On the afternoon of March 15, David Evans posted a wistful love letter on Facebook to his wife of 30 years. Evans, the charismatic pastor of a Baptist church in a small Oklahoma city, recalled their brief courtship and his marriage proposal. Three decades later, he wrote, he hoped he could treat her just as he did back then.
“I don’t own her. Can’t control her. She is my equal partner,” wrote Evans, 50. “And I know how amazing she really is. I don’t know much, but I know I should keep pursuing her just like when we first met.”
Seven days later, Evans was shot to death while he lay in bed at home. Initially, his wife, Kristie Evans, 48, told authorities she awoke to the sound of a gunshot and found her husband bleeding. According to a probable-cause affidavit released days after the killing, she said she neither heard nor saw a suspect.
But on March 25, Kristie Evans surrendered, and according to the police, confessed to a sordid plot: Investigators said she “begged” a 26-year-old man — with whom she and her husband had had multiple threesomes — to shoot him dead.
The killing prompted sensational headlines, with local, national and international media largely portraying the crime as a love triangle that devolved into murder. But interviews with Kristie Evans and her relatives — and a review of private Facebook messages between the couple that their daughter provided to NBC News — offer a window into a relationship that was far different than the one portrayed on David Evans’ public Facebook page.
Experts said Kristie Evans appeared to be the victim of what is known as “coercive control” by her husband, a form of abuse long seen by domestic violence advocates but first described as a pattern and criminal violation in 2007 by Evan Stark, a social worker and researcher.
Coercive control includes a range of emotional, physical and other abusive behaviors like isolation, humiliation, financial control, sexual coercion and low-level violence, Stark said. He's compared the abuse to a hostage situation: it’s gender-based — men are the offenders — and the tactics they use against their partners are strategic, oppressive and aimed at “controlling the whole space,” he said in an interview.
Unlike battering, most of these behaviors don’t violate criminal laws if done by an intimate partner, and they are often misunderstood or minimized by authorities and even victims, experts said.
David Evans’ mother, Jean Richardson, said she didn’t know about the alleged abuse, but she also didn’t believe her son was as controlling as his wife’s family said. “Regardless of what happened,” she said, a “death sentence” shouldn't have been "the answer for either of them. But it was the answer for my son."
Tara Portillo, the Pontotoc County prosecutor handling the case, declined to comment. But the probable-cause affidavit shows authorities were at least aware of the relationship’s troubles. According to a state investigator, Kristie Evans told authorities he was “controlling and verbally abusive.”
Kristie Evans pleaded not guilty to a charge of first-degree murder, and her lawyer, Joi Miskel, said they plan to present a self-defense case for battered women in court. Her next hearing is scheduled for July 8. Kristie Evans declined to discuss details of the March 22 killing, though she agreed to talk about her marriage. And relatives spoke out on her behalf in an effort to expose what they described as a deeply abusive relationship, one they believed she couldn’t safely leave.
“She seized an opportunity to escape from her personal hell,” said her father, Ed Armer, 68.
A ‘classic’ case
Stark, who wrote about coercive control in a 2007 book, “Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life,” described it in an interview as one person systematically depriving another’s liberty. “It’s really about taking away the things that make us free,” he said.
These relationships can include frequent, low-level physical violence — “You don’t show up at church with a black eye,” he said — and several other abusive behaviors. “He’s denying her the right to walk the way she wants, to sleep the way she wants, to bathe when she wants,” he said, referring to how coercive control works generally. “These are all the little rights that people take for granted.”
Stark wasn’t familiar with David Evans’ killing, but he said the abuse described in the Facebook messages and interviews appeared to show a “classic case.”
The couple met in high school in Roland, Oklahoma, a town of a few thousand near Arkansas. They started dating in February 1991, were married four months later and eventually had three children — a girl and two boys. Over time, David Evans went from being nonreligious to working at a Bible bookstore and becoming the pastor of Harmony Free Will Baptist Church, about three hours southwest of Roland, in 2015, recalled the Evans’ daughter, Brittney Long.
The church declined to comment, but in a statement released after Evans’ killing officials called the “circumstances that are now coming to light” surprising and said they were “greatly saddened.”
“We are aware that even pastors can succumb to human frailty,” the church said.
Outside of their home, David Evans was a confident jokester with a magnetic personality, someone who told “actually funny jokes,” Long said. But inside their home, she couldn’t recall a time when her father wasn’t abusive. He would slam the kids’ heads together and lift them by their hair, Long and one of her younger brothers, Zachariah Evans, 28, recalled. When they were younger, the siblings said, he would make them stay up all night cleaning. If they finished, he’d knock everything over again — and insult them while they worked, Long said.
