Thursday, April 18, 2024

Her mother’s abuser let her live to ‘fall apart.’ Now she’s using that pain to help others

Rachel Knowles, right, is hosting the inaugural “Raise a Racquet against Domestic Violence” tennis tournament to honor her mother, MaryAnn Breault, left, who was killed by Knowles’ step-father in an act of domestic violence at the Holly Tree Racquet Club. (Courtesy photo/Rachel Knowles)

Warning: This article may be triggering to readers who have experienced domestic violence.

WILMINGTON — On Dec. 7, Rachel Knowles’ life changed forever. She lost her mother, MaryAnn Breault, and best friend. Rather than be mired by the pain, Knowles has vowed to be the voice her mother no longer has.

Breault, 54, was a victim of decades of domestic violence that ended in the tragic loss of her life. Her husband, 64-year-old Dimitre Dimitrov, Knowles’ stepfather, shot and killed Breault at Holly Tree Racquet Club before turning the gun on himself. Knowles was sitting in the car with her mother when it happened. 

The 26-year-old wants to keep her mother’s spirit alive by raising awareness about signs of domestic violence. Knowles hopes by doing so, she could save at least one person from enduring the same pain she experienced.

“You can’t change the past, but we can change the future,” Knowles said. “And we can do it a lot better and a lot faster. And we can do it together.”

Friday at 6 p.m., Knowles returns to the Holly Tree Racquet Club to memorialize her mother. She will unveil a memorial bench at the inaugural “Raise a Racquet Against Domestic Violence” tennis tournament, which will run Mar. 4 through the 6. All proceeds will benefit the local Domestic Violence Shelter and Services, Inc. (DVSS).

“We have to focus on prevention: How do we stop people from becoming abusive to begin with, and how do we recognize warning signs, believe people and support them?” Mandy Houvouras, direct services/outreach director at DVSS, said. “And the challenge, too, is, it’s not one size fits all.”

Knowles, who lives in Louisville, Kentucky, organized the event, which will include remarks from Mayor Bill Saffo and DVSS executive director Lauren Daley. Knowles will speak as well, to remember her mother and help quash the stigma of talking about abuse.

“I want people to talk about it more,” she said. “It’s uncomfortable. But I have a hole in my heart. Every time I drive around in my car, [I think,] there’s the last time I saw her — healthy and happy. She was optimistic, and I just want to hold on to the positive memories of her and try to replace this tragedy, this horrific last picture I have of that night with her that [my stepdad] wanted me to see.”

Knowles also plans to push for legislation that could prevent abuse from escalating to death in the future. Though not anti-gun, she said she believes weapons should be removed from situations where people are alleging abuse.

“The one thing that guns do for people is make them feel like they have control — make them feel like a big boss,” she said. “Guns just make it easy, in my opinion. They make it too easy.”

A cycle of abuse

Fifteen years ago, Breault married a Bulgarian man she met online. Knowles, 11 years old at the time, describes his abuse as a “slow boil.” It started with jealousy and led to total control. Dimitrov oversaw the finances, and determined who Breault spent time with and what she was allowed to do.

He moved Breault and her children away from their family in Florida to isolate them in Illinois, according to Knowles. She said they lived in a secluded location, a place where it was difficult for Breault to make and keep relationships with anyone. 

Knowles said Dimitrov’s abuse extended to his stepchildren, including Knowles and her sister, as well as his own child, Knowles’ brother.

“He always laughed at us,” Knowles said. “Sadistic, sadistic person. You could be crying, hysterical crying, and he would just think it was the funniest thing in the world. You would say something, ‘You just said this.’ And he would say, ‘Nuh-uh. You’re imagining things. I never said that. I never did that.’”

She said he would hurl objects at them, spit in their faces and throw them around the room — for what seemed like no reason at all.

“I had handprints on my arms from him, from how hard he would grab us and throw us,” Knowles said. “I have diary entries from when I was 8 years old of him cutting me on my body by throwing me around the house, down the stairs. He would withhold food as punishment from us at 8, 9 years old. I look back now and think, ‘I can’t imagine doing that to anyone, let alone a child.’”

Knowles said making teens aware of the signs of abuse — mental, emotional, physical — and explaining what a healthy relationship looks like could help identify early red flags of toxic behavior before it escalates.

“I just wish somebody was open with me about it,” she said. “If people talked about it a lot more, maybe I would have felt braver sooner … more empowered to come forward about what was happening.”

Three years ago, Dimitrov moved Breault and their 12–year-old son to a 3-acre property in Wilmington. Knowles and her sister had already moved out of the house. 

