BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — Kirt Gonzales is haunted by the murder of his sister.
Sellis Gonzales was shot to death in her home by her abusive boyfriend, Eric McCormick, on Sept. 18, 2013, after he sent their young children out for fast food, police said. It was the culmination of years of abuse at McCormick's hands, a pattern that led Sellis Gonzales to seek refuge at a battered women's shelter, her brother said.
Days after the 44-year-old woman's death, McCormick shot himself during a standoff with the NYPD. He was pronounced brain dead about a week later, Kirt Gonzales said.
After the shooting, Gonzales said he began to believe he should have done more to protect her.
“After she died, I went through a period of a lot of guilt,” said Gonzales, 46. “I was beating myself up. I kept thinking ‘It’s my fault. It’s my fault. I should have followed my gut instinct.’”
Gonzales began to educate himself about domestic violence, writing a book about his sister's death and starting a fundraising campaign to produce a film to help women in similar situations. He has become an advocate to end domestic abuse, in hopes of keeping other women from ever ending up like his sister.
Sellis Gonzales and McCormick, 40, had been in an abusive relationship for years, the brother said. When she became pregnant with his child in 2008, Gonzales moved to a shelter for battered women and filed a restraining order against McCormick. But a couple of years later, she left the shelter, the restraining order expired and she began seeing him again.
Her friends and family suspected abuse, but the young woman worked hard to hide it.
“When she met Eric he told her he was going to marry her and take care of her," said Gonzales' close friend Purtrina Dawson, 41. "It looked like any relationship. It had its ups and downs.”
On the surface, Sellis Gonzales and McCormick were a happy, supportive couple. He took her and their daughter to water parks. He bought them Christmas presents. And he drove them to visit his family in upstate New York, Dawson said.
But underneath the surface, McCormick was a controlling boyfriend, friends and relatives said.
He demanded to know where she was every hour of the day. She would often walk around the house with a cell phone next to her ear. She would eat, clean, and wash her daughter while on the phone with McCormick, her brother said.
Sometimes, they wouldn't say anything. Even though McCormick lived in the neighboring building, he just wanted to hear what she was doing, according to her brother.
It wasn't until after her death that Kirt Gonzales said he uncovered the dark truth while reading a report she had filed to get into the domestic violence shelter.
“When she was pregnant, he used to choke her until she passed out,” he said. “The reason he used to choke her was that he realized she bruised easily so he didn’t want to leave marks on her skin.”
After years of control and abuse, Sellis Gonzales tried to end the relationship in July 2013, friends and family said.
She had gotten a new job as a home health aid and become less dependent on McCormick for financial support. She became more involved in a local church and found a new group of friends. As she gained more independence, McCormick lost control, her friend Dawson said.
“He used to threaten to kill her all the time,” Dawson said. “She told me, ‘If anything happens to me, Eric did it.’”
Dawson didn't want to violate her friend's trust and privacy. Thinking McCormick would never kill the mother of his child, she didn't tell anyone about the death threats.
It's a choice she regrets.
“If you know somebody and they tell you this, you need to tell somebody else,” she said.
Once Gonzales' book and film are finished, he plans to travel to different communities, sharing his story in schools, churches, community centers and wherever else he can.
“I’ve got to get people to understand that they don’t need to be with an abuser,” he said.
He wants women all over the world to hear the words his sister never heard.
“When he hits you once, he’s going to do it again," he said. "So many women, including my sister, think they change him. They think, ‘maybe if we get married, maybe if we have a child.’ You can’t change who they are.”