The phone rang at Patricia Gabriel’s home. A creditor was on the other end. They called to say Gabriel’s daughter, Monica, was dead.
Patricia Gabriel was in disbelief. Her daughter could not be dead.
Monday marks eight years since Monica Gabriel’s death.
No one knows what killed Monica on April 15, 2011. No one except, perhaps, her husband, Curtis Williamson.
Monica grew up in Boonsboro, the middle child of Patricia and Ignatius Gabriel. She attended Boonsboro Middle School and Boonsboro High School. She had an Associate of Arts degree from Frederick Community College and a bachelor’s degree from Wheeling Jesuit University. Prior to her death, she worked for a health care company in Rockville as an account manager.
She had no children, though her husband wanted them. But she had two dogs she loved, Gracie Belle and P. Maghee, and two cats, Cecelia and Ozzie.
At the time of her death, she was known as Monica Williamson. She had been married for a year and a half.
Monica met Williamson in sixth grade. They stayed friends through middle and high school. They went to a small school — maybe 200 students in the senior class, 500 in the whole high school. The two lost touch after graduation in 1984.
Williamson contacted Monica, 25 years later, by email.
At the time, Monica was living in Frederick. Williamson in western Pennsylvania. Their emails turned into texting. Then he called. He was back in the area.
They began dating. She knew most of his history already. His father, Robert Williamson Sr., died shortly after they began to date. His mother was already dead. She had met both of them when they were younger. She knew she could trust him.
He had been married once, right after finishing high school. He had a son from the marriage. It ended in divorce, as had her first marriage.
She always remembered the gold bracelet with gemstones, the first gift he gave her. They had been dating for three months. It was another example of how charming he was. He made her feel comfortable.
He proposed in a park in Boonsboro and held out a ring the two bought together at Costco. It was fast. They had dated for less than a year. He was in a rush to get married.
The two planned a church wedding with a reception at Dutch’s Daughter. Monica planned most of the wedding, but Williamson wanted to arrange for the minister.
Just before the ceremony, Williamson told his bride-to-be that the minister was sick. Instead of waiting, he suggested they do a courthouse marriage in Virginia. The two were married Dec. 10, 2009.
Monica’s family was upset, but they came to the reception the couple held at Monica’s Frederick home. A picture from the reception shows Monica holding one of her beloved dogs, sitting on Williamson’s lap.
In the picture, Williamson smiles for the camera, close-lipped. The smile does not reach his eyes.
Her marriage was less than 2 years old when, in early 2011, Monica noticed something weird. Two months later, Patricia Gabriel learned that her daughter was dead.
Monica was never buried, never eulogized, never mourned.
Most people didn’t even know she died.
That’s because Monica Gabriel was never dead.
“I said he is a clever man, but he is not smart,” said Monica, 52.
The abuse started six months into their marriage, Monica said. Williamson hated questions. He never answered with words.
“Restraining me against walls crushing my chest, shoving, choking,” she said in an email. “The more I questioned the worse it became.”
Every time he got physical, she would make a note of it in a pocket calendar. She had a system. That way she could keep track of when the abuse happened in a way Williamson would not be able to understand. Each time, she’d mark a corresponding letter on the date, “T” for her throat and “H” for her head, for example.
Like many domestic violence victims, she never went to the police to report the abuse, she said.
“You just don’t,” she said. “You don’t. I wish I had, but I didn’t.”
He liked control, she said. He never let her be alone around family or friends. She could go out to dinner with a friend, but he always joined them. He would tell her mother that Monica did not want to speak with her family and it would only upset her if they tried to get in touch.
Gabriel thought it was strange when a creditor called to say her daughter died, but she told them if her daughter was dead, she would have known, Monica said. Gabriel did not tell Monica about the call until after Monica left Williamson.
When they would go to the movies, he would leave during the middle of the movie to go to the restroom. He would not return until the end.
Her car, which they drove to the movies, was never in the same spot it had been when they entered the theater. She just forgot where they parked. It was all in her head, he would say.
He would tell her she was sick, which is why she could not remember the parking spot. By November 2011, she was actually feeling sick, she said. She was always tired and there was an odd taste in her mouth. Her body hurt, her head ached. She was nauseated.