Dimitrov continued to keep their lives hidden behind closed doors, Knowles described. If Breault started to get involved with a group, such as a kickboxing class or pickleball club, Dimitrov canceled her memberships and kept her from attending, Knowles explained.

It was during the pandemic in 2020, with added isolation, when Breault became determined to seek help and work toward an exit strategy. 

DVSS saw a drastic increase in the need for domestic violence services since the beginning of the pandemic. In 2020, the agency reported a 242% increase in shelter nights over 2019. This was an average of 26 survivors being sheltered each night, up from 9 survivors per night the prior year. Calls increased 157% and overall services by 34% from the same quarter last year. 

In 2021, DVSS sheltered nearly 238 individuals, for a total of 9,000 “shelter days.” It also assisted 2,179 women, men and children through its various services, including court advocacy, counseling, transportation, support groups and more

DVSS helps victims prepare to safely leave their situations. Houvouras said the work continues beyond the exit as well, to offer ongoing support in the aftermath. 

“It’s incredibly unfair to expect someone who’s been involved in a controlling, abusive, rollercoaster of a relationship to set that boundary and walk away,” Houvouras said. “We forget, many times, even if there is horrific abuse that happens periodically, there are also normal moments, joyful moments, happy moments to keep people stuck in the cycle.”

One in three women and one in four men have experienced some form of physical violence from an intimate partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. In North Carolina, there were 91 intimate partner homicides in 2020.

Houvouras said it’s not easy to put a statistic on how many times people try to leave, since every situation is entirely different. Often, when victims do leave, it’s not planned. It’s as a result of something they didn’t see coming. 

“It took her a long time to really understand that what was happening to her wasn’t right,” Knowles explained of her mother. “There’s a lot of guilt involved; there’s a lot of shame involved. There’s a lot of, kind of re-understanding your relationship with a person. You know, she cared about this person; she had a child with this person.”

Knowles said her mother admitted before her death she should have seen a million red flags. She even found out a year into their relationship Dimitrov lied about his age because he thought she wanted a much older man. 

“And she was a very private person,” Knowles said. “My mom confided in me because we both survived this together for so long.”

Breault had been a victim of domestic violence prior. One of Knowles’ earliest childhood memories, she said, is of her biological father hitting her mother with a stroller in a parking lot.

“She always felt very much like it had to have been her fault, you know?” Knowles said. “I genuinely think that certain types of people are attracted to certain types of people. And these types of monsters seek out the most loving, the most vulnerable among us. And they use that love against you where your whole world becomes about pleasing them.”

Knowles describes her mother as tender, always willing to lend a hand, even to strangers.

“My mom was an incredible mom,” she said. “A much better mom than a lot of people’s parents are to them. She was so selfless. She was there for every single milestone, every time you needed her, and she was so proud of us and protected us from so many situations.”

‘She was ready to get out’

In the four months leading up to her death, Breault was taking steps to escape the relationship.

“I felt like I was getting through to her and that she was ready to get out of the situation,” Knowles said. “She accepted that it was so toxic for her, for my brother and she wanted to get out of that.”

Houvouras said, statistically, leaving is the most dangerous, vulnerable time for a victim. 

“When abusers feel like they’re losing power, they escalate,” she said. “It’s the ultimate act of taking back the power.”

Even in the beginning stages of the process, Dimitrov was one step ahead of Breault, according to Knowles. He had cameras, with video and audio, set up inside and outside the house; he tracked her phone and car so he knew her every move.

Abusers want the perceived upper hand, according to Houvouras — whether it be financial, knowledge of the system, threats of retribution. 

“They are masterful at minimizing and denying their own behaviors,” she said. “It’s an incredibly powerful strategy they have to make people feel fearful and hopeless and helpless.”

Knowles said Dimitrov was aware Breault was looking for apartments and kept asking where she was the day she was searching for a new place to live. Following a series of angry texts and phone calls, Knowles said her mother was scared to go home and called law enforcement for the first time to ask for an escort. The officer told her to go to the courthouse the next day and file a restraining order.

Dimitrov tracked her down while she was speaking with the officer.

“He drove up with my brother in the truck and confronted the officer, and essentially was like, ‘Maryann, what are you doing here?’” Knowles said. “And my mom wouldn’t answer him. The officer, the whole time, is like, ‘Sir, you need to step back. Who are you?’ And then he got in his truck, shaking his head. And that was the last my mom saw him for that night.”

In a preemptive move, Dimitrov fled to a hotel with their 12-year-old son, and sent Breault a text and email expressing they were so afraid of “her behavior” that day, they had to get out. Knowles said it was his way of “forging something in writing for proof.”

