By the time Courtney Schouest escaped her attacker, she was barely recognizable.
The 30-year-old petite blonde had a fractured skull, a broken jaw and nose, a fractured disk in her back, damage to an eye socket, an internal injury, and had lost most of the hearing in her right ear.
She never thought she’d survive the nearly five-hour assault the evening of Aug. 23, allegedly at the hands of 34-year-old Brandon Chase Tanner, the father of one of her children and a man she had called her boyfriend off and on over the past six years.
Photos of her injuries went viral on social media, with nearly 4,000 shares on the nonprofit Bikers Against Abuse Facebook page. Her relatives and the nonprofit shared posts about the assault and possible sightings of the man accused of committing the crime.
After three days on the run, Tanner was arrested on Aug. 26 on a felony charge of domestic violence by aggravated assault and additional felony charges of burglary and commercial burglary. His guilt or innocence in the case has not been determined by a judge, as he is awaiting trial.
Now, Schouest is sharing her story in hopes of convincing others to get away from their abuser before it’s too late.
“I kept thinking he would change,” she said. “I wanted to believe him. I kept going back.
“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else.”
‘There is a way out’
Schouest — pronounced sh-west — said she learned Tanner was a high-ranking member of the Simon City Royals street gang after their relationship began. But by then she had already fallen in love.
It wouldn’t be long before the abuse started, she said, which involved blows to her face and body.
But after each alleged attack, Schouest said she stayed with Tanner because she believed him. He said he was sorry. He said he loved her. He said he would never hurt her again.
Schouest said she soon learned the abuse was not going to end. She tried to cope by using drugs, mostly methamphetamine, with Tanner and his friends. But then she would come down from a high and feel even worse about herself.
“It got to the point where I didn’t want to live anymore,” she said. “I didn’t eat. I didn’t like myself. I did the drugs. I felt like it was the only way to survive.”
Schouest had lost all of her self esteem because she had been told so many times she was “useless” and “no good” and started to believe what she says Tanner was telling her. She didn’t see a way out, and said Tanner always kept the car keys so she couldn’t leave.
“He would make me believe I had done wrong when I hadn’t,” she said. “I’m an addict, and I’ll always be an addict. But just from all of the support I’ve gotten since this happened, I know now there is a way out of that. I’m hoping to go to rehab.”
Schouest had been living away from Tanner, with relatives and friends, for about a month before the Aug. 23 assault.
She ended up with Tanner that day, after she reached out to him through a mutual friend. She asked to stop by the home they once shared to pick up some personal items, and a friend ended up picking both of them up to take them there.
On the way, she said Tanner was kind and complimentary.
Everything changed as soon as Schouest said she walked inside the camper home and he slammed the door behind him.
“He turned around and said, ‘Now, you are going to tell me the (expletive) truth,’” she said.
He started peppering her with questions about infidelity since they had been apart.
She said she hadn’t slept with anyone else, but Tanner kept telling her she was lying. Each time, she denied it, and she said he started punching her again and again.
After she started bleeding from the initial blows, she said Tanner made her get up and grab a sheet to place over his futon. He didn’t want blood on his furniture.
The assault continued outside, where she said Tanner made her sit on her hands on a bottom step to the home, leaving her unable to block her face or body.
“He was hitting me as hard as he could,” she said.
At times, Schouest said she’d deny the allegations of infidelity or say nothing in response because she knew it wouldn’t do any good.
She said she even tried at one point to just tell him what he wanted to hear and admit to something she hadn’t done.
She said Tanner said things like, ‘You got five minutes to start talking” as he dragged her around by the hair and choked her nearly to the point of passing out.
At one point, Schouest said she was forced into a cow trough to wash the blood off while her alleged abuser said things like “she was going to die” as they headed toward a wooded area.
It was then she thought she was going to die, but then she saw what seemed to be a car driving by.
She yelled to Tanner that there was a cop car and took a chance at an escape.
By then, she said Tanner had ripped off her pants, and she could barely see because her eyes were swollen shut.
Still, Schouest said she managed to squeeze between breaks in a barbed-wire fence until she made it to the other side.
She ran to a nearby home and started banging on the door for help.
No one answered at first, but eventually someone opened the door, took her in and called law enforcement.
Tanner took off and Schouest ended up in an Alabama hospital with serious injuries that she says will require additional treatment in the future, including plastic surgery.
