On the morning of April 12, 2021, my sister, Marie Varsos, and my mother, Debbie Sisco, were murdered by Marie’s husband, Shaun Varsos. Shaun arrived at my mother’s house in Wilson County, where Marie was staying after she had previously separated from Shaun. He waited outside in a rental car for thirty minutes until he saw Marie head to her car to leave for work. In his car, he had a gallon of gasoline, battery acid, and duct tape. Marie saw him and ran back inside the house and locked the front door. Shaun approached the residence with zip ties in his back pocket, a taser, and firearms. His intent was to kidnap, torture, and kill Marie.
As Shaun unsuccessfully tried to break in through the front door, Debbie and Marie scrambled to protect themselves. Calling 911 and securing firearms, they waited until Shaun approached the back of the house where he broke through the back door. Debbie, barefoot, and Marie were able to run out the front door and hide in between houses in the neighborhood. Shaun hunted them down and first shot and killed Debbie with a blow to her back. Marie then engaged in gunfire with Shaun while she was yelling to neighbors to stay in their homes. Marie shot Shaun three times before he ultimately killed her with his own weapon.
After murdering Marie and Debbie, Shaun went to his car and posted a suicide note and reasons for “delivering justice” on Facebook. Severely injured, he drove back towards his house in Davidson County where he eventually took his life less than a mile from where he lived.
To better understand the events that led up to the murder of my mother and sister, I set about the task of talking to individuals in law enforcement, the court system, and victim services. Based on these conversations, I have created a timeline of the days and weeks before my sister and mother were murdered.
I have also compiled a list of recommendations to address gaps in the system and improve safety for domestic violence victims. We must ensure laws are fixed and ensure no family will endure a nightmare of this magnitude due to the shortcomings in our system.
TIMELINE OF EVENTS:
In early January, while Marie and Shaun were going through a separation, Marie moved from Nashville (Davidson County) where she and Shaun lived, to Lebanon (Wilson County) and began residing with our mother, Debbie. Marie was in the process of filing for a divorce.
March 4, 2021 (Thursday)
The divorce paperwork was filed. The plan was to wait until that Monday (March 8) to have Mr. Varsos served. (This date was later moved to after the Order of Protection was served.)
March 7, 2021 (Sunday)
6:30 pm: Marie leaves Lebanon and goes to the residence she shared with Shaun in Nashville for an agreed-upon custody exchange of their two dogs.
8:00 pm: Debbie receives a phone call from a Walgreen employee (Marie’s employer) saying they were receiving strange text messages from Marie. While Debbie is on the phone with the employee, I call Marie multiple times until she answers her phone. She says she is with Shaun and will be leaving soon. When asked about the text messages, she seemed confused and rushed to get off the phone. We disconnect.
8:10 pm: I call Marie again multiple times until she answers the phone. She says she is just about to leave.
8:25 pm: Marie calls Debbie to share that Shaun had strangled her, and she passed out. When she woke up, Shaun had a gun pointed at her threatening to kill her if she didn’t do as he said. He demanded her phone and had copied pre-saved text messages to send to Marie’s friends and co-workers explaining she needed space to focus on her relationship with Shaun. Eventually, Marie was able to de-escalate the situation and talk Shaun into letting her go on the condition of not telling anyone what happened. Marie gets in her car and starts driving to Lebanon to Debbie’s home (about 45 mins away).
8:31 pm: I called 911 and connected with the Lebanon police. A request for a police cruiser is made and for an officer to meet Marie at Debbie’s home.
Jose, Debbie’s boyfriend, also calls 911 to try and connect Marie with the Metro Nashville Police Department (MNPD). The Metro Nashville Police ask Marie to pull over to the side of the road, but Marie is worried Shaun might be following her. Marie stays on the phone with Debbie until she arrives at Debbie’s residence.
Critical Failure #1 — Police fail to act with urgency:
8:45 pm: Lebanon police and Marie arrive at Debbie’s residence. An initial report and photos are taken of Marie. Lebanon police call MNPD to file the report over the phone but are advised that Marie needs to file the report herself in person in Davidson County since the assault happened there.
