Most deadly shootings don’t start with an apology. Then again, little about Rachel Bellesen’s case resembles other deadly shootings. After years in an abusive marriage, the 38-year-old mother thought the worst was behind her: She had remarried the love of her life and was now helping other women through her work at a domestic violence shelter in Kalispell, Montana. “I didn’t even consider myself a survivor anymore, because it all seemed like a lifetime ago,” she told ELLE recently. “I think that’s why I didn’t see it coming.”
On the morning of October 8, 2020, Rachel received a call from her ex-husband Jacob Glace who, after hearing a false rumor about the sexual orientation of their son, thought he could “beat the gay” out of him, as she alleges in court records (Rachel and Jacob have two sons, it is not specified which one). It was not an empty threat; Jacob physically and sexually abused Rachel when they were married, and was charged with domestic violence assault for dragging her by the hair in 2004. They divorced shortly after and hadn’t been alone together in nearly a decade, but Rachel thought meeting in person might help smooth things over before anyone got hurt.
When she picked Jacob up from the house he was staying at in Paradise, he directed her through a forest of trees with changing leaves and down a dirt road to a fishing hole three quarters of a mile off the highway. Rachel was reminded of a similar drive they took through Washington state years ago. It was fall then, too, and Jacob had told her no one would care if he buried her six feet in the ground.
At the secluded spot, Rachel parked the car and popped the trunk. She sat on the bumper, while Jacob paced back and forth, reasoning that their son couldn’t possibly be bisexual, because his girlfriend had an “awesome rack.” “Disgusting,” Rachel remembers him muttering under his breath.
All of a sudden, Jacob stopped and squinted at her chest. “Did you get a boob job?” he asked. The hairs on the back of Rachel’s neck stood up in alert and she got a strong urge to run. Rachel tried to steer the conversation back to their son, but Jacob seemed to speak right through her. He said that her new husband, Corey Bellesen, was a great guy—and they seemed really happy together. To Rachel, it felt like Jacob was blaming her for how his own life had turned out. Since separating, he had been charged three more times with domestic violence and was under investigation by Montana police for forcing his ex-girlfriend’s children to watch porn with him. She tried to text Corey, but got no cell service.
What happened next comes primarily from legal documents obtained by ELLE and interviews with Rachel, her first time talking in detail about that day. She says that Jacob lunged at her and whispered, “I’m sorry.” For what—Rachel still isn’t sure. He had raped her many times and never apologized. “I was like, ‘He’s going to kill me, I’m going to die,’” Rachel says. “That’s what he is saying sorry for.”
When Jacob pushed her down onto her back, Rachel says she tried to scream, but no sound came out. Detectives would later note scratches on her chest and a ripped shirt. Rachel wriggled free, ran around to the open passenger side door, and dove inside. That’s when she spotted the purple grip of her Glock 26 stuffed down between the seat and the center console.
There was never any dispute over who pulled the trigger. Rachel immediately confessed to killing Jacob in a 911 call she made from a nearby gas station. Rather, the question authorities would wrestle with was much more complex than a typical whodunnit: Can you punish a woman for simply trying to survive?
By the next morning, Rachel had been arrested, booked into jail, and informed she would be charged with deliberate homicide, a crime punishable by death in the state of Montana. The possibility of facing death for a second time in two days was like being “traumatized all over again,” Rachel says. “I just had to do something horrible that I did not want to do in order to stay alive and that is punishable by death—it makes no sense at all.”
Once you are deemed an offender in the U.S. legal system, it becomes almost impossible to be seen as a victim. Historically, women—and in particular women of color—are punished for defending themselves against abusers, and that’s usually after the systems that are in place to keep them safe fail to do so. Last week’s acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse shows how different the outcome can be for a white man claiming self defense. In Kenosha, Wisconsin—the same city where Rittenhouse shot three men and killed two of them during a protest—another teenager says she was acting to protect herself. Chrystul Kizer was charged with murder in 2018 for shooting the man she claims sexually abused and trafficked her when she was 17. While Rittenhouse has been lionized for acting in self defense, Kizer is still fighting for her freedom. Her case is ongoing and if convicted, she could face life in prison.
