Recovering trauma victim now helping others

Published 12:31 pm Tuesday, October 31, 2023

By Shelby Swanson

UNC Media Hub

With the Friday night film screening of “Blazing Saddles” still playing in the living room, there was a loud knock at the door.

“Who is it?” Ann Poe asked.

No response.

Ann turned to her son.

“Run downstairs and get the gun.”

Charla Strawser, 12, crouched behind the kitchen counter and there was another knock at the sliding glass door at the back porch of her Johnson City, Tenn. home.

Ann slowly pulled back the curtain. The blast of the sawed-off shotgun, aimed at Charla’s mother through the glass, spewed pellets across the living room. Ann flew backward, falling at the feet of her two children.

Nobody had to tell Charla or her brother that Ann was dead.

“There was no way she could’ve survived it,” Charla said. “No way. In fact, I think it’s pretty remarkable that neither my brother or I were hit by any of it.”

Charla thought it was a burglar. It wasn’t.

Her father, Charles Butler Poe, wearing the red Members Only racer jacket her mother had bought for him, stepped through the sliding glass door.

The moment Charla realized it was her own father — the man she’s named after — who killed her mother is what haunts her the most to this day. As she screamed at him, “Why did you do this?” Charles began to stalk the house, searching for Ann’s boyfriend, who he thought was in the house.

This moment hasn’t defined her.

What she’s done despite it has.

Nearly 40 years after Sept. 23, 1983, Charla re-lives this scene every day. It’s the reason she’s a divorce lawyer. It’s the rocket fuel that’s propelled her to start her own female-led family law office. She’s found purpose in helping families navigate divorce with patience and ease.

Because she doesn’t want any child to go through what she did.

“What I have done with my life is a function of what happened to me,” Charla said, “but I am at my core not what happened.”

Charla was 11 when her mother filed for divorce – an extension of the torturous and abusive reality of living in the same household as her father.

“She (Ann) ended up walking away with no financial support and said, ‘All I want is the kids,’” Charla said. “‘We already didn’t have a lot of money, and then when that happened, we really didn’t have any money.”

Just over a year later, Ann was dead.

For the first few days after the murder, the local news reported that Charles had committed suicide. However, that night, and the reported sightings of her father around Johnson City that followed, began a long period in which Charla remembers constantly being on edge.

The two Poe children moved in with their mother’s sister, Mary Wagner, in Winston-Salem. Wagner, despite having no previous parenting experience, agreed to become a single mother.

Wagner insisted on getting the kids back into a routine. Two weeks after their father killed their mother, the Poes were enrolled in classes again.

Charla still holds on to the string of letters her father sent her — addressed envelopes with blank, white pages inside.

She doesn’t know why she keeps them. The best she can explain, they’re a part of her — giving her hope for an eventual apology or explanation.

Six weeks after the murder, after Charles had traveled thousands of miles, he wandered into the Wythe County Sheriff’s Department in southwest Virginia.

He handed the deputy on duty a note written on the back of a menthol Vantage cigarette package:

My name is Charles Poe. I am wanted by the Washington County Sheriff’s Department, Tenn., in connection with the shooting death of my wife… Thank you.”

Soon thereafter, Charla, her brother and her three aunts traveled back to Johnson City to meet with the solicitor.

In the solicitor’s office, Charla’s aunts turned to Charla and her brother. The decision — did they want the death penalty? — was up to the children.

“Both my brother and I, we looked at each other and we said, ‘No, we’re not seeking the death penalty but we want him to spend the rest of his life in prison. Every day for the rest of his life. Life without parole,’” Charla said. “That was the first and only time that the solicitor ever communicated with us and our family.”

The pain was sharpened when Charles entered a plea bargain, reducing his charge from first-degree murder to second-degree murder. He got 35 years.

Charla said the reduced charge was bizarre. The family wasn’t consulted.

Charla’s family also wasn’t informed when, just a few years removed from his trial, Charles was being considered for parole. They found out when they read about it in the newspaper.

“At an early age, I was the subject of a contentious divorce and then a legal system that I did not think favored victims,” Charla said. “Now, we’ve learned a lot, and we’ve got a lot of victim advocacy programs and victim support, but back then, the solicitor didn’t have to get a victim’s rubber stamp of approval on anything.”

Charla recalls her brother’s plea to the board at her father’s first parole meeting and his eloquent words: “I want you to think about what is in a man’s heart to do this to the mother of his kids.”

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” Charla said.

That first hearing was the hardest. This pattern would repeat every handful of years, forcing Charla and her brother to continue to testify against their father’s parole.

Eventually, it became routine.

Charla recalls her father never addressed her or her brother, directing his lifeless eyes and careless words — “I’m a model prisoner,” “I have PTSD from Vietnam,” — to the board.

She also, more than anything, remembers it was a divorce lawyer who represented her father at each hearing. It was a divorce lawyer who pushed back against her and her brother’s claims.

Angela Williams met Charla in the ninth grade. The two became fast friends.

A few months into their friendship, Charla opened up about her past.

“I just remember being completely shocked because she seemed so stable and, on the outside, so happy,” Williams said. “I had no idea that she had anything like that going on in her past.”