9:27 pm: Marie, Debbie, Jose, and I go to the closest MNPD station in Hermitage and call the non-emergency number at 615–862–8600, requesting to meet with an officer to file a report. We are told someone will arrive shortly.
9:36 pm: We call MNPD again and ask for a status update on the officer’s arrival. We provided more information about Shaun, letting them know we were concerned about Shaun’s mental state and that he was threatening to kill himself and us.
9:50 pm: We call MNPD back again and are advised to still wait.
9:59 pm: We call MNPD again and were advised to continue to wait because officers were going through a shift change. Dispatch then advised us to head to the West Precinct since it wouldn’t be as busy there. We then leave to head to West Precinct (25 mins away).
10:19 pm: MNPD called me but I was unable to connect due to a bad service area.
10:21 pm: I called MNPD back hoping to speak with a supervisor but could not do so.
10:30 pm: We arrive at the West Precinct parking lot. We attempt to enter through the front door, but the door is locked.
10:55 pm: We called MNPD to inform them that we were still waiting at West Precinct.
11:32 pm: After flagging down an officer in the parking lot, Marie was finally able to talk with a police officer at the West Precinct who took a report.
11:57 pm: Police escort us to the Family Safety Center. Marie endures another hour and a half of interviews before criminal charges are filed and a Temporary Order of Protection is issued. In total, Marie recounts her story in detail three times to officials.
March 8, 2021 (Monday)
12:51 am: Davidson County Magistrate Chris Hofstetter files the petition for an Order of Protection and issues an Ex Parte Order of Protection.
12:00 pm: Davidson County Sheriff’s office informs Shaun of the Temporary Order of Protection over the phone and asks him to come to their office to be served. He agrees.
Critical Failure #2 — Sheriff’s department fails to arrest Varsos on two outstanding criminal warrants:
3:02 pm: Shaun arrives at the Sheriff’s Department and is served with the petition for the Order of Protection and notice of the hearing scheduled on March 22 and the Temporary Order of Protection. He leaves the Sheriff’s department with two outstanding felony warrants for his arrest. These warrants are for felony violent crimes: aggravated assault and false imprisonment.
March 10, 2021 (Wednesday)
Earlier in the day, Marie was communicating with Shaun’s mother to determine how she could regain custody of her dogs since it was her time to watch them. During that communication, Shaun’s mother mentions Shaun is with her. Marie calls MNPD to inform them Shaun is at his parent’s home in Fairview. Fairview Police arrest Shaun at his parent’s house.
March 11, 2021 (Thursday)
12:08 am: Shaun is booked in Davidson County jail and the magistrate orders that he be held for twelve hours before his release.
Critical Failure # 3 — Varsos released early:
3:49 am: Shaun is released early from Davidson County Sheriff’s custody on a $30,000 bond paying only $3,000.
Critical Failure# 4 — Marie was not notified of Varsos arrest and release:
March 14, 2021 (Sunday)
12:42 pm: Marie calls MNPD’s non-emergency number to ask questions about why she wasn’t notified when Shaun was served with the order of protection and arrested. She is told to contact other offices.
March 15 (Monday)
Mr. Varsos is served with the Complaint for Divorce by the Sheriff’s office.
March 19 (Friday)
Marie’s divorce lawyer receives a call from attorney Kevin Kelley informing her he was just retained by Mr. Varsos and that he requests a continuance on the Order of Protection hearing. Marie’s lawyer contacts her that afternoon and lets her know that the hearing will be rescheduled but she should still appear in Court on March 22.
Critical Failure #5 — Shaun Varsos’ lawyer tells the court he no longer has weapons — no one verifies:
March 22, 2021 (Monday)
9:00 am: This is the court date for the Order of Protection before Magistrate Ballinger. Mr. Varsos is not present in court. Mr. Kelley, Marie and her lawyer, and Debbie are present. Mr. Kelley informs the court that Mr. Varsos has voluntarily dispossessed himself of all firearms and the court orders Mr. Varsos to file a Firearms Declaration. A date and time for Marie to get items from the home and the return of her firearm from Mr. Varsos is negotiated through Mr. Kelley. The Order of Protection is reset for Monday, April 19.
