Records: Slain East St. Louis mom feared for life

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BELLEVILLE, Ill. (AP) - Having survived getting her neck cut during a domestic dispute, Michelle Rowling worried her former boyfriend would take her life and considered his latest release from jail an ominous sign. With a few clicks on her keyboard, she told the world.


Rowling was dead five days later on Nov. 30, repeatedly stabbed in her apartment while still covered by the two-year protection order she got against Montrell Cooper in September. On Thursday, Cooper was charged with first-degree murder in Rowling's death and ordered jailed on $2 million bond.

Rowling's grisly slaying came after nearly two years of her imploring the legal system to protect her, according to court documents reviewed by The Associated Press. The case highlights the challenges domestic violence poses for family, prosecutors and abuse counselors, who warn that sometimes very little can be done.

St. Clair County's top prosecutor, Brendan Kelly, insists his office did everything it could to try to insulate the East St. Louis mother of two young children, including a 3-year-old girl fathered by Cooper, 25. While prosecutors sought prison time for Cooper in previous assault cases against Rowling, Kelly said, Rowling successfully lobbied for probation despite having labeled Cooper in her August request for court protection "a dangerous individual."

"With both of these cases, we tried to keep him in jail as long as the law would allow. But once he was given probation, he had to be released," Kelly told the AP. "These are always difficult cases, but it's our feeling that because of cases like this we have to do everything we can in hopes such tragic outcomes can be avoided."

Kelly couldn't immediately say why Rowling pressed for the probation. Was it to benefit the couple's daughter, figuring Cooper could provide for the child better if he wasn't imprisoned? Was it out of fear that putting Cooper behind bars would make him even angrier by the time he was freed, and that probation would mollify him?

"I don't know if it was because of the baby or what," her mother, Cathy McGolson, said Friday. "Every time I asked her if something was wrong, she just told me everything was fine."

Restraining orders are "a mechanism in place, what the system allows for. Is it a fail-proof system? Absolutely not. Sometimes, unfortunately, it gives a false sense of security," said Maggie Menefee, executive director of Alternatives to Living in Violent Environments, or ALIVE, a St. Louis provider of a crisis hotline for the domestically abused.

Messages left by the AP this week with public defenders who have represented Cooper and with Cooper's mother, Odette Cooper of St. Louis, weren't returned. Online court records as of Friday didn't reflect whether Montrell Cooper has an attorney yet in the murder case.

In February of last year, prosecutors charged Cooper with two felony battery counts, alleging he cut Rowling's neck with a kitchen knife. While Cooper was locked up, unable to post bond, Rowling got an emergency protection order against him, writing in her application that Cooper suspected her of cheating on him, sliced her neck during a confrontation and tried to cut her again while claiming, "`If I can't have you no one will.'"

Cooper, she wrote, let her go to seek medical attention. She went to police.

"Now after all this I am afraid of Montrell Cooper," she wrote then. "I want no (part) of this man."

"I'm afraid of losing my life," she added.

That temporary protection order expired in March of last year, after neither Rowling nor Cooper showed up for a hearing on the matter.

In January, Cooper pleaded guilty to one of the battery counts and was sentenced the next month to two and a half years of probation that Kelly said Rowling supported. Cooper

was ordered to undergo anger-management and substance-abuse assessments.

In August, after Cooper again was charged with battering Rowling, and she sought court-ordered protection from him, calling him her "ex-boyfriend."

"Montrell Cooper is a dangerous individual. I fear him. I'm afraid of him," she wrote. "Please help."

On Nov. 25, Cooper pleaded guilty to the latest domestic battery felony and got two more years of probation. Rowling turned to Facebook later that day, posting her cryptic message. Acquaintances pressed for details.

Rowling's mother said she saw those postings, called her daughter but was offered no specifics.

Prosecutors say on Nov. 30 Cooper and Rowling were seen at an East St. Louis supermarket. Before that day ended, Rowling was dead.

With Rowling's funeral scheduled for next Thursday, Menefee urged that Rowling not be judged.

"Whatever decision she was making was based on what she knew about her abuser," she said. "The overriding question about domestic violence is, `Why does she stay?' It's what we always want to understand.

"The victims know their situations better than anyone. For us to judge from the outside is very unfair."

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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