Although no government agency tracks the number of women incarcerated for killing their abusers, a 2020 investigation by The New Republic concludes that women’s prisons across the country are populated by people incarcerated for acts of survival. Women like Maddesyn George, a 27-year-old Native mother from Washington state who was sentenced to six and a half years in prison just two days before the Rittenhouse verdict for shooting a man she alleged raped her.
Rachel is the exception that proves the rule: On May 25, 2021, a Montana judge dismissed her deliberate homicide charges with prejudice, meaning she cannot be prosecuted for murder in connection with Jacob’s death in the future. Unlike so many other domestic abuse victims, Rachel is free—both from prosecution and from her abuser—for the rest of her life. “I don’t know if you could call it survivor’s guilt,” Rachel says, “but that’s the only thing I have in my vocabulary to compare it to.”
Growing up, Rachel bounced from apartment to apartment in Washington state with her sister and mother. She didn’t have many friends, instead preferring the company of literary heroines like little orphan Ayla, the 10-year-old Cro-Magnon girl who survives repeated sexual assault in Jean M. Auel’s epic work of prehistoric fiction The Clan of the Cave Bear. Like her favorite protagonist, Rachel says she was also abused as a child. By the time her family ended up in the rural mountain town of Leavenworth, Washington, Rachel was 15 and “very self destructive,” she says. “I think [the abuse] killed something inside of me, I felt so unlovable and worthless.”
That’s when Jacob, the local 23-year-old drug dealer who lived two doors down, came into the picture. He took Rachel snowboarding in the Cascade Mountains and introduced her to Bob Marley. They smoked pot—“a lot of pot,” says Rachel—and on one memorable road trip to Seattle, where she met his extended family, Jacob held her hand the entire ride there. “I was getting attention from someone who wasn’t going to hurt me, who seemed to genuinely care about me,” Rachel says. “I was very vulnerable to that.” The weekend before her 16th birthday, they drove to an indie music festival on the Canadian border and had sex for the first time. When a pregnancy test came back positive a few weeks later, Rachel left home to raise the baby with Jacob.
Survivors of domestic abuse know how quickly someone you love can betray your trust. Nearly 25 percent of women have been victims of sexual violence, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the majority of those women first experienced abuse when they were younger than 18. For Rachel, it began before she could drive.
After moving into Jacob’s “studio” apartment, which was just a storage shed in his uncle’s backyard, Rachel says he started making nasty comments about the way she looked. If she made eye contact with the men who came by for weed he got upset. “Whore,” Rachel remembers him calling her on more than one occasion. Embarrassed that the soon-to-be father of her child could be so cruel, she kept quiet. After their baby boy Orion was born in 2000, Jacob starting raping her once—sometimes twice—a week, as Rachel claims in court documents. “I didn’t want to have sex, but I did it anyway because I knew that’s what he wanted and I didn’t want to make him mad,” Rachel says now. Like many other women in abusive relationships, she worried no one would believe her—or worse, that no one would care.
When Rachel became pregnant again the following year, she says Jacob rammed her into the wall when they crossed paths in the hallway. One time, he threw a beer bottle at her back and she dropped Orion. “I’d rationalize his behavior and tell myself that he did what he did in that moment because of something I did,” Rachel says. “I convinced myself I deserved it.”
Ten days after their second son Isaac was born, Jacob raped her with such force that her C-section stitches stretched and oozed, and she endured severe anal trauma. She says the pain, compounded by postpartum depression and extreme exhaustion, is in-part what led her to take a handful of pain pills and Tylenol. “It was more that I just wanted to go to sleep, because I was so sleep deprived and depressed and hopeless—not so much that I wanted to die,” she says. “But at the time, I couldn’t tell the difference.” When Rachel woke up in the hospital, she was being treated by hospital staff who bought weed from Jacob. “I felt like no matter what I did, I was never going to get away from him,” she says.
