Leslie Layman Wasn’t Ervin’s First Victim
But Will She Be His Last?
The years have been hard on Dennis Ervin. But they’ve been even harder on the women who have loved him.
Denny and I are the same age, we attended three years together at our alma mater, West Preston High School, and he once dated one of my closest friends. If you look at his picture in the 1980 Panther Tracks yearbook, you’ll see a smallish looking guy with big, dark eyes and a shag haircut like the one worn by teen heartthrob Keith Cassidy. Back then Ervin was goofy but seemed a nice enough guy. Not a tough guy. Then again, I never dated him.
His police mug shot looks much different: older, harder and with a complexion that appears ravaged from booze and drugs. Ervin was arrested and charged with killing Leslie (Engle) Layman, who died from gunshot wounds near Independence, W.Va., last Tuesday, May 8. She was the third Preston County woman to die from a bullet during the last three weeks, thanks to another type of war that is carried on silently in homes all over the world. It’s a domestic war, and far more deadly than many other battles have been.
I knew Leslie when she was a child. She was 10 years younger than me. I know her parents, but haven’t seen them for years. I probably knew her grandparents best (since Jim Engle was the postmaster in our tiny town, and once rendered us great aid) and even her great-grandfather. (He was the storekeeper whose store I skipped into each day after school, while still a child myself.)
When you lose touch with people you once knew, it can be hard to understand how their lives can come so unraveled. Yet this is what I’ve pieced together, after talking to three women who knew Ervin far better than I did.
He liked to drink, so heavily the state took his driver’s license after several DUI’s and placed him on home confinement for possession of marijuana. There’s a rumor, which is all I’ve heard it to be thus far—although his mug shot seems to confirm it—that he was into far more potent drugs, maybe even bath salts.
Local media reports indicate Ervin and Layman were exes. Being anyone’s ex doesn’t seem to be something Ervin handles very well. Take Nancy, for instance, who was friends with Layman. Her name has been changed at her request, but he mishandled her repeatedly during their time together.
“Four or five years ago, before (the) bath salts, he had pulled guns on her, dumped gas on her and threatened to light a match,” her friend, Donna Livengood, said.
Nancy often called Livengood when Ervin battered her, but one night her friend was too far away to help. She did the only thing she could think to do. “I called her parents and told them what was going on and that she needed out of there,” Livengood said. “She stayed mad at me for awhile until she got the common sense to get out of there. Thank God she did.”
Nancy told me she moved in with Ervin after meeting him in a bar one night. Everything was fine for the first six months. Then he changed. “He got very jealous. Very controlling. He was even jealous of my mom, dad and son,” Nancy said. “The first time he punched me because we ran into an old friend of mine at the bar. We were all playing pool (and) he was acting fine. Then when we left, we went to Bamco were he used to work. We went there around midnight so he could work on a car. He ended up chasing me around the garage and threw a very big wrench and hit me in the back of the head. I had a huge bump (there).”
Nancy said she told Ervin, “I can’t believe you did that.”
He then ordered her not to call the police, since he was wearing a leg bracelet for home confinement. “Why did you hit me with that? Why did you do that?” she asked, trying to talk him down from his anger, and buy herself some time to think.
Nancy left Ervin, but went back repeatedly. She never called the police, never sought medical treatment for her injuries, and never filed paperwork for a protective order to keep Ervin away. “I’ve not done that much in my life,” Nancy said.
Now she wishes she would have.
Nancy misses her friend Leslie, and says “it’s been hard the last few days. I have a lot of guilt.” She also has “unbelievable stories (to tell). I think Leslie would be happy for me to tell you about what an ass he is.”
Another woman, another friend of Leslie’s, feels the same way. Helen, whose name has also been changed, was in college pursuing a law degree when she moved in with Ervin during her divorce proceedings. They had been friends for years, and Ervin—who was 15 years her senior—was no more to her than “a big brother who protected me and took care of me.”
Helen just needed a place to stay until her divorce was final. She got much more.
“I’d always heard about his violent past but never believed it because I’d never seen it,” Helen said. “Anytime him and I would go out anywhere, anybody who knew him would say “Oh my God, watch him. He’s beat up every girlfriend he’s ever had.”
But she wasn’t his girlfriend, and Helen didn’t believe the rumors could be true.
Ervin, however, didn’t see it that way. Maybe that’s because even though she was just staying there temporarily, they did have sex once. It was something that occasionally had happened in the past, but she never felt like they were a couple.
So one night after he had too much to drink, Ervin began hitting her with accusations, saying she was “(having sex) with other men and coming back and sleeping in his house,” Helen said.
It wasn’t true, and she didn’t know where the false charges had come from. But by then, she knew something was wrong. “He would get this look in his face like you could see the devil. You knew that you were in trouble,” Helen said.
She described how Ervin picked up the steel baseball bat he always kept at his side, and began threatening to hit her with it.
“If you’re going to do it, you’re going to look me in the face and do it. I’m not afraid of you but I’m not gonna’ turn my back and let you do it to me then,” Helen said she told him.
That’s when Ervin made good on his threat. He struck Helen “several times across the back. Then he kicked me while I was on the ground.”
