Abusive partners are known for love-bombing—they’ll sweep a survivor right off their feet in a way that might seem overly romantic at first but is actually intended to start a cycle of gaslighting and dependence on the abuser.
It’s how Amy Beth Ballon’s relationship started with her husband 10 years ago. By their second date, he was calling her a princess. He even brought her a tiara. He sent flowers to her mother on Ballon’s birthday, thanking her for Ballon’s existence. “It was over the top,” she says. She knows this now, but in the moment, it was flattering. Ballon says she felt safer with him than with anyone else she’d ever known. She had no idea it was all a set-up.
Coming On Strong
Ballon and her now ex-husband, Mike*, met during a night out in Florida in 2011 when the two were dining at the same restaurant. He was a former police officer working in human resources. Ballon, a successful real estate developer, was 46 at the time and divorced. Her two children were nearly grown—her youngest daughter was just graduating from high school—and Ballon was open to the idea of meeting and potentially marrying someone new. So, when this charming man asked her out, she accepted.
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“He was just the nice guy, but he came on strong,” she remembers, now calling the way he charmed his way into everyone’s life “typical sociopathic behavior.” Soon, she found the first crack in his seemingly perfect façade.
“He lied to me about being single. I had a suspicion … his stories didn’t make sense. I finally found out he was married.” He told Ballon he was getting a divorce, but she said she wouldn’t believe it unless she heard it from his wife herself. Which she did.
“Later I found out he bullied her into messaging me online.” His ex-wife also later revealed to Ballon that Mike had once given her a gun and encouraged her to kill herself. But Ballon didn’t know that when she accepted Mike’s marriage proposal in February of 2012.
His Abuse Started Immediately
Mike’s likeable personality changed immediately after the couple married. His once romantic pet names for Ballon turned into degrading insults, once calling her a “f*cking c*nt” after a few drinks. His verbal abuse reached beyond Ballon—his tirades aimed at women in general, including his ex-wife and the three children he shared custody of. That, and Mike’s increasing distrust of Ballon, was beginning to scare her.
“He installed spyware on everything I owned,” she says, a fact she would find out much later. She’d also come to discover he had installed spyware on her 19-year-old daughter’s computer. While away at college, the camera light on her computer, her daughter told Ballon, would come on randomly.
Yet it was Ballon who caught her husband looking at an online dating site targeted at married men. Soon enough, Ballon decided it was over and asked him to move out of their condo.
“The threats were crazy at that point,” she says. Mike even told one of Ballon’s daughters that her mom was suicidal, even though Ballon very much wasn’t. She wondered, was it an ominous threat of what could happen to her?
As abusers tend to do, Mike charmed his way back into Ballon’s good graces. He couldn’t find a place to live, so Ballon let him stay in their condo a bit longer. On Oct. 27, 2014, Mike offered to take Ballon out to dinner where he both accused Ballon of cheating on him and also begged her to give him another chance. It culminated in an argument, the final straw.
“I told him it’s over, I’m done. I couldn’t deal with it anymore.”
A Story All Twisted Up
The two went home. Ballon had just laid down in her bed when she saw Mike, 6-feet tall and over 200 pounds, rush into her bedroom in a violent rage. He jumped on top of Ballon, ramming his knee hard into the side of her body.
She was able to reach her phone but Mike knocked her down to the floor and wrestled it away from her. Managing to get free, Ballon ran to the kitchen where she knew there was another phone, but Mike was right behind her and got to her first. He put her in what she calls “a cop hold”—his hand over her head and his thumb pushed against her windpipe. She passed out.
“I was slowly coming to when I saw him throw my phone off the balcony,” Ballon says. She was able to get up and escape out the front door of their condo, making it to the front desk of the building where she called 911.
Mike was predictably right behind her, except now he was yelling for someone to call an ambulance.
“On the 911 call, you can hear me say, ‘Oh my god, he stabbed himself.’”
With his arm bleeding, Mike met the first responder as soon as the ambulance arrived, giving them two pieces of information: 1.) that he was a former cop and 2.) that Ballon had stabbed him. Before she could get a word out, police were next to Ballon, informing her that she was under arrest. She says they never even asked for her version of events.
“There was no blood on me. They didn’t take my pajamas as evidence. They didn’t read me my rights.” She sat in a jail cell for fourteen hours before finding out she was being charged with assault with a deadly weapon.
“It’s right under manslaughter. I was facing 15 years.”
Ballon had just started her own sales and marketing business a few weeks prior, and it was taking off. Now she was in jail, facing over a decade behind bars, a victim of domestic violence.
“I went into a catatonic place,” she says.
She thinks her husband’s experience as a cop helped him know how to “play” the system. She also knows that cops tend to protect their own. She felt like she was set up to fail.