March 29 (Monday)
Marie obtains her firearm from Mr. Kelley’s office.
March 30, 2021 (Tuesday)
Marie calls MNPD to get an escort to her home to collect her belongings. Marie and Debbie arrive to get what items they can.
March 31 (Wednesday)
Marie’s lawyer files for temporary possession of their dogs and division of marital expenses.
April 12, 2021 (Monday)
Marie and Debbie are murdered by Shaun Varsos.
April 19, 2021 (Monday)
A Davidson County Sheriff’s Office employee is disciplined and receives an 8-hour suspension after self-determining there was an error in failing to sign Marie up for Tennessee’s “Victim Information and Notification Everyday” (TN VINE) information system which would have kept her apprised of critical updates on the status of her case and the offender.
● Require GPS monitoring in all domestic violence cases where strangulation and/or firearms have been used or threatened. While Tennessee law requires magistrates to impose conditions of release in domestic violence cases and consider GPS monitoring, no GPS monitoring was ordered in my sister’s case. In talking with members of the Nashville District Attorney’s Office, they indicated they have never seen a domestic violence case in Davidson County where GPS monitoring was ordered.
GPS monitoring and notification could have saved my mother and sister’s lives. Had GPS technology been utilized here, Marie and Debbie would have had immediate notification of Shaun’s arrival across the street from their home nearly an hour before he attacked and murdered them. That window of time could have been critical to notifying law enforcement, responding to the scene, escaping from harm, and ultimately saving my mother and sister’s lives.
● Develop policies and procedures to ensure a victim of domestic violence can file charges more easily and swiftly- as their life may depend upon it. Marie was strangled until she lost consciousness and held at gunpoint by her husband. While she miraculously escaped, her need to file charges was met with multiple and unnecessary obstacles. Collectively, we placed over 15 calls to law enforcement asking for an officer to meet us to file a police report indicating Shaun Varsos was threatening to kill my sister, our family, and himself. We filed a report with local police in a neighboring county (Wilson) where my sister was living with my mother at the time. We were told the report had to be filed in Davidson County where the incident happened. We drove 30 minutes to the nearest police station in Hermitage and waited an hour and a half for a police officer to arrive. Eventually, dispatch advised us to drive another 30 minutes to the other side of the county where Marie might be able to get an officer to help her file a report faster, only to wait another hour and a half to file a report. After the report was filed, police then escorted us to the Metro Nashville Family Safety Center where my sister endured yet another hour and half of interviews.
It took six hours to get the criminal charges filed and the Temporary Order of Protection issued. The offender was able to flee his residence and enter a neighboring county during this time.
A better procedure would include advising a domestic violence victim who calls 911 after/while leaving the scene of a domestic assault, to go directly to the Family Safety Center where they could meet with a victim advocate and a police officer immediately. This would reduce the number of times the victim has to recount their story and expedite the process for getting an order of protection and criminal warrants filed.
● Notify the victim of the offender’s arrest, service of the order of protection, and the ongoing status of the case. My sister was never notified her husband was served with the order of protection nor was she notified of his arrest and release. My sister should have been enrolled in Tennessee’s VINE and Statewide Automated Victim Information Notification (SAVIN) programs, where she would have been automatically notified of her husband’s release from jail.
Victims should always be given information on how to register for TN SAVIN/VINE by police and advocates at the Family Safety Center. An electronic system similar to TN SAVIN/VINE should be created for notifying victims when an order of protection is served. Had these systems been in place for my sister, she would not have had to call the court and law enforcement repeatedly to find out the status of her case, and she would have felt safer.
● Magistrates should set higher bonds in cases where strangulation, weapons and/or threats against someone’s life occur. Strangulation is often fatal. Studies have shown when a victim of domestic violence has a reported history of strangulation, it places the person at a higher risk for more serious violence or homicide at the hands of their intimate partner.
