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Thirty-nine-year-old Angela McDonald stood outside her Festus-area home on the night of Jan. 22, 2017, in the company of a Jefferson County sheriff’s deputy and a close friend.

Bruised and in pain, McDonald was facing the most important decision of her life. Would she stay or would she leave?

Despite the best efforts of two caring people, McDonald stayed.

The next day, emergency personnel found her gravely injured and unconscious, and two days after that, she died.

On Sept. 19, after a three-day trial and four and a half hours of deliberation, a Jefferson County jury found Christopher Buechting, 46, McDonald’s live-in boyfriend, guilty of second-degree murder. He is set to be sentenced Dec. 2, potentially facing life in prison. Buechting alleged in his trial that McDonald’s injuries, fatally to her head, were self-inflicted; his attorney said the verdict will be appealed.

Robyn Walsh will never forget the night she spoke to her friend for the last time. She said she bonded with Angela in 2012.

“Our daughters hit it off at school – it started like that – and we just got closer and closer,” Walsh said.

It wasn’t always easy to be Angela’s friend. Walsh said McDonald was an alcoholic who could be “mouthy.”

“But she also had a heart of gold and would do anything for anybody,” Walsh said.

McDonald was often in crisis, and during one of those times, she stayed at Walsh’s home for nine months. But she had to leave when it all became too much for the Walsh family.

No matter, Robyn said she never stopped loving Angela.

“She was like a sister to me,” Walsh said.

Walsh said she started noticing bruises after Angela moved in with Buechting in September 2015, but her friend explained it away.

“She fell down the stairs, she fell off a retaining wall. Every time I saw her, there was another injury, another bruise,” Walsh said.

That last night, the deputy went to the home after Buechting called 911 and left, Walsh said.

The Sheriff’s Office reported that McDonald thought she had broken ribs and the deputy saw bruises that looked like they came from past injuries.

The deputy was trying to locate a bed at a domestic abuse shelter when McDonald asked him instead to call her friend and gave him Walsh’s number.

Walsh said the deputy stayed until she got there.

“He gave us a list of shelters to call,” Walsh said. “He said she’d have to sober up first, so we decided she’d come back to my house for the night.

“She pretended she was walking to my car and the officer left. But then she stopped. She said, ‘Robyn, you know I’m not going anywhere, right?’ She wouldn’t leave. She believed he’d stay gone, because he had called the cops.”

Finally, Walsh went home alone.

“I’ll never stop blaming myself,” said Walsh, who was a witness in the murder trial and plans to make a victim-impact statement when Buechting is sentenced.

As with every tragedy, McDonald’s case is rife with “if onlys.”

At the top of the list is the one we all ask – why didn’t she leave? Just get in the car. Just go to the shelter.

Travis Partney, the assistant Jefferson County prosecuting attorney who handled the case, said he couldn’t talk about the trial, but he could talk about domestic abuse in general.

Leaving is harder than we think, he said, as is reporting abuse in the first place.

“Often, the abuser is in the economically superior situation,” Partney said. “Maybe there are children involved, and the victim and kids could be evicted. The financial support network is gone.”

Walsh said McDonald lived that reality.

“She didn’t have a job, she had no car, and her license was suspended,” Walsh said, adding that a previous roommate had burned McDonald’s papers after a fight.

“So, she had no Social Security card, no birth certificate. She’d sneak his phone to text me, but get off quick and warn me not to text back.”

Emotional disruption is another issue for victims, Partney said.

“When you call to report you’ve been a victim of domestic abuse, it fundamentally affects the fabric of your life. When you make that decision to go, everything about your life that used to be is now over. That’s different from any other crime.”

He recommends more resources for victims, more intervention, more treatment for abusers, and more recognition of the generational costs of domestic violence.

“Kids who see that happening in the home, guess what they could grow up to be? And if they don’t become abusers themselves, there are emotional and psychological problems that show up in other ways. It’s not unlike a poison.”

Partney said attorneys at domestic abuse trials routinely ask potential jurors if they have been affected by domestic abuse.

“Ten to 15 hands shoot up, and those are just the ones who will say so,” he said, “It touches everybody on some level and causes ripple effects.”

Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Trisha Stefanski made domestic abuse a plank in her campaign to win her job in 2018, promising a special unit that would work toward quicker charges and speedier prosecution.

The three-member unit – with one employee who devotes nearly all her time to domestic violence cases – became fully staffed two weeks ago, Stefanski said.

“We want victims to know we are there for them,” she said.

The office also has a “no drop” policy for domestic abuse charges and will pursue general assault charges even when domestic abuse victims feel unable or are unwilling to speak, if other witnesses or surveillance video observe abuse.

For Walsh, domestic abuse boils down to a plea for others like Angela.

“Get the hell out while you can,” she said.