He was always able to explain because he was an “expert at gaslighting,” she said. Gaslighting is a technique abusers will use to manipulate their victims into doubting themselves.
“That’s one of the hardest things to overcome, because it makes you doubt yourself so much,” Monica said.
Monica was no longer working. Williamson never wanted her to work anyway. She quit her job over the summer because Williamson kept telling her that they were going to move because of his job with Bechtel.
She believed he worked at Bechtel because she had driven him to the office before, she said. But Williamson never worked at Bechtel, according to a human relations representative with the company.
She never worried about bills. Williamson told her he would take care of everything — her mortgage, credit card payments. Her paychecks from when she worked went to an account she thought she shared with her husband.
If he said he paid her mortgage, she had no reason to suspect otherwise. He told her he was making payments on the house, so he did not know why a foreclosure notice was on the door that fall. It was a mix-up with the bank, he said. He would get it straightened out. Just a mistake.
“You trust blindly the person you get married to,” she said.
A month later, her car was repossessed. She thought she had paid it off, she said. Stranger still, the bank that repossessed the car was not the bank she used to get a car loan. He told her it was another mistake.
He told her that the debit card, the one for the account they allegedly shared, was lost in the mail. Or that his aunt had it, but she was out of town.
“All these big mistakes for big things started to add up,” Monica said.
He was always spinning a new story. Another reason. Another excuse.
In early 2012, just two years into the marriage, Monica noticed she never received any mail at her Frederick home, where they had lived for two years. Not even the junk mail flyers sent out to “neighbor” at so-and-so address or resident of the address.
She could not think of an excuse for why she never had any letters.
She received a few letters for the first time in a year in February 2012. She would later learn Williamson had put a mail holding request on her mail on Feb. 23, 2011, just weeks before Monica’s alleged death.
She compiled any documents she would need for a quick exit. Her birth certificate. Marriage license. Passport. Old bank statements. She hid them between the mattress and the box spring.
When Williamson arrived back home, she calmly questioned him. He got defensive. He said he would have proof that their financials were fine. He never gave her proof.
In the few letters that arrived, she found bills from credit cards she never opened, such as a Kohl’s charge account.
Monica said she knew a credit card she had from J.C. Penney was paid off. She had not used it recently. Yet in that pile of mail was a letter from the department store.
Monica called J.C. Penney to make sure her account was handled. But the person she spoke with passed her off to another department. Which passed her off to another department. Which sent her to another person.
“I had to call like three different companies before I got to somebody who was managing the account anymore because it had just been so long that it had been turned over to other companies,” Monica said.
Finally, her call got through to a woman who could handle her case. The woman quizzed her using the security questions she had used to sign up for the account. These questions were ones Williamson likely could answer as her husband, Monica said. Except for one.
That is when she learned.
“And she was like, ‘I hate to inform you, but we were told that you died.’ And I said, ‘Oh, really? When did I die?’” Monica said.
It was this lady who first informed Monica that she had allegedly died four months ago, on April 15.
That is just one of the dates listed for Monica as the day she died. She was also declared dead over a year earlier, on March 16, 2010.
Monica does not know how she supposedly died. While there is likely a death certificate floating around for her, she has yet to see it herself, she said. Since she is alive, Monica assumes that Williamson forged it.
Days after learning about her death, Monica started a journal. A play on the quote from Mark Twain seemed appropriate.
In blue pen across the notebook lines, she wrote: “The reports of my demise have been highly overrated.”
The letters and bills shattered Monica’s wishful thinking that she had a happy marriage with her husband. Now, she knew about the bills and her own supposed death. He kept promising that he would fix the problems and show her the proof of how everything was paid off. He never did.
She wanted answers. She started pressing him for more information instead of accepting his excuses.
He responded with violence.
He would shove her. Hold her on the ground. Strangle her.
The abuse was the worst it had ever been.
The last time he touched her was Jan. 28, 2012, Monica said. He held her against the wall, his hand wrapped around her neck.
“While I was being choked I looked him in the eyes and told him ‘go ahead. I’m already dead. Right?’” Monica said in the email. “He instantly released me like he was burned and said he had to ‘go to the office to finish some work’ and disappeared for 24 hours.”
