By RUSS OLIVO
WOONSOCKET — Somehow, Sandy Gagnon knew something was horribly wrong when her daughter Tanya didn’t show up to take her husband, Roger, to the doctor on the morning of June 17.
Tanya Gagnon, 44, lived with her boyfriend, Charles “Marques” Johnson, 43, in the Social Street School Apartments. Her parents had just talked with her on the phone the night before and everything seemed fine. Sandy and Roger, who live in nearby Cumberland, say their daughter kept in touch with them every day and there’s no way she would have missed an appointment without saying anything.
“Even if she was mad at us, you’d get a phone call,” says Roger.
That’s just the kind of person she was. Hardly a day went by when she didn’t have contact with her parents, and usually it was in person.
But on this day her absence seemed particularly off. After all, Tanya was supposed to take her father for lunch in Galilee after he got out of the doctor’s office.
The silence was beginning to unsettle Sandy.
Suddenly she gave voice to the feeling that was gnawing at her gut.
“He killed her!” she blurted out.
Telling the story recently during an interview at her home on West Wrentham Road, Sandy broke into tears.
“I said it,” she recalled. “But I don’t know why I said it.”
She still can’t say what made her draw such a grim conclusion, which is understandable. On paper, Tanya Gagnon and Charles Johnson seemed like the perfect couple. Arm in arm, always smiling together.
But Sandy Gagnon had a motherly instinct.
Tragically, it was spot on.
And it opened a gaping wound in her heart that is still as raw as ever. Her husband and Tanya’s only sibling, Tami Girard, are struggling emotionally, too.
Police says Tanya was shot to death by Johnson, who then turned the gun on her pet cat before taking his own life. No one will ever be charged with the crime, because there is no one left to charge.
For Gagnon’s parents and Girard, who lives in nearby Millville, the loss of Tanya and the aftermath have so unhinged their lives they say they can’t even live around here any longer. Tami has already sold her house and there’s a for-sale sign on her parents’ house in Cumberland.
“Living here, it just hurts too much,” says Tami.
Her father, who works for a towing company out of Woonsocket, says, “I go to work in the morning, I tell myself I’m not going to look.”
“But I look.”
Tami says there’s no recovery from the loss of a family member to homicide. She and her parents are coping the best they can, which is to say, not very well at all. But she’s found some comfort in working for a newfound cause: Lifting up her sister’s legacy and helping other victims of domestic violence get free from the trauma of abuse that, all too often, ends in a homicide.
Tami can hardly believe how passionately she’s thrown herself into the effort to call attention to domestic violence in her sister’s memory. Suddenly, she has become consumed by a sense of mission, which is already beginning to bear fruit.
Along with her lifelong friend, Lisa Lajoie of Burrillville, the two have launched a Facebook page called “Behind Closed Doors – the Tanya Gagnon Story – to promote series of fundraisers that will start off with a candlelight vigil for Tanya at Barry Field, on Aug. 1, with a rain date of Aug. 2.
Future events include a “supply drive” for victims of domestic violence living in shelters, to be held on Aug. 16 at Woonsocket Middle School, 66 Florence Drive; A yard sale at Lajoie’s house on Callahan School Street in Burrillville on Aug. 30; a “tattoo party” where guests can get inked with the ribbon of domestic violence awareness, also at Lajoie’s house, on Sept. 12; and a 5K road race in Woonsocket sometime in October.
Proceeds from the events will go to Sojourner House, which runs a network of shelters for battered women, including one in Woonsocket; the Rhode Island Coalition for Domestic Violence; and the Woonsocket Cat Sanctuary.
Tami hardly recognizes the person in herself who has emerged to take charge of organizing these efforts.
“I’ve never done anything like this a day in my life,” she says. “It’s become an obsession for me.”
But she has no intention of stopping. She says all of the events Behind Closed Doors is promoting will become annual traditions in her sister’s name “until my dying breath.”
The Facebook page is more than just a promotional vehicle, says Tami. It’s also intended to be a place where victims of domestic violence can reach for help if they need it. Any time of day or night, says Gagnon, if someone needs transportation to a safe haven, they can get in touch with her.