Like Nancy, Helen didn’t seek medical treatment or call the police. Since she worked in the law enforcement field herself, she felt like it would have been too embarrassing. “I felt like it was dumb on my part,” Helen said.
Instead, she simply left. “I managed to crawl out of the house and called my soon-to-be ex-husband,” she said. “I honestly can’t remember how many times he hit me.”
Ervin hit her so many times she couldn’t take off her own shirt later that night, and today has a herniated disc in that same area of her back, which causes her so much pain it interferes with her daily duties at home. At the time, she merely told friends she fell down the steps while carrying an armful of firewood.
The morning after the assault, Ervin, who begged her to return, kept apologizing via text messages. She refused to go back.
But then she realized all her belongings—her clothing, laptop, college textbooks, even kitchen appliances—were still there. So she decided to return for her things. “He told me before about changing the locks on people . . . I knew how he was. Knew if I didn’t go back, I’d never get (them),” she said. Helen believed he would destroy the belongings if she left them there.
And she “fully intended to leave” Ervin, after grabbing her belongings that day. She even had a plan of escape.
But she didn’t want to go stay with family members who lived nearby, for fear of endangering them. So she decided to stick around, play it cool, and during the evenings while Ervin was away at work, she would slowly cart off her belongings, a few at a time, so he wouldn’t notice. All “without causing any problems.” She hoped.
Before she could sneak all her things out, though, Ervin was drinking heavily and blaring the stereo late one night. She had to be up early for work the next morning, and knew not to make a fuss. So Helen offered to go sleep on her mom’s couch. She began gathering up her laptop and other items she needed and told him she would see him the next day. But Ervin refused to let her leave with anything.
“He would not let me have it so I left without it, and crashed on my mom’s couch,” Helen said. Her sister woke her up later that night, which is when Helen learned that Ervin had stolen her car.
That did prompt a call to the police. Helen said that local law enforcement was very familiar with Ervin, so a state trooper met her at Ervin’s house. Since Ervin had disabled the vehicle, a towing company was called. While Helen and the trooper stood outside in the road, waiting for the car to be loaded, Ervin was “standing in his doorway yelling profanities and threats.”
Finally, the trooper told her, “‘You leave, we’ll tow your car. Call us in the morning. You need to get a protective order,’” Helen said.
She almost didn’t get the chance. Before morning arrived, Ervin called a mutual friend of theirs, telling the friend to send police out to get him, because he was going to hunt Helen down and kill her.
Authorities were notified and police picked up Helen and took her to file for the protective order—which was granted. It ordered Ervin to stay away for 18 months.
But even after all of that, Helen didn’t press criminal charges. Neither did anyone in law enforcement who was familiar with Ervin’s repeat criminal behavior.
“I kicked myself every day afterwards for not (pressing charges),” Helen said. When asked why she didn’t, Helen gives the same answer that many abused woman have given in the past. “I just wanted to be done with him. I wanted to go about my life. I thought, I’m walking away and it’s a domestic assault charge,” Helen said. “He’ll get six months probation and a slap on the wrist and then (I’ll have to) worry about him being ticked off at me and coming after me again.”
Now, she would do things differently. Which is what she wants to tell other women. “Report it. It doesn’t matter what it is. Get out. Stay away. There’s shelters . . . there are people to help you. You don’t have to stay in that situation,” she said.
Many women who end up being battered or even killed say they never saw the warning signs that experts say is a good predictor of abusive behavior.
“I could tell almost immediately after staying with him that he was very controlling. My family was never allowed around. If the phone would ring he’d get angry. Just little things like that,” Helen said, telling a story almost identical to that of Nancy.
Many other women see the signs, but ignore them. That’s what Helen did. “Still, I never saw anything major to throw too much of a reg flag,” she said.
And Ervin did destroy Helen’s laptop and a cell phone she had bought him. “I never was able to go back and get my stuff. He was told to pack it up and take to his attorney’s office and I would get it. He brought my clothes but that was it. I never got anything else,” she said.
Now, five days after Layman’s death, Helen couldn’t care less about that.
“It’s just stuff. I’m alive, thank God. Other people suffered way worse than I did,” she said.
* * * *
Daleen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: Berry has expertise in overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment, and wrote about Postmaster Engle in her book. She’s an award-winning author, editor and journalist who speaks at conferences around the country. Berry was one of two keynote speakers addressing a national audience at “The Many Faces of Domestic Violence,” the 18th Annual Conference of the Association of Batterers’ Intervention Programs on March 1, 2012, in Anaheim, Calif. She recently spoke to social workers from all over the country at the “Hope for the Future: Ending Domestic Violence in Families” conference at the University of California, Berkeley.
Her memoir (paperback and as an e-book) can be found at bookstores everywhere, or ordered online. To read the first chapter free, please go to Goodreads. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”
If you want to read 30 other five-star reviews, check out this title on Amazon. To view the Sister of Silence book trailer, go to her VintageBerryWine Youtube channel. For a mock up of the SOS t-shirt readers are demanding, check out Berry’s Facebook page.