MERIDIAN — About five months before she was shot by her ex-husband, Meridian resident Heidi De Leon, 40, sent an email. In the subject line she typed “my story...need help.”
In the body of that email she typed more than 1,200 words detailing her battle to escape the abuse and manipulation of her ex-husband, Edward Epps Jr., 39, of Boise. Even though she’d filed for divorce in 2011 and had since remarried, she wasn’t free of Epps’ presence in her life and she needed help.
That’s why she was corresponding with Tina Swithin, a California-based advocate and author who founded One Mom’s Battle, an organization that helps parents navigate the storms of family court and dangerous child custody battles. Swithin, who herself survived an abusive marriage and agonizing divorce, offers advice for those in similar situations and helps connect people close to each other for support. De Leon had connected with another mother in her area through the group’s Facebook page.
Swithin messaged with the Idaho Press through Facebook. She also shared with the Idaho Press some of her correspondence with De Leon, which detailed the woman’s battle to free herself from Epps’ presence and her plea for help.
De Leon’s fears materialized on Sunday. At about 3 that afternoon, police say Epps appeared at the home where De Leon lived with her husband, Jose “Joe” De Leon, 47, in the 4900 block of West Charles Street in Meridian. Officers say Epps had two handguns and forced his way inside the house. As he shot and killed Joe and Heidi De Leon, Epps’ and Heidi’s 13-year-old daughter fled to a neighbor’s house for help. Two other girls — Epps’ and Heidi’s 10-year-old daughter and Joe De Leon’s 11-year-old daughter — remained in the house, according to Meridian Police. As police arrived, Epps held the girls hostage. Officers negotiated their release, but Epps later shot and killed himself.
Heidi De Leon had been worried about something like that happening for years. Epps had made death threats before, she wrote in her email to Swithin. She’d recently been trying to modify the child support agreement she had with Epps, with a court date set for late January.
On the night before the shooting, Ada County Sheriff’s deputies served Epps with a protection order. While Patrick Orr, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, couldn’t confirm who filed for the order, its service came fewer than 24 hours before the murder-suicide.
Meridian police officers interacted with the De Leons and Epps on multiple occasions, Meridian Deputy Police Chief Tracy Basterrechea told the Idaho Press in an email. First, in March, an officer met with Heidi De Leon about possible threats made by Epps toward the children. Being unable to substantiate a crime, the officer referred Heidi De Leon to a protection order.
In late December, a Meridian officer was dispatched to the De Leon’s home on Charles Avenue in reference to threats made by Epps. Officers referred the family to the Ada County Sheriff’s Office, given the location of the family home, Basterrechea said, adding the sheriff’s office responded and routed a report to the county prosecutor for charges.
A day later, on Dec. 29, Meridian officers responded again to the residence in reference to a child custody dispute. According to Basterrechea, Epps had showed up for his regular visitation with kids. Officers told Epps the girls were not going to go with him that evening and they escorted him from the property.
Finally, on Jan. 5, Meridian Police was contacted by Heidi De Leon asking if a protection order had been served. She was advised it had not been served and she was referred to the Ada County Sheriff’s Office because Epps lived in the county. Epps was served the order later in the evening.
Epps and Heidi De Leon met as students at Nampa High School, said Seth Tucker, who knew them both. All three graduated from the school in 1997, and Epps attended Boise State University. He and Heidi De Leon married shortly after Tucker’s own marriage in 2000.
In high school — even in middle school — Tucker, who was one of Epps’s best friends, said he never remembered the boy so much as losing his temper.
“I got to be clear, I’m not taking his side,” Tucker said Wednesday in a phone interview from Virginia, where he’s stationed with the U.S. Coast Guard. “Nothing could excuse the actions he took.”
Still, he remembered a straight-A high school student who “was nice to everybody.” Growing up, Tucker spent more time at Epps’ house than his own, he said. He, Epps and a third friend did everything together, including spending time at the Tucker family’s cabin near McCall and at a few church youth group events as well. A year or two after high school, he remembered, he took a trip to Seattle with Epps, Heidi De Leon and a few other friends. That was 1998 or 1999, he said.
“They were firmly together by then,” he said.
Tucker joined the U.S. Coast Guard in 2000 and lost touch with Epps and Heidi De Leon. He made faint attempts to get in touch with Epps when he returned to Idaho in the coming years, but he never succeeded.
“Now I wished I had,” Tucker said.
‘ON A DAILY BASIS’
In her email to Swithin, Heidi De Leon said her concerns began in 2010.
“I had no idea who my ex-husband was. A monster came out,” she wrote. “I wanted out so bad and had no idea how to do it. He was so controlling.”
It got worse, she said, after she told him she wanted a divorce. According to Heidi De Leon’s account to Swithin, Epps locked her in her room and made deals with her. He followed her to work. One day, he dragged her from the parking lot and into his car. He drove her home and took her phone away, she wrote, and then, in front of their daughters — who were 2 and 4 years old at the time — he “got a gun and put it to my chest and said if I don’t do what he asks then he’ll kill me.”