After Rachel was discharged, she and Jacob moved into a duplex one block away from Main Street in Leavenworth, where he allowed her to work as a waitress at his aunt’s diner. The physical and sexual violence finally seemed to be over, or at least it was for a few years. In January 2002, they got married and relocated back to Valley High, the isolated mountain community where they first met when Rachel was a teenager, to raise the boys.
There were still unpacked boxes on the bedroom floor the first time Jacob wrapped his hands around her neck and didn’t let go. “That was, I think, probably the first time that I actually thought that I might die,” Rachel says. “It was so scary, so violent. I thought my heart was going to stop.” As she alleges in court records, Jacob violently strangled and sexually assaulted her several more times during their marriage. Some nights, on the drive home from the diner, Rachel fantasized about crashing her car into a tree. Then she thought about who her boys would be left with, and kept driving.
“Why didn’t she just leave?” is the most common reaction to a story of intimate partner abuse. There are myriad reasons: She could risk losing custody of her children, or be financially dependent on her abuser—maybe she still loves them. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, leaving can also be the most dangerous time for a woman in an abusive relationship.
In 2003, Rachel caught Jacob cheating on her with a 15-year-old girl—the same age she was when they first met—on their living room couch, so she packed up her things and moved to the neighboring town of Cashmere. But what was supposed to be a fresh start turned into the same old nightmare. Rachel says Jacob showed up at her apartment unannounced begging for sex, and followed her around town in his car. Three days after Rachel’s 21st birthday in July 2004, he was convicted of domestic violence assault for breaking into her house while she was watching a movie and dragging her outside by the hair.
Four months later they were officially divorced, but with no high school diploma and no real work experience Rachel says it still felt like Jacob was in “complete control” of her life. She lost custody of their kids, got kicked out of her apartment, became addicted to cocaine, and suffered more abuse at the hands of several men. “It felt like I was being swept down a river, just floating along and not fighting the current,” Rachel says. “I was like well, if I drown, I drown.” She credits one of her boyfriend’s brothers, who slipped her the number to a domestic violence shelter during a BBQ cookout, for steering her to shore.
After a stint at the shelter, Rachel left for Montana, where her mother was living. It took more than a decade, but she mended their broken relationship, worked on staying sober, and graduated from the University of South Dakota with a degree in addiction studies. In 2012, she connected with Corey Bellesen, a shy father of two, on Match.com. They got married five months after the first date, and Rachel and her sons moved into Corey’s home on Flathead Lake in Big Fork.
By 2017, Rachel had landed a job at the Abbie Shelter, Kalispell’s domestic violence shelter, answering hotline calls and “using her story in appropriate ways to connect with clients,” Abbie Shelter executive director Hilary Shaw told ELLE. “It really helped other survivors feel seen, because she has experienced so much of what they’ve experienced.” Within a year Rachel had taken over as shelter coordinator, teaching victims how to become more empowered survivors. Though she still ran into Jacob at the boys’ birthday parties and on holidays, for the first time in her life Rachel didn’t feel afraid of him. “I thought I had come out the other end,” she says. “I was no longer labeled a victim or survivor, I was just me.”
While Rachel had been piecing her life back together, Jacob’s own world was falling apart. After moving to Montana in 2010, he was convicted of domestic violence for pushing his new wife to the ground and choking her. In the months before he was killed, Jacob was also accused of assaulting a family member twice, including in March 2020 by his then-girlfriend Jasmine Sayler. When Jasmine filed a restraining order, Jacob reached out to Rachel for advice on how to be a better person. She offered up solutions like anger management classes and support groups. “I thought I was helping,” Rachel says. “I didn’t realize he was sucking me right back in.”
In June 2020, Jasmine filed a report with police accusing Jacob of forcing her 7-year-old daughter to watch pornography with him. He was not formally charged at the time of his death, and investigators tell ELLE they are no longer actively working the case. By the time Rachel shot Jacob four months later, Jasmine says he had completely spiraled out of control. “I personally feel that he intended to hurt Rachel much, much more,” Sayler told ELLE. “His mental state was that of someone with nothing to lose.”
