross, and to relinquish any firearms in his possession. In addition, he faced criminal charges of fourth-degree assault and third-degree criminal mischief.

Due to his legal troubles, Nunn resigned his cabinet position, a move the governor’s office half-heartedly attempted to spin as his decision.

As the personal saga publicly unfolded, Ross received dozens of supportive e-mails. Her responses reveal the turmoil she endured, the hope she gained upon seeking help, as well as a fear that remained:

Feb. 18: “He has made my house not a happy place to come home to.”

Feb. 23: “It’s like I am on a small boat waiting on a monster to come up from the water below.”

Feb. 26: “If I didn’t report it this time, I would be back where I was, and it was only escalating. I hate that personal matters were made public, but I was scared. And still am. I just hope that this does not get any worse. I only had good intentions of preventing it from happening to his next girlfriend, getting him the help he needs, and most of all to protect myself.”

Feb. 26: “I did the only thing I could do to keep him permanently away from me. Never been in an abusive relationship before, the cycle just kills you… It seems like a lot of burdens are placed on the victim.”

March 5: “I feel terrible about his resignation, and that makes me very sad because he obviously never felt terrible about hitting me. I am going to see a counselor to figure out why I tolerated that for over a year.”

March 6: “I am starting to get a little scared/paranoid being alone at home.”

March 11: “I am doing well … just trying to stay in (literally)… Today is the arraignment. I just hope that he leaves me alone and gets help, and that the process will move quickly. I hate it.”

March 23: “How was your weekend? Mine sucked… At least you aren’t afraid of a gunshot wound. So tired of this!”

April 6: “I hope you had a nice weekend. I stayed away from Keeneland. I heard a certain someone made quite a fool out of himself, drinking and trying to talk to my friends… That is why I avoided the area.”

Aug. 23: “Almost finished reading another domestic violence book. I think I’m suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I may go see (a therapist).”

Sept. 9: “I just saw Steve… Not sure why he’s in capitol… This is terrible.”

Two days later, Amanda Ross was murdered.

Had Amanda Ross known a predator was lurking outside her home on Sept. 11, relatives believe she might still be alive today; it’s why they are supporting the proposal to allow electronic monitoring in domestic violence cases. The family has declined to speak with the media, but released two statements reiterating the hope that their loss will spur change, beginning with the use of tracking devices in Kentucky.

Judges in 15 states currently have the capacity to impose real-time monitoring in conjunction with protective orders. The programs use global positioning systems (GPS) and require an offender to wear a tracking device similar to those used in home incarceration.

Although the details have not been finalized, the Kentucky bill proposes an electronic system that would prohibit an abuser from entering particular zones frequented by the victim, like their home and workplace. If a zone is breached, both law enforcement and the victim are alerted. Police also would be notified if the perpetrator tampers with or attempts to remove the equipment.

In addition, a victim could opt to wear a GPS device that would sound whenever the abuser is within a certain proximity.

States already using electronic monitoring impose the devices in about 15 percent of domestic violence cases where protective orders are issued. Lawmakers behind the bill here expect the ratio would be about the same, with judges reserving electronic monitoring for the most dangerous offenders. In reviewing the risk-assessment criteria used in other states, House Speaker Stumbo said it appears Steve Nunn would have met the requirements to be placed on electronic monitoring.

“When this system is utilized, it is 100 percent effective,” Stumbo told reporters last month. “There has not been one death, from what we know.”

Given the success of the program elsewhere, adopting it here might seem like a no-brainer. But there are concerns, particularly about cost and implementation.

Exactly how much it will cost to set up the system in all 120 counties has not yet been determined, but Stumbo said because the equipment will be leased as opposed to purchased, he does not expect it to be an exorbitant cost upfront. As for day-to-day operational costs, the plan is to charge the offender wearing the equipment; a similar program used to track prisoners on probation in Fayette County is about $7.50 a day.

Another concern is that the prospect of electronic monitoring might actually deter victims from seeking a protective order.

“If victims feel like they just want some peace, but don’t want their abuser to be punished, they might be afraid a judge will impose electronic monitoring against her wishes,” says TK Logan, a behavioral sciences professor at the University of Kentucky. “I think victims’ voices need to be heard and I think the whole thing needs to be carefully thought through. I think that’s what they’re trying to do.”

Earlier this year, Logan — who has spent 13 years researching violence against women — completed a comprehensive study that concluded traditional civil protection orders are largely effective, with about 50 percent resulting in no violations within six months. Even for cases in which violations occurred, the study suggests there still were significant reductions in abuse.

That being said, Logan believes there is room for improvement, particularly when it comes to enforcement. She also acknowledges that electronic monitoring has the potential to further reduce violations: “I definitely think that it could be an effective tool, I think it just depends on how it’s implemented.”

Proponents of GPS monitoring in domestic violence cases argue the system enables victims to get their lives back.

Harvard law professor Diana Rosenfeld, who helped craft the electronic tracking system adopted in Massachusetts, believes protective orders alone are not enough to protect victims in high-risk cases, and that the justice system places too much burden on victims.

“The current distribution of rights and responsibilities in response to domestic violence discriminates against women. In no other crimes do we require the victims to be responsible for their own safety, while we let the offenders avoid accountability for their crimes,” says Rosenfeld, a domestic violence expert who is helping lawmakers finalize “Amanda’s Bill” in Kentucky.

“We need to take domestic violence much more seriously than we do,” she says. “Three women a day are killed in this country by their intimate partners. This is unacceptable, and there is a lot we can do about it that we’re not yet doing.”


If you or someone you know is being abused, call the Center for Women and Families 24-hour crisis line at 877-803-7577.

Information also is available at www.thecenteronline.org, although advocates urge victims to use a computer in a safe place to prevent abusers from discovering they are seeking help.

Finally, do not hesitate to call 911 if you are in immediate danger.