First Place Writing – Features

Shelby Swanson

First Place
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
$3,000 Scholarship

She saw her mother get murdered; now she works to protect families

By Shelby Swanson

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, Tennessee, 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.”

On edge

Charla was 11 years old when her mother filed for divorce. It was awful, an extension of the torturous and abusive reality of living in the same household as her father, Charles.

“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 before then, 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” — “What was happening next? Was he going to show up and try to take us?”

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

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.

There were four or five separate days when Charla and her brother were taken out of school and placed under police protection because their father, who was still on the loose and now had an FBI fugitive warrant in his name, called home. 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 that never came.

A Vantage cigarette pack

Six weeks after the murder, after Charles had traveled thousands of miles to Portland; Pittsburgh; Los Angeles (where he acquired a misshapen crew cut); New Orleans; and Dallas, 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.

Charles, who had become a nomad as he eluded a nationwide search, traveling via bus, train and hitchhiking, had whittled $1,000 in cash down to the $6.32 in his pocket when he was frisked and taken to jail on Oct. 30, 1983.

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

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 only 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, especially considering her father’s countless threats to her mother over the years — through letters and phone calls — and the fact that Charles cut the telephone wires in Charla’s home prior to bursting in.

The family wasn’t consulted about any of this. Charla’s aunts expressed their anger in a series of letters written to local newspapers. The clippings of their pleas, detailing the evidence of premeditation (a legal requirement for first-degree murder), lie in scrapbooks Charla tucks away in her home.

Charla’s family also wasn’t informed when, just a few years removed from his trial, Charles was already 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. She knew if she ever went into a legal career, she’d work in the best interest of the entire family.

Donning a mask

Angela Williams met Charla in the ninth grade. The two became fast friends sitting beside each other, passing notes in their French class.

Slowly, they started spending time together outside of school and having sleepovers. It was at one of these sleepovers, a few months into their friendship, when Charla finally 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.

Mentally, she was much like her childhood home when she visited several months after the murder — the same but different. The imminent sense of danger hung onto her like the police tape that scattered the grounds. 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 childhood 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. For a very long time, it was hard to trust anyone.

Charla isn’t alone — according to research from the National Institute of Mental Health, about 50% of all U.S. adults will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives.

“When we experience a traumatic event, it’s often world-changing,” UNC psychology professor Dr. Jonathan Abramowitz said. “The person’s going along, viewing the world as a safe place, viewing themselves as generally safe … and then all of the sudden it just changes. It rocks the person’s world.”

As Charla navigated the beginning of high school, she was still trying to process what happened to her with no formal therapy. She leaned on friends like Williams, who allowed her to be open and honest. To let the tears fall. To hug her and tell her they’re proud of her. To help her make sense of the incomprehensible.

“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.”

Seeking closure

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

After earning stellar grades in her first term, she soon became disinterested in her classes. Her mind was bogged down with thoughts she had pushed off to the far corners of her psyche — thoughts she had yet to process. She drowned out the noise with partying and alcohol. Her grades worsened.

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, South Carolina, 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. She turned to Wagner.

“What’s going on here?” Charla asked.

“I don’t know,” Wagner replied.

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 — a picnic table under a giant, leafy tree.

The conversation was anything but idyllic.

“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.”

A gift of a jewelry box made of cigarette wrappers given to Charla.

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 after she took that break. She finished out her undergraduate career with the help of regular therapy, a support system of friends and family and the understanding that “I got me.”

“I went through the hard part,” she said. “I was looking for something that I didn’t get but that’s OK. I got me and I got this. The best way to say it, it was a much-needed cathartic experience.”

“You’re a rockstar”

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

Charla’s last point of contact with him 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.

After all, considering the life she’d built for herself, why would she need his help now?

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 her years of experience.

She’s slowed down, but she 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 her — 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.”

The night of Sept. 23, 1983, has fractured Charla forever, but she’s glued her life back together through her dedication to family law. If you look closely, you can still see some of the cracks. But, in many ways, Charla is as strong as ever.

“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.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Charla requested that her brother not be named in this article.


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