He came home the next day for an hour, she said, and made her take her car to his “aunt.” He told Monica he thought the car might be repossessed again and wanted it hidden.
The next day, Monica realized she had not gotten any more mail in the past 15 days. After calling the post office, she learned there was still an online hold on her mail. She gathered the documents from under the mattress and walked to the post office.
She called two friends on her walk. One offered to take her and her pets in. The other gave her a ride to the post office, she said.
She received a bin with the rest of her mail. Hundreds of letters. The mortgage. The car. The bills. All unpaid.
Monica went with her friend to Frederick County District Court. She filed a temporary protective order against Williamson on the grounds of abuse. She was given information for Heartly House, an advocacy organization that works to help victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Heartly House attorney Blaine Hoffmann represented her at a hearing for the temporary protective order, which was granted Jan. 30.
Under the order, Williamson was not to contact Monica. He was ordered to stay away from her work, to not abuse or harass her or enter the home the two had shared, according to the protective order. Monica was later granted a final protective order on March 12, 2012, which she extended an additional year.
Although Monica was granted her house, she opted to stay at a friend’s place for safety.
Williamson called her that night, begging her to remove the protective order against him and threatening to kill himself if she did not. She called Heartly House, which called the police. She filed a missing persons report with the police, who determined that he was in the Baltimore area, not Orlando, Florida, where he claimed to be, she said.
He ultimately filed protective orders against her.
Using the threat of suicide is another way an abuser might manipulate someone, said Kimberly Waibogha, clincial services director at Heartly House. It makes victims fear that their partner might kill themselves. It can also make them feel guilty, she said.
Monica, with help from Heartly House, pulled her credit report on Feb. 2, 2012. It was the first time she saw evidence of her death.
“That was more unnerving than hearing I was dead,” she said.
Monica went to a PNC Bank branch to open n account. At that point, she had $26 that she took when she left her house and whatever money she could earn from pawning some of her jewelry.
She knew she was technically dead. When the teller went to help her open an account, a fraud warning showed up on the screen. Her Social Security number was inactive, she said.
The teller informed Monica that they would have to call the police. Go ahead, Monica said, that was her next stop.
The police contacted Williamson and got an address for him. He was living with another woman, and the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office served him the protective order on Valentine’s Day, Monica said.
Williamson, in return, filed two protective orders against Monica.
Hoffmann has worked for Heartly House’s legal services for 18 years and Monica’s case sticks out as unusual, he said. He had never had a case where someone was declared dead. He helped Monica with the protective orders filed against her, Monica said.
Beki Doing, the bilingual victim’s advocate in Heartly House’s legal department, also worked with Monica. Williamson was a “true con artist,” she said.
“It doesn’t happen often,” Doing said. “It was pretty extreme. He was a next-level con artist.”
But with Monica, Williamson faced the unexpected, Doing said. She actively sought justice, even with all the gaslighting he did to her confusing her reality.
“She’s so smart and really just strong,” Doing said. “I think that she really is an inspiration. He met his match, and I don’t think he saw that coming. Obviously, people like him tend to prey on weak people who are easily manipulated. And Monica didn’t turn out to be that.”
Although Williamson had left, he and Monica were still married. So began Monica’s legal experience.
Monica filed for divorce on March 7.
In her initial complaint, Monica said she did not want alimony but requested sole custody of the two dogs. She checked off adultery and cruelty/excessively vicious conduct as the reasons for the divorce.
Williamson filed his answer two days later, agreeing to the basic facts of the marriage, such as where and when they married. But he disagreed with the grounds of divorce claiming he was the one treated cruelly for the past two years and cited his protective order filed against Monica.
He requested the court grant him custody of one of their dogs and his belongings.
Monica’s case was referred from Heartly House to the Maryland Legal Volunteer Services. Local attorney Tara Shoemaker and Baltimore attorney Ian Hitchcock handled Monica’s divorce.
Hitchcock helped Monica file amended complaints, including detailing the abuse on and before Jan. 28, 2012. He also helped her file motions or address the ones Williamson submitted.