She and her parents wish they could have provided that kind of support for Tanya. But they had no idea she was in need of it – and that’s how the Facebook page got its name.
Behind closed doors, she says, it’s impossible to tell what someone might be enduring.
It was only after her sister’s death, says Tami, that she learned she was very likely a victim of chronic abuse.
More than a statistic
KNOWN AS a hard worker, Tanya was a employed as a case manager for developmentally challenged senior citizens by TILL (Toward Independent Learning & Living), a healthcare provider in Massachusetts. She’d been with TILL 27 years and, for some time, had simultaneously been holding down a part-time job with Seven Hills, a Worcester-based agency.
She was a doting aunt to her niece, nephew and great-nephew; she loved cooking and entertaining; and she was an avid fan of reggae music. Tami remembers that, just days before she was murdered, Tanya bought a bicycle to ride on the bike path that runs close to her house in Millville. She was so excited when she got that bicycle, she texted her a picture of it, said Tami, calling up the image on her cell phone.
“In the eyes of the world she is just a statistic – a domestic violence statistic,” says Tami. “In my world, she is not.”
Tanya, her sister says, had a lot of living left to do.
Tami is so grief-stricken by her sister’s loss that she can hardly sleep at night. She’s walked past her father dozing on the sofa and heard him trying to have a conversation in his sleep with the daughter who was stolen from him.
“It’s just unbelief,” says Roger. “Every day is like a dream.”
“A bad one,” Sandy says, finishing his sentence.
Tanya had been in a relationship with Johnson for more than three years after the two were introduced to each other through friends, says Tami.
For all the time they had been together, there had never been an indication that the two of them were dealing with any kind of domestic strife. In all of the photos that Tanya uploaded of the two of them on social media, she and Johnson were always smiling. Tanya adorned many of the photos with graphic decorations like borders of hearts that made it seem like the two were very much in love.
That’s exactly the appearance she and Johnson conveyed whenever they were with her and other member of her family, says Tami.
“In front of all of us, he laughed, he smiled, he put my sister on a pedestal,” says Tami. “None of us had any clue that any of this was happening. We never saw them arguing. Nothing.”
From the vantage point of the local jurisdiction, members of the Woonsocket Police Department similarly had few red flags that might have foreshadowed the eruption of violence that claimed Tanya’s life.
In all the time the couple had been together, dating back to a previous residence they shared in East Woonsocket, nothing had ever resulted in a call for service related to domestic violence; a complaint of abuse; or a request for a restraining order, police say.
But one needn’t have looked far to realize that Johnson had his demons. Although he hadn’t been arrested since 2011, Johnson had a criminal record dating back to 1995. He had dozens of past contacts with law enforcement, including multiple infractions for possession of narcotics, according to the judiciary’s web site. He’d done time in prison.
Many of the charges were lodged against him by police in Providence, where local police say he used to live. It was there, in 2001, that he was arrested, and ultimately convicted, of a charge of simple domestic assault. Johnson also had been convicted of other violent offenses, including an assault and battery on a person over 60 years old.
But it wasn’t just his criminal record that persuaded Tami that Johnson was, as she now regards him, “a monster.”
Tanya may never have confided about the abuse she suffered at the hands of Johnson to members of her own family. For whatever reasons she may have had, she didn’t disclose the information to her sister or her parents.
She reached out to members of Johnson’s family about it, however.
After her sister was killed, Tami learned that Tanya had contacted his niece on multiple occasions to tell her “she was in a bad way” with Johnson.
“It was never disclosed to us,” says Tami.
When someone is murdered the way Tanya was, Tami says it’s hard to get closure. As her friend Lisa explains, even the justice system is at a loss to hold someone responsible, because the killer, in the most cowardly fashion imaginable, took his own life.
“It’s not like they got a phone call or something to tell them their daughter was killed in an accident,” she says. “There’s no accounting for it. He decided everyone’s fate.”
The Gagnons found out too late about Tanya to help, but the reality of her situation should not have been kept a secret, says Tami. And if she has her way, other victims of domestic violence will get the help – and the justice – that her sister deserved.
“People that knew,” she says, “they should have come forward sooner to reach out to Tanya’s family so we could have helped.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo