It has been a month, and Creela Sullivan-Smith is ready to talk.
She called me to introduce herself: “I am the mother of the shooter in the murder-suicide incident in Largo.
“My son — my firstborn, the love of my life — murdered someone,” she said. “I don’t know what the story will be, but I cannot, I will not, remain silent about domestic violence, the elephant in the room.”
So a day later, we’re sitting across from each other. Sullivan-Smith sips her coffee and speaks softly as she tells her story. We are in the basement of the Bowie home that she shares with friends, and we are talking about Oct. 25. It’s the day her son, Antoine Elvin Sullivan, shot and killed his wife, Tonya Wilkerson-Sullivan, in their Prince George’s County townhome in an apparent murder-suicide, police said. Their 3-year-old son, who was not harmed, was in the room.
Sullivan-Smith’s face shows small signs of grief — eyes red and tired, maybe from fitful sleep — but otherwise she is calm and composed, serene even. The same as she was when she drove up to her son’s home five minutes after getting that phone call. It is a gift, Sullivan-Smith says: “God has given me a calm spirit,” through all she has been through.
In addition to the 3-year-old, Wilkerson-Sullivan, 35, had three other children. Sullivan, 37, had two. He and his first wife divorced in August, and he and Wilkerson-Sullivan married in September. In October, he killed her.
“I begged her not to do it,” not to marry her son, Sullivan-Smith says. It was too soon after the divorce. She thinks that’s why she wasn’t invited to the wedding and learned about it on Facebook.
What she didn’t know was that her son was violent with women. She has just learned bits and pieces about that since last month.
“It’s difficult for me to separate my firstborn, my baby, my son, from the abuser, the murderer, the liar,” she says. Her voice breaks, then comes back. People who knew him get upset when she calls him a murderer, she says. The mother in her can’t square those two men in her mind — and probably never will — but “they’re one in the same, and I want to deal in that ugly truth.”
“My son made a decision for himself and made a decision for Tonya, as well. She didn’t want to die. Tonya had a lot to live for: four wonderful kids, a huge, loving family. . . . She didn’t deserve to die, so I didn’t want to dress it up. I don’t want to sugar-coat it.”
She didn’t know to intervene in his life, Sullivan-Smith says. So she did something at her son’s memorial service: She lined up the speakers.
Someone from his job talked about how Sullivan was polite and caring. The president of his motorcycle club talked about how often he made people laugh. Another person talked about his desire to learn when he was young, and someone else called him a wonderful friend, and at 6 feet, 328 pounds, a gentle giant.
Then Sylvia Pauling, a D.C. psychotherapist who specializes in abuse and trauma, who didn’t know him at all, said a few words. Every nine seconds, a woman is physically abused, she told mourners. One in 3 women are victims of physical abuse by their intimate partner in their lifetime.
Pauling was surprised when Sullivan-Smith asked her to speak. It was the first time she’d been asked to talk about abuse at a funeral, but she thought it was a good idea. “I knew the audience was not expecting what was going to happen,” Pauling said. “I just saw it that God gave me an opportunity to speak on a topic that most people don’t want to talk about.”
“I had her speak last because I wanted all the people who were going to say great things to come up and say great things” because her son was all those things, too, Sullivan-Smith says, tearing up. Her firstborn. But “I told her we needed to let people know the abusers are your father, are your sons, are everyday people who hold good jobs.”
It’s a message Sullivan-Smith says she’ll spread. And add to her other messages. Her firstborn’s father had abused her once, and she left. Years later, he killed himself. When she lost her 11-year-old daughter, who needed a heart transplant, Sullivan-Smith helped get 1,500 people to sign up for organ donation at her job. She asks God for purpose to make sense of her grief.
With domestic violence and mental illness, she says, we must speak the unspeakable.
“I want this to be a story, and I want you to tell 10 friends and for them to tell 10 friends. Act like it’s a sale on a purse. Tell somebody this has got to stop. Speak Tonya’s name into the air, don’t whisper it! She was a person. She had a name. She had four children. If you know somebody who has been abused, speak their name. Speak my name.”
“Speak your name,” she urges, and for a moment, the room falls away. Her story, my story, all of our stories, and all the ones too many of us would rather die with than tell, press against my mind.
Quietly, Sullivan-Smith and I pass the box of tissues between us.
The Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
For more by O’Neal, visit wapo.st/lonnae.