Research indicates that abusers with firearms are five times more likely to kill their victims. Every month, an average of 57 women are shot and killed by an intimate partner. Nearly 1 million women alive today have reported being shot or shot at by intimate partners, and 4.5 million women have reported being threatened with a gun by an intimate partner. In more than half of mass shootings over the past decade, the perpetrator shot a current or former intimate partner or family member as part of the rampage. The ripple effect of firearms in the hands of abusers extends far beyond the intimate relationship. Abusers with firearms affects children and family members who witness or live with them, coworkers, and law enforcement officers who respond to calls related to domestic violence.
According to a 2020 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Report, there were 69,385 reported cases of domestic violence in Tennessee, including 90 murders. In addition, Tennessee has consistently ranked among the top ten most dangerous states for women because of the high number of women who are killed by firearms annually.
Higher bonds could prevent homicides from occurring.
● Ensure domestic abuse offenders dispossess their firearms. While Shaun’s attorney reported to the court that Shaun had voluntarily surrendered his firearms to his father (who was residing in Alaska at the time), Shaun was still able to access weapons to murder Marie and Debbie.
As I understand Tennessee law regarding dispossession of firearms while subject to an order of protection or upon a conviction of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, the offender is required to dispossess their firearms by any lawful means including giving them to a third party who is not prohibited from possessing a firearm. The offender is also required to file an affidavit with the court regarding the dispossession. To my knowledge, there is no follow up by the court or law enforcement to ensure the weapons have been disposed of or to confirm that the third party is not prohibited from possessing a firearm. And there is no third-party liability to prevent the third party from leaving the guns accessible to the subject.
Had Shaun not been able to access firearms, my sister and my mother would have had a fighting chance to survive Shaun’s attack.
Policies must be put in place to ensure that domestic abuse offenders dispossess themselves of their firearms as required by law. The best way to do this would be to order the offender to turn their firearms over to law enforcement.
● Require the Davidson County Sheriff’s Department to notify the Metro Police Department of any outstanding warrants when serving a respondent with an Order of Protection or any other civil matter. When Shaun went to the Sheriff’s Department to be served with the order of protection, he had outstanding criminal warrants. It is my understanding that the Sheriff’s Department does not routinely check to see if respondents have any outstanding warrants, nor do they coordinate with the Metro Police Department to get any such warrants served.
In my sister’s case, there was a missed opportunity to arrest Shaun when he was served with the order of protection.
● Develop policies with law enforcement in surrounding counties to foster communication in domestic violence cases and increase victim safety. The events in my sister’s case stretched over 4 counties in middle Tennessee. Better communication and coordination among law enforcement agencies would have prevented my sister from being shuffled around to various police departments and could have expedited Shaun’s arrest.
Policies should be put in place that will allow a victim of domestic violence to make a police report or communicate with a magistrate via virtually or by phone. This would increase victim safety and expedite the arrest of the offender.
● Develop serious consequences for any law enforcement official who releases a suspected domestic violence offender early in violation of the law. Mr. Varsos was released roughly four hours after he was booked into the Metro Jail. By law, he was required to be held for 12 hours and the alleged victim must be notified of the release. Neither of these things happened. This was a critical failure that placed lives in danger.
Policies must be put in place to punish law enforcement officials responsible for releasing dangerous domestic violence offenders prior to the required 12 hours and for failing to notify the victim. At a minimum, this would result in termination but could also involve civil penalties or even criminal negligence charges for those responsible for these mistakes.
The criminal justice system failed my sister and my mom. The timeline I put together reveals mistakes, oversights, and process failures that occurred over several weeks and left them living in fear while the perpetrator was free to move about, plot their murders, and ultimately carry them out. It is a sequence of escalating violence that has played out too many times before and will happen again if we continue to fail to act. These policy recommendations are smart, realistic, and have proven successful in preventing domestic homicides in other communities. We must learn from this tragedy and enact these reforms to strengthen our ability to hold perpetrators accountable and keep survivors safe. Let’s act with urgency. It will not bring my mom and sister back, but it is a way to honor their lives and bring about the change needed to prevent future tragedies.
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