When Breault appeared at the courthouse the following day, Dimitrov had allegedly filed a restraining order against her before she could, Knowles said.

“[S]he went to the courthouse to do what the officer told her to do,” Knowles said. “And he was already there. So the reason why everyone has seen other stories, the reason there are court documents alleging on both sides is because he got his stuff in first.”

On that day, Sept. 2, 2021, Breault and her husband officially filed for separation. North Carolina law requires a couple to live apart for one year before they can divorce. 

Breault moved out of the house, but Dimitrov retained emergency custody of their son. Knowles said she believes the only reason he got custody was because he filed paperwork against her first. Knowles moved in with her mother in November 2021 to be in Wilmington for the supervised visitations.

“You have to be really careful and strategic about how you go about leaving safely,” Knowles said. “You know, because we do see so many of these situations play out where the person has access to a gun, for example.”

While there are resources in place designed to protect victims, Houvouras said they are not always perfect. It’s also not uncommon for abusers to seek the same type of protection a victim needs and, often, they can be convincing.

“Our court system and judges do understand this happens, but I think they are very intentional at looking at each case and trying to figure out: Does this meet the legal burden?” she said.

Knowles believes it’s not the system that is broken, but people who undermine it.

“It’s one of the flaws,” she said. “And I’m not blaming the system at all. I know exactly whose fault this is. It’s his fault for doing what he did. But it’s one of those things that makes you really grind your teeth in frustration.”

The history of Breault’s abuse was documented in phone calls, diary entries, notes, and her mother’s calls to a domestic violence shelter, the police and counseling, Knowles said. Her stepfather used the one text message to file for a restraining order first.

“Often a victim is feeling very overwhelmed or fearful of what will happen as a result of any step they take and are having to navigate all these systems in a time of heightened crises and fear,” Houvouras said. “[Abusers] may have been involved in the criminal system or educated themselves on it, and they’re not approaching it with the same level of fear.”

She added the public often has been trained to imagine domestic violence cases as very linear and obvious, but these situations are layered with complexities. Houvouras explained victims in these situations typically endure emotional abuse, gaslighting and grooming, often before it even becomes physical.

On the day of Breault’s death, Dimitrov’s lawyer filed an extension for the discovery paperwork — all the evidence of a court case — in the custody battle, which Knowles said is common. Looking back, though, she believes Dimitrov had premeditated her mother’s murder, so all the videos and evidence Breault had would never be entered into record nor come to light.

Knowles said she wants to set her mother’s story straight.

“He knew that he couldn’t sustain this false house of cards that he had built,” she said. “It would crumble at the first little breath of air. And you know, he did what he did because he didn’t want the world to see; he didn’t want to be held accountable for all of the years of abuse, and for the lies that he told about her. And that’s the part that I really struggle with.”

Breault’s death

On the afternoon of Dec. 7, Knowles and her mother went to see her brother play tennis at Holly Tree Racquet Club. He was there at least twice a week, Knowles said. Dimitrov knew they would be there — “because we always showed up,” she added

Knowles and her mother parked at the club to watch the 12-year-old play. Toward the end of practice, Dimitrov walked up to the car, said nothing and shot Breault. Knowles said she thought at that moment she was next.

“He didn’t leave me alive for any merciful or personal reason of coming from any good place,” she said. “He left me alive so he could satisfy himself, knowing that I had to watch the person that I loved most in the world die. He wanted me to fall apart. And I felt like I might, at first. I believe somehow in that moment, I feel like I got a little piece of my mom’s strength.”

Knowles admitted she replays that day over in her head, wondering what she could have done differently.

“I thought of so many endings for this story,” she said. “I had a dream about my mom and an alternate ending where we were sitting around in a new house together in Florida, near her family, and talking about what happened, saying, ‘I can’t believe you lived through that.’ 

“But it always has the same ending for him. Like, he can’t hurt us anymore.”

Knowles and her husband have emergency custody of her 12-year-old brother. She plans to move to Florida to be near her mother’s family and to continue to advocate for abuse victims.

“I don’t know if I will create a foundation or do a scholarship,” she said, “but I’m the kind of person where, my way of processing this has been action. … Any action that I see that’s going to be helpful to this cause and this conversation, I’m absolutely going to take. And that’s why this tennis tournament is going to be an annual event to keep that conversation going and keep her memory alive.”

If you or someone you know has experienced domestic violence, reach out for help through the national hotline at 800-799-7233. Wilmington’s Domestic Violence Shelter and Services, Inc. can assist as well; call 910-343-0703 or click here to chat online.

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