When Routine Workplace Stress Is More Than Routine and More Than Stress – Secondary Trauma, First Responders, and the Case of Jeffrey Reynolds

October 23, 2012 started out like any other day for me at my office in Livingston, Louisiana. I had only been a prosecutor for a little more than two years and was expecting another quiet day in the office. Sometime that afternoon a police officer came by my office to drop off paperwork and informed the receptionist that there was a bad case developing in the City of Walker. The officer informed the receptionist of what he knew about the case and left. A few minutes later, the receptionist came to my office and informed me that a woman had been stabbed by her husband, killing their unborn child. She also informed me that she thinks the woman was a victim on one of my domestic violence cases. I decided that I would walk over to the Detectives Division of the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office to gather more information. Speaking with one of the detectives, whom I know well, he apprised me of what was going on and we were able to figure out that this case was unrelated to anything my office was currently prosecuting. He also played me the 911 call of this dreadful incident. I will say, at this point, hearing the screams of this woman as she was being attacked by her own husband was traumatic in itself, but hearing the full details of what all transpired has left an indelible mark in my memory and in my career as a prosecutor. Still, what I experienced was nothing compared to what this woman was made to endure and what the first responders witnessed as they came on scene.

On that date 31-year old Jeffrey Reynolds ingested some sort of synthetic marijuana, which he claimed produced a hallucinating effect on him and led him to believe that the fetus inside of his wife Paula, who was 8 months pregnant, was actually a demon (Gaulden, 2015). Reynolds called 911 to tell them that he had ingested synthetic marijuana and that he was afraid that he was about to do something bad and they better send someone to stop him (Gaulden, 2015). While on the phone with 911 and while seeming very calm to the operator, Reynolds proceeded to grab a pairing knife, slash his wife’s throat and proceed to attempt to cut the fetus from her womb (Gaulden, 2015). Paula Reynolds can be heard on the 911 call screaming as the attack first takes place and then yelling, “I’m dying! I’m dying!” (Gaulden, 2015). Reynolds can also be heard asking his wife why she is not dead yet. When first responders first arrived and observed the gruesome scene, some immediately apprehended Reynolds, one swaddled the child though it was clearly dead from a knife cut across its head, while others tended to Paula. None of these first responders would ever be the same. Sheriff Jason Ard agreed to have his department pay for counseling for all law enforcement, firemen, coroner’s investigators, and medical personnel that were on scene that day.

Though he continues to blame a drug-induced psychosis for his actions that day, Jeffrey Reynolds was charged with and later pled to 15 years for the attempted second degree murder of his wife and 20 years for the first degree feticide of his child “baby Isaac” (Hardy, 2015). There were many who were upset with my office’s decision to accept this plea deal. Unbeknownst to the general public and even misunderstood by many of the officers involved with this case, there was a legal technicality that may have resulted in no conviction at all or perhaps a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity. While Louisiana law states that voluntary intoxication is not a defense to any crime, it does vitiate specific intent. Both attempted second degree murder and first degree feticide require prosecutors to prove that the defendant acted with specific intent. Furthermore, a divided sanity commission could not agree whether Jeffrey Reynolds suffered from a drug-induced psychosis, such that he was deprived of the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and therefore not guilty by reason of insanity. While we had very little doubts that a jury would find him guilty, this plea deal was, in effect, a compromise to avoid lengthy appeals that would not only re-traumatize Paula and her family, but also run the risk of an appellate court overturning the conviction on these legal grounds altogether. Though I was not the prosecutor in charge of this case, all of us in the office agreed with the decision; as did Paula and her parents.

While the criminal case may be over, the trauma inflicted that day has had a ripple effect that continues to this day, not only for Paula, who has since divorced her husband and remarried, though she still bears the scars (physically and emotionally), but also for the first responders who witnessed the horrors of that day. I have a hard time calling the trauma they experienced “vicarious” or “secondary,” as if that somehow lessens the reality of what they went through. It is said that vicarious trauma “occurs when someone experiences a crisis secondhand” (Marin, 2021). Quoting Susan Ferrin, founder and executive director of First Responders Resiliency, Inc., Kate Marin (2021) writes in her blog: “‘Research indicates that when you’re exposed to things that are traumatizing to your brain, your brain spends an enormous amount of energy trying to sort it out, trying to make sense of it, trying to create reasons for this kind of thing.’ This process is exhausting, particularly when an individual is emotionally invested in the people and events they work with.” This is at the heart of vicarious trauma, particularly with criminal justice professions. While being a first responder is an inherently stressful occupation, including for law enforcement, when these routine work environment stresses are combined with traumatic experiences, the risk of developing PTSD symptoms increases (Maguen et al., 2009). While the first responders who came on that traumatic scene in October 2012 may have learned to deal with their experience and relieve any PTSD symptoms they were suffering, I know personally that they are still trying to understand why this happened emotionally, maybe even spiritually. While I doubt that I have been able to give to them a satisfactory answer, I have never let them doubt my support for them. So, keep the faith brothers and sisters and keep up the good fight. There will be more Paula’s out there that will need you to hold their hand in their darkest hour. Just make sure there are people in your life who are there to hold your hand as well.


Gaulden, T. (2015, Sep. 18). 911 call details brutal feticide attack. WBRZ Channel 2 News. https://www.wbrz.com/news/911-call-details-brutal-feticide-attack/

Hardy, S. (2015, Sep. 23). Livingston Parish man pleads no contest in feticide case; cut unborn child from wife’s body while high on synthetic marijuana. The Baton Rouge Advocate. https://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/news/communities/livingston-parish-man-pleads-no-contest-in-feticide-case-cut-unborn-child-from-wife-s/article_6352ade9-6f16-593f-9a08-33804bbb31b4.html

Maguen, S., Metzler, T.J., McCaslin, S.E., Inslicht, S.S., Henn-Haase, C., Neylan, T.C., & Marmar, C.R. (2009). Routine work environment stress and PTSD symptoms in police officers. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 197(10), 754-760. doi:10/1097/NMD.0b013e3181b975f8.

Marin, K. (2021, Aug. 20). Vicarious trauma: Understanding traumatic stress in first responders [Blog]. Perimeter Platform. https://perimeterplatform.com/vicarious-trauma-understanding-traumatic-stress-in-first-responders/#:~:text=Experiencing%20vicarious%20trauma%20as%20a%20first%20responder&text=This%20process%20is%20exhausting%2C%20particularly,than%20to%20work%20through%20them.


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