Violence survivors bear witness

At 358 pounds and calm of manner, Dale Wells is the sort of self-assured guy you'd think no one would mess with.

Until that day when his stalker ex-girlfriend, who had threatened to kill him, put five slugs from a .357 through his back, lungs, arm and head.

"The first bullet discharged, hit me dead in the center of my chest," said Wells, 43, a Columbia restaurant manager. "The second shattered my arm in two places. I fell to my stomach, she walked up on me and shot me twice in the back. She laid the barrel of the gun on the bridge of my neck, pulled the trigger.

"I arrived at the hospital with less than half a cup of blood in my body," he said.

His ex-girlfriend used her last bullet to kill herself.

"My surgeon said, 'No one walks away from five .357 bullets fired at point-blank range. God left you here for a reason.'"

That reason came Tuesday when Wells became the first man ever to speak at the 12th annual Silent Witness memorial to South Carolina's victims of domestic violence. It was held on the south lawn of the State House complex.

Most victims are women. Still, men make up a small but significant percentage of those attacked.

"To have such a large, powerful-looking man say, 'This is what happened to me,' will help other victims," said Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims Council.

"There are a lot of males who wouldn't come forward."

In South Carolina, domestic violence is the state's "number one crime" and was responsible for some 36,000 complaints to the police last year, said Attorney General Henry McMaster, who sponsors the annual event.

The event is intended to focus attention on that crime, which is often accompanied by victim denial, humiliation and silence.

The psychological dynamics of the crime work to keep victims quiet and protect the criminal, so McMaster, victims and advocates urged people to speak up.

"If you see something, say something," McMaster said.

Friends and relatives carried life-size silhouettes representing victims to the State House steps.

For the seventh year, McMaster read a list of victims for the previous year - 32 in 2008. Six were men, and 26, women.

"It gets harder every year to read the names," said McMaster later. He also read brief histories of how the victims died - by gun, knife and bludgeoning. Often, they left children behind. Their killers sometimes committed suicide. Many await trial for murder or manslaughter.

Vicki Bourus, of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said public events like Tuesday's are vital in fighting such crimes.

"For so many years, this problem was put behind closed doors," Bourus said. Many times, she said, victims think the violence is their fault. "Speaking out gives people - victims and witnesses - permission to respond and take action."

Adding to the poignancy of the one-hour ceremony were songs, such as "Bridge over Troubled Water," from a USC women's chorus, and a Citadel cadet bagpipe group, which played "Amazing Grace."

"Ultimately, all we have is each other," prayed the Rev. Gene Baker of the Holy Communion Lutheran Church in Spartanburg.

Wells said later he was glad he spoke.

"If I can reach and touch one person, it will have been worth it," he said. "The only way to stop it is to talk about it."