Charla appeared to be a typical, happy-go-lucky teenager. She didn’t sulk at all or seem depressed.

But behind the mask, Charla felt empty and isolated.

The imminent sense of danger hung onto her. The memory of the blown-off right side of her mother’s face, stained in her mind like the ripped-up, bloody floor that she passed to collect her belongings.

Charla tried to push off any thoughts of the murder. She blamed herself — thinking back to the call she refused from her father earlier on that September day.

Charles called home around dinner time, just hours before the murder. He sounded distressed as he spoke to Ann, and when he asked to talk to his daughter, Charla shook her head. For many years after the fact, Charla wondered — if she had answered his call, would that have made a difference?

She read to escape. She poured herself into her studies. It was hard to trust anyone.

As Charla navigated the beginning of high school, she was still trying to process what happened with no formal therapy. She leaned on friends like Williams.

“She was so accepting and caring and loving about it,” Charla said. “It was such a relief to be able to finally talk to someone about it.”

In her second semester at UNC-Chapel Hill, Charla had to take a step back.

After earning stellar grades in her first term, she became disinterested. Her mind was bogged down with thoughts she had pushed off to the far corners. She drowned the noise with partying and alcohol.

Then, she had a realization.

If she was paying her way through college, she wasn’t going to settle for mediocre marks. She withdrew from UNC, packed her belongings, and moved to Myrtle Beach, S.C., where she spent the next several months waiting tables.

Still, something was missing.

Charla had to get closure. She had to see her father. Wagner, her aunt, agreed to take her.

The two made the drive to Tennessee and, as they pulled into the gravel parking lot of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, were shocked to find Charla’s father approaching them — walking directly to their car with no security guard in sight.

“I expected it to be your typical, you’re in front of a glass wall and we’d be talking through a microphone,” Charla said. “But he was literally walking through the gates to the car.”

A wave of anxiety rushed over Charla.

Her father had been transferred to a minimum-security prison. He volunteered frequently, completing lawn service and cleaning at a local church through work release. And, as more evidence of Brushy Mountain’s leniency, Charles had gotten approval to take Charla to a local park to talk. Wagner was terrified, but reluctantly accepted the agreement, and watched from a distance as Charla and her father sat in a pristine environment  under a giant, leafy tree.

“He mumbled a lot, but the gist of what he was saying was that my mother was a bad person, that she had cheated on him — basically what he was implying was she deserved it,” Charla said. “I thought, this man is crazy.”

She realized she would never get an answer. She’d never get an apology. All she received from that half-hour conversation was a makeshift jewelry box constructed out of cigarette wrappers – a half-ass gift  and a yearning to be far, far away from her father.

Charla returned to UNC with a newfound confidence. She finished her undergraduate career with the help of regular therapy, a support system of friends and family.

After 25 years in prison, Charla’s father was released. He died in November 2020.

Charla’s last point of contact came a year before he died, when Charles left her a voicemail — Charla, this is Charles Poe. I’m putting my estate matters in order and if you or your brother want to be included, call me back.

Charla never returned his call. “I didn’t need or want anything from him,” she said.

Charla graduated from Wake Forest University School of Law in 1998 with high honors and moved to Atlanta, where she has dedicated nearly 25 years to building a reputation as a strong family law attorney. Charla has been celebrated in Atlanta Magazine’s Super Lawyers lists since 2006, Georgia Trend Magazine’s Legal Elite and LawDragon’s Top 500 Family Law Attorneys in the U.S.

“I worked my butt off during my 20s, 30s and 40s,” Charla said. “As I was approaching 50, I was like, ‘OK, sometimes more is just more.’”

Now, she works remotely for her own firm — Charla Strawser & Jill Byers Family Law — so she can spend more time at home with her 15-year-old son, Evan, and her partner, David Hungeling. She also teaches trial advocacy as an adjunct professor at Georgia State University College of Law, where she offers her students practical advice drawn from experience.

She’s slowed down, but doesn’t think she’ll ever not work. It’s part of her purpose.

Earlier this week, Charla represented a mother of a 7-year-old son. Through collaboration with the opposing counsel and mediator, she was able to secure 50-50 custody for her client. After a tearful resolution, the mother embraced her.

“You’re a rockstar,” she told Charla. “Thank you for helping me.”

However, when Charla closes her eyes at night, and her mind wanders to the dark crevices of her past, there are very few people who can help her.

Both of her parents are dead. So are her mother’s sisters, with the exception of Winnie, who has dementia. Charla is not on speaking terms with her brother.

But she knows her cousins Trish Harless and Jim Wilson are a phone call away. Therapy has also helped –  through three hour-long interviews about some of the hardest moments of her life, Charla didn’t shed a single tear.

“It’s not always fun and it’s not always bad and it’s not always happy and it’s not always depressing,” Charla said. “What life is about is recognizing what’s happening with you and then being able to manage it and appropriately respond to it.”

“I don’t give a lot of specifics, but when people ask me, ‘Why did you become a divorce lawyer?’ I say, ‘Because I don’t want any child to go through what I did,’” Charla said. “If I can be smart, try to problem-solve, not be contentious, be an advocate and try to guide people through the divorce process for the best interest of the entire family then I’ve done something. I’ve made what happened to me matter. I’ve made sense of it.”