Rachel on the other hand had everything to lose. After she was charged with deliberate homicide, her attorney Lance Jasper assembled a crusading team of volunteer attorneys, detectives, researchers, and psychologists that, by his estimation, would have cost Rachel $1 million had the entire operation not been pro bono. As they went into overdrive interviewing Jacob’s other assault victims, looking for physical evidence at the crime scene, and even staging a live reenactment of the shooting, Rachel’s coworkers at the Abbie Shelter also went to battle, mounting a campaign to put public pressure on the attorney general’s office. “The privilege that Rachel carried as a domestic violence advocate was uncomfortable for all of us, but on the other hand we recognized it as an opportunity that we could never pass over,” Hilary Shaw says. “What remains painfully frustrating is the question, ‘Is this what it takes for survivors to receive justice from this system that’s supposed to protect them?’ It shouldn’t be like that.”
Over the course of several months, Jasper grew so confident in Rachel’s case that he did the unthinkable: He offered to let prosecutors see his case and gave them a year to prosecute if they still wanted to do so. After that, the case would be dismissed with prejudice. The state refused, and instead filed a motion to drop the case without prejudice, meaning that Rachel could still be charged with deliberate homicide in the future. In more than 20 years of practice, Jasper says he hasn’t known another lawyer “dumb enough” to turn down an offer from the prosecution to dismiss without prejudice like he did. That’s because it is incredibly rare for charges to be dropped in a case like Rachel’s—and dismissing them with prejudice is practically unheard of. But because there is no statute of limitations on a homicide in the state of Montana, Jasper didn’t want the possibility of being charged hanging over Rachel’s head. It seemed like just another way for Jacob to exert control over Rachel. This time, from beyond the grave.
Unlike Rachel, most survivors of abuse don’t come into the system with a built-in army of advocates. Rachel recognizes that her case had everything to do with who she is—and what she looks like—and not with what happened the day of the shooting. “I’m out because I’m white and middle class and have the privilege of working where I work,” she says. “Had I been a different color, I probably would have gone to trial for murder, been found guilty, and put in prison for the rest of my life.”
Black women in particular experience domestic violence at a higher rate than white women, while also facing additional barriers at every turn. They can be perceived as “tough” or “aggressive” and therefore not capable of being victimized. Black women who don’t, or can’t, rely on law enforcement to keep them safe may also face skepticism about their experiences in the criminal justice system. “Racism certainly doesn’t take a break when survivors of color defend themselves,” Cindene Pezzell, legal director for the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, told ELLE.
There is no better example than the case of Cyntoia Brown Long, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing the real estate agent who solicited her for sex when she was 16. Her case got a second look during the #MeToo movement when activists argued that her claims of self defense were never fully acknowledged. In 2019, she walked out of prison and right into her new life as an advocate for other criminalized survivors like Chrystul Kizer, the Kenosha sex trafficking victim fighting a murder charge for killing her abuser. In a phone interview, Brown Long told ELLE that Rachel’s case sends a message to Chrystul and other criminalized survivors “that the law is not going to stand” by abusers. “We need to have more situations like [Rachel’s] where it’s clear that women have a right to fight back—a right to survive,” she says. “Women should be able to defend themselves.”
It’s been a little over five months since Rachel’s own claims of self defense led to her freedom. And while the threat of prosecution no longer looms over her, the blame she places on herself still lingers. On the one-year anniversary of Jacob’s death last October, Orion hosted a remembrance party at his apartment in Missoula. There was a memorial table with Jacob’s ashes and a group of his old friends came over to share stories, which Rachel only found out about from a Facebook post. “I have not been able to work my way through the guilt of the effect it had on my kids,” Rachel says. “Everything about their dad aside, it’s never a good thing to lose a parent.”
What keeps her going is knowing that by speaking out, she gives other women hope in a space where hope is incredibly rare. “The only time people want to talk about domestic violence is when something awful happens or someone dies—whether it’s the victim or the abuser—but domestic abuse is a systemic injustice,” Rachel says. “Nothing changes until it changes.”