The Sun Herald obtained a copy of the George County Sheriff’s Department’s initial report, which confirmed a deputy talked to a man living at the home. He told the deputy Schouest arrived at about 9:30 p.m. and he told his wife to call 911. Details in the report also matched what Schouest told the Sun Herald.
‘If you love me, help me’
Just hours after the Aug. 23 assault, Schouest started receiving messages from Tanner asking that she forgive him — even blaming her at times for the causing the assault.
Tanner sent her private messages on Facebook during his three days on the run, and started sending emails from the George County jail after he was taken into custody. Schouest shared screenshots of their conversations with the Sun Herald.
Tanner wrote things like “I am sorry, baby” and “I love you,” over and over again.
Schouest reminded Tanner that he had tried to kill her and sent him a picture of her injuries.
Tanner repeatedly denied ever trying to kill Schouest.
“I just wanted u to tell the truth and us get better,” he wrote before appealing for her to help keep him out of prison.
To Schouest, it was just more manipulation.
“Please baby help me,” he wrote in another exchange. “If you love me, help me.”
She reminded him that she needed help when he “was trying to kill me.”
He asked why she would want to see the father of her child in prison.
“That’s what you want me in prison, Courtney for real,” Tanner wrote. “Then you never loved me. I’m wrong for beating u up but I would never kill u. I love u.”
Tanner tried repeatedly professing his love, telling her how she knew he had “an anger problem,” and saying they had both “hurt one another,” and that he was going to rehab to get better for their relationship and their child.
In one of the last messages to Schouest during his time on the run, Tanner said he had gotten a car and a room in Mobile and asked her to come see him.
She never went.
‘You can get away’
Since the assault, Schouest has looked back on her time with Tanner with a different perspective.
Over the years, she said she convinced herself again and again that he would change.
But she knew deep down it wasn’t going to happen.
He had a history of arrests and convictions for felony and misdemeanor offenses, including a misdemeanor conviction for another domestic violence assault on Schouest in March 2015.
Though she never signed charges in that case, a George County justice court judge found Tanner guilty, fined him and released him from jail after he spent enough time behind bars to cover the cost of his fine, according to court records.
“He has a history of criminal activity throughout our county and Jackson County,” Sheriff Keith Havard said. “He is well-known around here by law enforcement. Anytime anything (criminal) comes up in the area, he’s in the back of our mind as a suspect.”
Tanner has been in and out of jail or prison for years despite a lengthy criminal history, mostly for drug convictions.
“It’s hard to keep anyone locked up anymore because of all the prison reform,” Havard said. The laws push for alternatives in sentencing for non-violent offenders who commit crimes because of alcohol and drug addictions, who are often sent to drug court or placed on probation instead of being sent to prison for lengthy stays.
After the latest attack that put her in the hospital, Schouest said she has no intention of allowing Tanner to go free because she knows he could do it again to someone else.
In the meantime, Schouest said she’s trying to focus on improving her own life and getting her message across to abuse victims that there is help and support out there for them to get away from their abusers.
“You can live, you can get away and there’s always somebody that will take you in, that will do for you, that will help you to help yourself,” she said. “Always, there’s people out there that care even when you don’t know they’re there.”
Like many other abuse victims, Schouest didn’t believe there was anywhere to go to get out of the abusive relationship until so many people reached out to offer help.
“They’re there,” she said. “I promise. You just reach out, don’t be scared to reach out. A whole world of people out there care.”
For the first times in years, Schouest said, she now knows she is loved.
Call the Gulf Coast Women’s Center for Nonviolence crisis hotline at 228-435-1968 or toll-free at 1-800-800-1396 or call the center’s Adrienne’s House at 228-205-4502. The hotline is staffed 24 hours a day. The center offers victims a variety of free services: domestic violence shelters, adults and children’s counseling, case management, court advocacy, legal assistance, intervention programs, therapeutic preschool and sexual assault crisis response.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
How we did this story
After photos of a George County woman’s swollen, black and blue face went viral on social media — now with nearly 4,000 shares and over 450 comments on the Bikers Against Abuse Facebook page — reporter Margaret Baker wanted to find out the full story of what happened. She and videographer Alyssa Newton talked with Schouest at length, and Baker also talked to Sheriff Keith Havard, obtained copies of the deputy’s report, and got records on Tanner’s background from the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Other media outlets initially reported the usual information available in these kinds of cases — arrest date, charges, maybe a few details. But after Schouest said she wanted to share her story to encourage others to leave their abusers, Baker took the time to paint a full picture of how victims can feel trapped, and how a cycle of abuse can often threaten their lives.