Police: Ohio marriage counselor killed by husband

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CLEVELAND (AP) — After years as a successful couples counselor, Tonya Hunter was credited with saving many marriages from breaking up. But a week before her death, she didn’t know where her own husband was.

Nervously, she asked the manager of her office building to change the locks on the doors. With her 4-year-old son in tow, Hunter made the rounds to her friends throughout the building, trying to spread the word.

“She told everyone that she had filed for a police restraining order,” said Peter Wairegi, who works for an African-American lifestyle magazine on the fourth floor, “and that if we see him to call the police.”

A few days later, Hunter was found in her garage, stabbed to death. Her little boy, who had been abandoned on a street corner, led police to her body. And her husband, whom she had met in an anger-management class she taught, was arrested.

The husband, Maurice Lyons, was taken into custody Monday and is being held on pending charges of aggravated murder and domestic violence. The couple, who married in December, had met when Lyons was a student in one of Hunter’s classes last year, Wairegi said. Lyons was released from prison last winter after serving three years for burglary and theft.

Police last week issued a warrant for his arrest after Hunter filed a domestic violence complaint on July 13, claiming Lyons had slammed her against a sink.

“I think she was trying to help him,” Wairegi said. “But by the time she realized this was a problem, I’m sure it was already too late.”

In recent months, Lyons threatened to kill Hunter several times and punched her at least twice, police records show. She had filed two restraining orders against her husband in the past four months.

On July 20, less than a week before her death, Hunter told police she had been receiving threatening phone calls from her husband for several days. According to the police report, Lyons told her: “I’m going to kill you! I’m going to punch you in the face!”

Hunter also accused Lyons of hitting her just 10 days after he got off parole in March. On the morning of March 26, Hunter told police that Lyons punched her in the back of the head during an argument and followed her and her son to a barber shop. She was afraid to go home, she said, and believed her husband was on drugs, according to the report.

The next day, police were called to the house again. A teary-eyed Hunter answered the door.

“She was noticeably upset, and it appeared that her left cheek line was swollen,” the police officer wrote. She told police that they had been arguing about money and the fact that she had pressed charges the day before.

Hunter said Lyons had threatened her, saying: “If I go to jail, I am going to come back here and kill you.” Her son told police that “the man had punched his mommy in the head and scratched her on the neck.”

Lyons pleaded no contest and was convicted April 7 of domestic violence and victim intimidation in the March 26 confrontation. Court records don’t list an attorney for Lyons, who also served prison time for a string of crimes in Missouri and Illinois between 1989 and 1998, including a 10-year term handed down for a carjacking in Bloomington, Ill.

Hunter told police that she and her husband fought about money on several occasions.

Despite her success as a counselor, Hunter faced mounting debts in recent years. She filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and was on the brink of losing two homes to foreclosure. The combined value of the homes was less than that of her mortgages.

In her bankruptcy court filing May 5, 2009, Hunter listed $161,374 in assets — mostly her two mortgaged homes — $547 in a checking account and $10 in cash.

She told the court she had debts of $488,620, including more than $200,000 in student loans, about $100,000 owed on credit cards and $5,000 owed to Mercedes-Benz on a vehicle lease. At the time of the filing, she had a monthly income of less than $2,900, mostly from $1,100 in property rent and part-time jobs.

According to the website for her counseling business, Success 1: Marriage and Family Counseling Services, Hunter earned her master’s degree from Case Western Reserve University and was pursuing a doctorate degree in marriage and family counseling at the University of Akron. Hunter was a licensed independent marriage and family therapist and chemical dependency counselor, the website says.

At her home on a tree-shaded suburban street, balloons and flowers were piled by the mailbox. On Tuesday afternoon, Joe Jones, a friend of Hunter’s from childhood, had come to pay his respects.

“I am devastated at the fact that she had to die like this,” he said, staring sadly at the home. “She was a committed and dedicated mom.”

Hunter came from humble beginnings, paying her way through school, building a life for herself, Jones said.

“She had nobody helping her,” he said.

In the wake of her death, Hunter’s friends are frustrated that the restraining order didn’t help her. The greatest irony of all is that she knew better than anyone that she was in danger — and she wasn’t able to help herself, Wairegi said.

“Other than going to police, I don’t know what else she could have done,” he said. “She probably saw it coming.”

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.