Early in their relationship, Armer recalled witnessing David Evans ripping up a just-arrived letter from his daughter’s best friend. “He said, ‘I’m the only friend you need,’” Armer said. This became a reality that lasted throughout their marriage, Kristie Evans said. So was his control of money, she said. Long recalled how in high school, she and her mother would stop at Sonic Drive-In, the fast-food franchise, and she’d be reminded to throw out her trash so her father didn’t see it.
“He hadn’t given her permission to spend that money,” Long said.
On April 4, 2010 — Easter Sunday — Long, then 18, said her two younger brothers were placed with her mother’s parents after her father physically abused them and they reported the incident to authorities. (Long said she was also abused.) The Roland Police Department didn’t have a record of the event — it doesn’t keep files that old, a police official said — though one of the brothers, Zachariah Evans, also described the alleged incident, saying he had experienced the abuse by his father. Their grandfather, Ed Armer, said he and his wife briefly cared for the boys after they were removed from his daughter's house.
Kristie Evans said her husband was physically abusive with her, too. He’d hold a pillow over her face while yelling and pinning down her arms, she said. She didn’t tell anyone about this because she feared what he might do if he felt “disrespected,” she added.
Plus, she said, “nothing” ever “left a mark.”
‘A slow, manipulative fade’
In the Facebook messages, which range from 2017 to earlier this year and were provided to NBC News by Long, David Evans is seen repeatedly complaining about his sex life while pushing his wife to make it more “fun” and “exciting.” In one exchange on Nov. 27, 2017, Kristie Evans said she was open to anything — as long as it only involved the two of them. But by the next month, the messages show David Evans asking how she’d feel if, during a threesome, he and another man called her “bitch,” “slut” and “whore.”
She didn’t mind, she responded, as long as the insults remained “generic.” In an interview, she said she began participating in these “sexcapades,” as David Evans called them in one message, under relentless pressure.
“I said ‘no’ thousands of times,” she said. “It’s a slow, manipulative fade.”
According to Kristie Evans, that process began with her husband taking her to a clothing-optional park, then to sex clubs. He eventually began posting vaguely worded advertisements soliciting sex on Craigslist, Kristie Evans said. Though she never saw the ads, in a March 2018 Facebook message David Evans groused that she would be “glad to know” the site had shuttered its personal ad section. That move was prompted by a new federal law — the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.
In the weeks and months that followed their November exchange about a threesome, the messages Long provided show David Evans twice asking his wife to bring home a co-worker for sex — she declined — and to perform sex acts with other men. At one point, he demanded she provide him with a typed-up, printed statement detailing their sex life. “MUST HEAR FROM YOU,” he wrote. In an hours-long fight that April, the messages show he called her a “frigid bitch” and blamed her for their failure to hook up with other swinger couples.
“They did not want a second round with you,” he said.
She pushed back, saying she “wasn’t looking for sex with those people anyway.” Eventually, he threatened to take his own life. In an interview, Kristie Evans said she wasn’t sure what to make of her husband’s suicide threats, though she worried one might end with her own killing as well.
Experts say that partners routinely threatening suicide is itself a form of abuse, one that can allow the abuser to manipulate a partner into submission. In the messages, after David Evans made the threat, Kristie Evans quickly softened.
“I will be supportive and quiet,” she said. “Soft and gracious.” “Give me something sexual,” he responded. “Something now. That you provide. Not that i make happen or beg or force. YOU GIVE SOMETHING.”
David Evans’ mother, Jean Richardson, wasn’t aware of the alleged abuse shown in the Facebook messages and described by Kristie Evans and her family. But in her view, the fact that Kristie Evans had her own car, job and credit card showed that she wasn’t so controlled that she was “homebound.” And if their relationship had been so harrowing, Richardson said, Kristie Evans should have left her son or sought help.
“She could have gone to a new city or a battered women’s shelter,” said Richardson, a retired nurse who said she’d often tended to abused women during her career. “This young woman was not too dumb to know these things are available.”
Domestic violence advocates and experts point out that victims routinely stay with their abusers for a host of reasons. For Kristie Evans, she said she stayed with her husband due to a complex mix of shame, concern and fear: shame over the secret life she said her husband had pushed her into, concern about what her departure would do to him and fear of who he might hurt after she left.
Still, on Feb. 15 of this year — nearly a month before David Evans’ fatal shooting — the pastor told his children that their mother was divorcing him, according to text messages he sent to them that Long provided to NBC News. But when Long tried to reach her mother to discuss the separation, she didn’t answer her phone. When, hours later, they finally talked, Long recalled, her mother was acting “robotic,” offering brief answers and saying she and their father were fine.
It was only later that her mother told her the chilling reason why: As they talked, Kristie Evans said, her husband was sitting on a nearby bench. Clutched in his hand — and aimed at his chin — was a .357 revolver.
A little over a month later, in the guest room of her parent’s home in Roland, Kristie Evans confessed to her daughter about the alleged murder of her husband, Long said. One of the men her father had pushed her mother to have sex with pulled the trigger, and she’d “begged” him to do it, Long recalled Kristie Evans saying. (A lawyer for the man, Kahlil Square, did not respond to a request for comment.)
Minutes after confessing to Long, Kristie Evans drove to the police station and surrendered, Long recalled. After three decades, Long wasn’t sure what had finally pushed her mother to act. But she recalled that when she and her brothers were younger, they had always looked forward to turning 18. “We knew we could escape,” she said. “My mom didn’t see an end to it. I don’t think she had it in her to continue living that way.”
The ‘raw, dirty truth’
It isn’t clear how these allegations of abuse will play out in Kristie Evans’ criminal case. Miskel, her lawyer, would only say she planned to pursue a self-defense claim. Experts said this could be a challenge.
Cindene Pezzell, legal director of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, said the allegation that Kristie Evans asked someone else to kill her husband could show evidence of premeditation — a possibility that could bar her defense team from mounting such a claim. Pezzell added, however, that enlisting a third party can also show that Evans was trying to protect herself.
Another potential hurdle is that although Kristie Evans’ lawyer might be able to call an expert witness to describe coercive control to the court, this type of abuse has received far less attention in the United States. Six years ago, advocates in the United Kingdom pushed authorities to make the abuse a crime. In Scotland, police officers are now trained to identify and investigate it, and officials, businesses and others have led campaigns to raise awareness about it.
The case of Sally Challen — who was sentenced to a life term in prison for bludgeoning her husband to death with a hammer in 2010 — also helped raise its profile, said Harriet Wistrich, director of the U.K.-based Center for Women’s Justice and a lawyer who represented Challen in appellate court. The killing and its aftermath were widely covered in the media, she said, and her sons publicly advocated for her release from prison.
In 2019, after a judge found that Challen’s mental illness had been worsened by years of coercive control, she pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Her life term was reduced to time served.
Coercive control has appeared in American court proceedings, too, Pezzell said. But she couldn’t recall a significant case like Challen’s. Advocates, lawmakers and celebrities have sought to raise the concept’s profile in recent years, and some elected officials have turned those efforts into law.
Recent legislation in California, for instance, allows evidence of the abuse to be presented in child custody disputes. In Hawaii, it can now be included in petitions for protective orders. And a bill signed into law last week in Connecticut contains similar measures.
But Stark described these changes as marginal. “Coercive control is not just a law, it’s a whole way of approaching women in personal life,” he said. “Unless you change systems, it isn’t going to do much.”
So the pattern of abuse has remained a largely amorphous, almost invisible set of behaviors that don’t fit within the widespread but misinformed view that domestic violence requires bruises and black eyes, said Carolyn West, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington Tacoma and an expert on intimate partner abuse who has worked on several cases with women who killed their abusive partners.
“It’s hard for the victims to identify it as abuse and articulate what it is they’re experiencing to police or the courts,” she said. “Then they turn to lethal violence and it seems so wildly disproportionate.”
But if Kristie Evans’ case is well-publicized — and if she’s acquitted — her case could prove a seminal moment for how coercive control is used in the courtroom and beyond, Pezzell said. It could allow the broader public to better recognize its “true terror” while pushing defense lawyers to rethink how they handle such self-defense claims.
But she cautioned that it could also be treated as a new and untested area of social science, one that prosecutors could seek to exclude from court. “Could it end up making it harder for victim-defendants because coercive control may seem harder to prove?” she said.
In the meantime, as Kristie Evans’ case winds its way through the criminal justice system, some family members are calling attention to the “raw, dirty truth” of her marriage, as her father, Ed Armer, put it. For Armer, this has prompted uncomfortable conversations with relatives, a Sunday school teacher and officials at his church. While discussing the background of his daughter’s arrest, each has offered a similar response, he said: “We’ll keep this between us.”
After each conversation, he’s urged them not to.
“You tell them every gory detail when someone asks you what happened,” he recalled telling a senior pastor. “For God’s sake this is 2021. Let’s let the door open on this ugliness.”