“I was so scared I didn’t know what to do,” she wrote.
The case slogged through family court for two years, Heidi De Leon wrote.
“I tried getting full custody but he muddled the waters so bad nobody knew what was true,” she wrote. “My kids were constantly telling me he was telling them to break things and kill me.”
The divorce was finalized in 2015. Under that agreement, she wrote, Epps had 50 percent custody of the children.
“Unfortunately, this is a story I hear over and over again almost on a daily basis,” Swithin said.
Swithin’s advocacy organization, One Mom’s Battle, began as a blog in the midst of her own divorce and custody battle in 2009. Today the group’s Facebook page has more than 40,000 likes, and offers public answers to questions from people who can submit anonymous questions.
Swithin is not a mother’s rights advocate nor is she against father’s parenting rights — she herself was raised by her father — but overwhelmingly, the people Swithin talks to are women. That’s because they are so much more likely to endure domestic violence, and because men often are less willing to reach out if they are victims, she said.
Heidi De Leon didn’t find the group’s Facebook page until 2016, Swithin remembered. By then, she felt jilted by the family court system, De Leon wrote while corresponding with another person on the website for One Mom’s Battle.
Swithin recognized some of the turns in De Leon’s story.
“My own custody battle started in 2009, and just like Heidi, I was frustrated because I knew how dangerous my ex was,” Swithin said. “But when you’re in family court, it’s all ‘he said, she said.’”
She added that “unless someone almost has a heroin needle sticking out of their arm in court, they give everyone 50/50 (custody).”
Part of the reason for that, she said, is because abusers so often have the ability to appear empathetic and caring, she said. An apparently engaged parent is refreshing for family court officials, Swithin pointed out, who are often used to seeing cases involving blatantly negligent parents.
“They get into court and they pretend to be the parent of the year when that was never the case,” Swithin said.
SEEKING TO EDUCATE
In the correspondence Swithin shared with the Idaho Press, there is no mention of Epps receiving a medical diagnosis for any type of mental illness or personality disorder. Heidi De Leon felt he was manipulative and was scared of him, however, and she also felt the family court system hadn’t helped her.
One of Swithin’s goals is to educate family courts and the public about what are known as “cluster B personality disorders,” including narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder. Those living with such disorders can often fail to recognize others’ needs, can appear very arrogant and envious, and are sometimes given to extreme flashes of anger, according to the Mayo Clinic. They can also appear sane and caring, which is why they can be manipulative in domestic violence situations.
“A majority of the people in my (support) groups are dealing with these types of individuals,” Swithin said.
There’s little research on the devastating effect those symptoms can have on a relationship or on a parenting situation, Swithin said. She said she feels that data is needed.
Heidi De Leon was concerned about the things Epps said to their children when they spent time with him, and the way she felt he manipulated them. That, too, is an abusers’ tactic Swithin is familiar with.
“They know the only way to continue controlling you is by using the kids as weapons. ... My ex-husband fought for custody of my daughters just because he knew that was a way to hurt me,” Swithin said.
Swithin said she felt Heidi De Leon had encapsulated that truth in a post she left on One Mom’s Battle’s Facebook page.
“The worst decision I made was telling him all I wanted was the kids,” De Leon wrote. “So he just went after the kids. My advice is don’t make it all about the kids and maybe he’ll focus on the stuff instead.”
Heidi De Leon told Swithin she’d tried twice to get a protection order against Epps. She was denied both times, she wrote.
Swithin herself said protection orders are a difficult topic to advise on. To begin with, in her personal experience, they aren’t always easy to obtain, especially if there has yet to be any physical violence between two people. Still, she feels courts should err on the side of caution.
“The common notion in my (support) groups is ‘why even bother trying to get one’ because it’s really difficult,” Swithin said.
There is also debate about how effective such orders are.
“I think a restraining order can prove helpful ... but when you’ve got someone so far into that sociopath category, it can just infuriate them even more,” she said.
Still, Heidi De Leon’s attorney filed a motion in November to modify the child support agreement. Epps’s attorney filed a response later that month. Those documents are sealed, and an Idaho Press request for them to be opened has not yet been returned. The case had been scheduled for a Jan. 28 court hearing, but attorneys have since filed a motion to dismiss it.
The Idaho Press’s attempts to reach two judges involved were unsuccessful, and an attorney for Heidi De Leon declined to comment.
In December, not long after the case opened once more, one of Heidi De Leon’s children wrote a troubling journal entry, in which she said Epps threatened violence against Heidi and Joe De Leon.
“Based on what her ex was telling the kids, he said ‘if I lose in family court this is what I’m going to do,’” Swithin said.
The journal entry was titled “same old, same old.”
In the aftermath of Sunday’s tragedy, the three daughters are staying with family, according to Meridian Police.
The murder-suicide was the third in six months in Meridian, which does not have a domestic violence shelter. Over the past year in the Treasure Valley, 11 people have died by murder-suicide.