Williamson failed to show at hearings or conferences. Mail sent to the addresses he listed was returned, according to July 25 motion. Monica was granted an absolute divorce with an indefinite alimony and attorney fees for Hitchock on Sept. 24, 2012.
Williamson filed a motion to vacate the divorce on Sept. 28 on the grounds he was still married to a Traci Williamson. Monica, during her marriage, did not know Williamson had a second wife. Williamson never showed up for the hearing on the motion or any of the subsequent motions.
In all, he filed 21 motions, Monica said. Twenty-one times she took time off from work to show up in court because if she did not turn up, the case could go in Williamson’s favor.
Nor did he show up for the absolute divorce hearing. That meant he waived his rights to argue the facts of the divorce, Shoemaker said.
“By not showing up, essentially, it’s the same as him walking in and saying, ‘Yes, I agree to everything that she said,’” she said. “He absolutely had an opportunity to present evidence, to refute her evidence, and to put on his own witnesses or cross-examine her testimony or her witnesses. And he waived those rights when he made a choice not to come to the hearing.”
Monica’s case is unique because of the facts, Shoemaker said. She had not dealt with a case where someone was declared dead. Filing motions in a legal matter is one way abusers continue to persecute their victims, Shoemaker said.
“Although the facts of this case are shocking, I think that tactic is something that we, as domestic attorneys, we see pretty frequently. More than we should,” Shoemaker said.
It was curious, Hitchcock said, that Williamson never showed up, but it is not uncommon.
What made the case more interesting was what Hitchcock and Monica found during the discovery process.
Monica subpoenaed bank records for Williamson because her name was supposed to be on the account. Records revealed that although Monica’s paychecks were funneling into the account, she never had access to it. Instead, it was registered to Williamson and his second wife, Traci.
Monica said that the records showed how Williamson would steal from her. Through her account, he paid for dating services and for parking at the hospital where his son was being treated.
“Really, from what we saw, he was living a double life,” Hitchcock said.
Based on the new information, Monica and Hitchcock filed for an annulment instead of divorce, but it was denied.
Monica said that at first she received some of the alimony, but then Williamson disappeared. So did the alimony. He now owes her more than $90,000 in alimony. Hitchcock never saw a penny of the attorney's fees the judge in the case ordered Williamson to pay.
After the case, Monica went to file criminal charges against Williamson with the District Court commissioners. They did not accept her charges, she said. She spoke with the Frederick County State’s Attorney’s Office, but an attorney told her they could not help her without a police report, Monica said.
“It’s very disheartening when you present a list of multiple charges with all of the supporting documents to them and they say, ‘No,’” she said.
She tried to go back to the police, but they would not file charges without first speaking with Williamson. They could not find him, she said, and charges were never filed, according to electronic court records.
Officer Stephen Radtke, with the Frederick Police Department, who Monica said handled the case, could not be reached for comment.
After Williamson left, while in the process of divorcing him, Monica went to the shed at her home. Inside were documents Williamson had stockpiled. She found information about a woman, including her name, date of birth and Social Security number. She also had the same information for the woman’s kids.
Williamson had been married not once, but multiple times. He had multiple children.
Monica also saw statements for phone bills. He racked up $900 on a Sprint account he opened in Monica’s name, she said. He would buy phones then sell them. He also created multiple email addresses where he would email others pretending to be her.
It took Monica five years to straighten out her life after being declared dead. Getting a job was difficult as she was "dead," but she was able to get one. She would have to ask her new boss for time off so that she could go to court.
Monica still felt sick and saw a doctor the year after her divorce. The levels of arsenic in her blood were elevated. She said she thinks this is why she felt ill.
Williamson would bring her a Pepsi. The can was always open. She thinks Williamson might have mixed arsenic with the soda.
Monica was issued a final protective order on Feb. 1, 2013. The motions related to their divorce finally stopped coming in May 2013.
Years later, Monica learned someone was looking for her. When her phone rang, the voice on the other end was not Williamson's, but a private detective's. He wanted to know about Monica’s marriage, what Williamson had stolen and his playbook as a con artist.
Williamson had found a new wife.
Staff writer Wyatt Massey contributed to the reporting of this article.