An impromptu call from a male acquaintance, wishing Maria Martin a "happy Easter," would send the man she had just begun dating into a jealous rage.
The witty and intelligent man she considered her "Prince Charming" was the same man who yanked her into his apartment, locked the door, and threatened her life and the lives of her three children.
James Archie Patrick III made good on his threat.
"He exploded into a fireball of irrational anger and jealousy," Martin said of that day in 2005. "I was confused. I didn't understand what was happening."
He punched her, alternating between her head and stomach, while cursing and calling her names. He shredded her new linen dress and leather jacket with a kitchen knife. He grabbed fists of hair and pulled. He broke her cellphone. He took a pistol from inside his Heights apartment and told her the bullets were "special" and would explode in her head. He pushed the barrel into her forehead with such force that it left a mark.
She is one of the reasons Montana's Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus are co-sponsoring bipartisan legislation to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which provides more than $4 million for 50 programs throughout Montana. The legislation strengthens the ability of states, law enforcement and service providers to combat domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.
During hours of torture, Patrick held a knife to Martin's throat and asked if she would rather be shot in the head or have her throat slit. Patrick also threatened to kill Martin's three daughters, explaining that he would shoot the older girls and "gut like an animal" Martin's youngest, who was 6.
A passer-by heard Martin's screams and summoned police.
This was the same "charming" man who caught her attention four months earlier. It was a Sunday. Martin and her daughters were Christmas shopping and took a break at a popular coffee shop. They scoured the shop for a Sunday newspaper. Patrick would later offer them his copy, laying the groundwork for an intense but short-lived romance.
It was the first date that Martin, a vulnerable and naïve divorcée, had had in 20 years. She was smitten with Patrick, who had a promising career. He had degrees in both English and law and had practiced as an attorney in South Carolina before moving to Billings. As the pair began dating, he called and visited frequently. He regularly sent email and text messages. He was "intensely passionate," she said.
"I thought it was wonderful to receive all this new attention," Martin said. "I was starved for it."
What she thought were love, devotion and attention were really red flags, telltale signs of a possible abuser. He stopped by her house every night and called multiple times throughout the day. He did not want her to go back to school. He grew jealous over the smallest things. He wanted to be alone with her, away from family and friends.
"I thought it was flattering. However, it turns out this was isolation," Martin said.
Nearly three years after Patrick beat and threatened to kill Martin, Patrick was sentenced to 61 years in Montana State Prison. He was found guilty of several charges, including two counts of felony assault with a weapon.
"I just can't even really believe it," Martin said during a recent interview. "I can't believe it really happened to me."
Martin went on to earn her master's degree in rehabilitation and mental health counseling. She is active in the Billings Area Family Violence Task Force, the Montana State Coalition of Domestic and Sexual Violence, Carbon County Domestic and Sexual Violence Services and many similar organizations.
She is also an ardent supporter of VAWA, which played a huge role in her survival. Programs to help victims are crucial to surviving assault and the associated repercussions, Martin said.
VAWA consolidates 13 existing programs into four. Since VAWA was passed in 1994, there has been a 51 percent increase in women who report domestic abuse and a 37 percent increase in reporting among men.
Between 2000 and 2010, there were 98 deaths in Montana attributed to domestic violence.
"I am alive today because I am a strong, intelligent woman," Martin said. "I need to stand up, step out and be in front of this issue for others who can't or are not able to -- yet. No one deserves to be treated with disrespect and violence."
That is why she is supporting VAWA, which expands the definition of sexual assault to include "any non-consensual sexual" acts, including when the victim "lacks capacity to consent."
The legislation also specifically addresses needs in Indian Country, where violence rates are highest in the state. The bill recognizes and strengthens tribal criminal jurisdiction to investigate, prosecute, convict and sentence both Indians and non-Indians. It allows prosecution to happen in either tribal or federal court, with the right of appeal to federal courts.
The legislation is currently pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"This bill protects and empowers women by giving law enforcement, our courts and service providers the tools they need," Tester said. "I expect Congress to stand up for women and approve this measure in short order."