When Ballon got to the courtroom for arraignment, she says the judge looked at her charges, then looked at her.
“You could see how perplexed he was,” she says. Ballon had no criminal record and she says her neck still showed red marks from where her husband had strangled her. Her bail was set at $10,000, and Ballon was able to get out of jail at least temporarily. She immediately set out to fight the charges, which turned out to be more difficult than she could have ever imagined.
Trying to Undo the Damage
It turned out, the night she spent in jail Mike broke into her LinkedIn profile and disseminated her mugshot to almost every one of her 3,000-plus professional contacts. She set into motion a plan to defend herself, but adds she realizes how privileged she was to be able to do that.
“I had the money to protect myself. It was $50,000 just to hire a lawyer.” She told her lawyer she refused to take a plea deal. She knew it could potentially mean a lengthy jail sentence, but she couldn’t bear to admit to something she didn’t do.
She wasn’t given assurances from local police that there would be any investigation into her case, so Ballon hired an independent forensics team that found no evidence of blood on the carpet in her condo, or anywhere else. The knife Mike had used to stab himself was laid neatly next to the kitchen sink, a suspicious detail, she thought, if she had really stabbed him during a struggle as he claimed. She voluntarily took a polygraph test, which she passed. She took her computer to a company that discovered spyware had been installed on everything she used.
“Sixteen months in, I had probably spent $175,000 so far.”
Over a year after the incident, she finally had her day in court, only her husband was nowhere to be found. She says the prosecuting attorney told the judge Mike had said he wasn’t coming.
“Because he knew he was lying and didn’t want to get caught,” suspects Ballon.
That fact, combined with the polygraph Ballon had taken that showed her version of the night’s events were truthful resulted in a “nulle prosse,” derived from a Latin phrase meaning “not wish to prosecute.” In legal terms, it meant the prosecutor had decided to drop the prosecution.
It was a major win for Ballon, even though the state of Florida chose not to reopen a domestic violence case against Mike for reasons Ballon suspects were political.
“I didn’t know that was even legal. There were so many things happening that I didn’t know if they were legal or not.”
She decided to do two things: tell her story publicly (she spent the next year writing a tell-all memoir, Fabulous to Framed) and file a malicious prosecution lawsuit against her now ex-husband, whom she divorced in July 2015.
“I retained a lawyer and was really excited.” She also decided to take a new job. A new start. But then, things fell apart again.
“Mike got a high-powered attorney to represent him for free,” she says. And her lawyer warned her of the possibility of a counter-lawsuit.
“I thought, ‘Do I really want to put myself through it?’ He had unlimited resources. I didn’t.” She decided to drop the civil suit.
Soon after, the company she was to start working for let her know she would no longer be needed. Though they wouldn’t come out and say it, Ballon suspects it was because of her mugshot still online. She wanted to expunge her ex-husband’s allegations against her from the Internet, so she turned to a man she’d recently met, Steven Bradley, cyber director of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence (FCADV).
Bradley, a former cop himself, told Ballon he could help, starting with removing the spyware her ex-husband had installed on all her devices.
“He texted me, ‘I can come to your home,’” says Ballon. Thinking he must be trustworthy given that he worked with the Coalition, she let him. But it turned out to be a horrible mistake.
Ballon was in a vulnerable state that day, something she says Bradley took advantage. Soon after he left, it started to become clear he wasn’t at her home to help her.
“He went into my devices and … basically cyberstalked me. My phone started acting really strange. Text messages the two of us had sent to one another …. were changed.” All of a sudden, she says, her texts reflected a reciprocal attraction that wasn’t there.
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Confused and angry, Ballon contacted the Coalition to complain about Bradley but didn’t hear anything back. Months passed with no response. Ballon hired a lawyer and filed a suit against them for negligent hiring. Ballon says the State’s investigation resulted in Bradley’s firing, but the findings reached even further, discovering misappropriations of money —nearly $7.5 million paid to the coalition’s CEO Tiffany Carr over the course of three years while Florida domestic violence shelters were short on funding.
In a dramatic move that would make national headlines, Ballon’s suit led Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody to order the dissolution of the FCADV for “abusive practices.”
(Of note, Bradley continues to work with survivors of domestic violence.)
Speaking Out for Others
Ballon has tried to move on since all of this, using her traumatic experiences to help others. She’s become an outspoken advocate and public speaker, a board trustee of the Domestic Violence Advocacy Center in Florida, and has started her own nonprofit, Raising Awareness for the Innocent, to help survivors across the country who are falsely accused of a crime. She hasn’t heard from Mike since the case was cleared and isn’t holding her breath for an apology.
“Women who go through what I’ve gone through, there’s such shame with being arrested and being accused of a heinous crime. But one thing I learned is that it’s not your shame to bare. You hold on to your truth.”
*Last name withheld for safety
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