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'Defusing the bomb'

Editor's Note: In West Virginia, women who suffer violent deaths are more than half the time victims at the hands of their husbands, ex-husbands or boyfriends. Left behind are orphaned children and remnants of families that will never be the same. In this four-part series, The Exponent Telegram examines causes of domestic violence and how it might be prevented.

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

CLARKSBURG -- Every time an area resident ends a marriage with a gun, the people trying to prevent that exact type of crime can't help but cringe.

But they say they have no intention of stopping ongoing efforts to derail murder-suicides that may be brewing on other home fronts.

"We just have to keep working on it and trying to do new things," said Sheriff Robert Rinehart of Lewis County. "Somehow, we need to see the symptoms and start working at the symptoms rather than wait until we have a full-blown disaster."

Rinehart has had good cause to think about such issues. Since late January, Lewis County alone has seen three rounds of domestic murder-suicides. The violences has left three men, two women and three children dead and four children orphaned.

"We work on it. We try," Rinehart said of psychological training his deputies are taking to help them monitor the community for warning signs that such crimes are imminent.

"It just creeps up on you, and then it's like an atomic bomb."

Rinehart isn't the only one who believes early intervention may be a key way of defusing this kind of crime.

"The worst thing is to do nothing," said Harriet Sutton, executive director of HOPE Inc. "Get help. Don't keep it a secret."

HOPE Inc. offers shelter, legal advocacy and other services to domestic violence victims and offenders in Harrison, Marion, Lewis, Doddridge and Gilmer counties. It is one of 13 licensed domestic violence centers that, together, serve every county in the state.

Sutton said it is important not to blame criminal abuse on domestic-violence victims, 95 percent of whom are female. Some are under such close scrutiny by their abusers that they cannot safely seek help.

But others may be leaving themselves more vulnerable to serious injury or worse by not reporting the abuse that usually precedes domestic murder-suicide.

"The sad thing is you want it to be acceptable," Sutton said of victims justifying everything from demeaning words to broken bones. "I made him angry."

Joe Shaffer, Harrison County prosecutor, said he has seen such dangerous victim reasoning first hand.

"I have actually heard a woman on the witness stand say that when her husband swung a ball bat at her and missed it was not domestic violence (because he missed)," he said. "And, she was an intelligent woman."

Shaffer said he also had a chilling memory of one victim who came to his office to try to get him to drop charges against her husband. He said she tried to lie away the cause of her injuries.

"I wouldn't do it. I looked her straight in the eyes and said, 'Ma'am, you're a battered woman.' "

Sutton said a safer course of action is for abused women to quickly reach out to a licensed shelter or law enforcement. Victims may also serve themselves well by developing a strategy to either leave the home themselves or get court assistance in forcing out the abuser.

"There may be other ways to be safe rather than to give up your whole life," she said.

Changing the culture

Dr. Joseph Scotti, a professor of psychology at West Virginia University in Morgantown, agreed with Sutton and Shaffer that early intervention is an excellent way to prevent at least some domestic murder-suicides. But, he added, getting victims to seek help is easier said than done.

"It would be nice if there was a general community understanding that violence is unacceptable -- so that whenever it happens to anyone they would take action," Scotti said.

Culturally, however, we seem to believe that some violence is OK, particularly when it occurs in a private home among a husband, wife and children, he said. Scotti also believes that our culture has a tendency to blame women for marriage problems, which may contribute to their being embarrassed to admit their relationship is troubled.

"What tends to happen, is women get isolated," he said of victims tolerating a cycle of violence and "honeymoon" style repentance in their relationships. "Once they get isolated, it's like they're sunk."

He believes educating young people about domestic violence is a good way to change that cycle and the culture. That is particularly true, he said, if mothers, fathers and institutions like schools can send a consistent message.

Scotti said such education is particularly important to dating teens who may already be in or headed into abusive relationships themselves.

He said it is not unreasonable to teach girls to look for warning signs such as controlling behavior among suitors and to respond to violence or threatened date rape with pepper spray or a whistle. He also believes boys need to be clearly taught that violence does not equal manliness.

Marcia Boyles, Lewis County Sheriff's Department victims advocate, is also hopeful that communities will become more open to intervention. In addition to dealing with victims of all kinds of crimes, Boyles specifically works with domestic-violence prevention.

"It's very difficult if you intervene," she said of getting over a psychological hurdle that once plagued child abuse. "When does the problem become a law enforcement problem and not a family problem, and who has the right to intervene?"

Noting that our culture has decided it's not only acceptable but, in some cases, mandatory to intervene on behalf of children, she wonders if we will eventually feel the same about adult victims of domestic violence. For example, will tragic murder-suicides eventually cause communities to believe domestic violence is such a serious threat that hospitals will be required to report suspected abuse to law enforcement?

Legal assist

Tom Johnston, U.S. attorney for the northern 32 counties in West Virginia, said there are things that law enforcement can do in the meantime. He recently chose to target domestic violence as the most serious firearms crime in this district.

As a result, his office is publishing and broadcasting advertisements such as those reminding abusers or would-be abusers that even a misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence can lead to the lifetime loss of firearm ownership privileges. He believes that threat may reduce or prevent the day-to-day violence that often precedes a capital crime.

"I think there are things that we're doing to reduce the risk of that (domestic homicide) happening," Johnston said. "The prospect of losing one's firearms -- in West Virginia, there aren't too many more powerful incentives."

Johnston said his office is also working with domestic violence shelters on another type of prevention. If a shelter warns him that fatal violence is brewing in a case his office plans to prosecute -- such as that which might be provoked by the serving of divorce papers -- court action is launched immediately.

If the prosecution is timed correctly, he said it can tie up a potential killer in court, thus preventing a crime.

Harrison Prosecutor Shaffer said timing could also be improved at the circuit-court level. Now, even if police arrest an abuser, Shaffer said he can be out on bond and back in the home almost immediately.

"It could be weeks or maybe months before the case is scheduled for a hearing."

He would like to see the development of a two-track system, instead.

On one track would be the most violent cases, or cases law enforcement believes are more likely to lead to homicide. Those cases would move more quickly and, if a conviction resulted, the potential killer would be incarcerated.

HOPE Inc.'s Sutton agrees with that premise. She also believes quicker incarceration of the most violent offenders would encourage victims to seek help.

"We have people that move out of state, that literally flee for their lives because there's no way to control him," Sutton said of the current reality. "If he's in jail, he can't kill anyone."

Shaffer said there could also be a second prosecutorial track aimed at defusing less violent cases before they can escalate.

He noted one couple he encountered. Both husband and wife were arrested after a raucous squabble that ended with them squirting each other with mustard and ketchup. Instead of arresting such non-violent offenders and tying up court time, he would like to see law enforcement use cool-down shelters similar to those used for public intoxication.

Counting casualties

A more mundane way of thwarting domestic murder-suicide may come from better tracking of the crime. The FBI's fingerprint and crime information center in Clarksburg does an annual Crime in the U.S. report that does just that, in addition to several other statistical efforts.

The FBI compiles reports from all levels of law enforcement. Whenever the crime involves homicide, the FBI asks officers to fill out a supplementary report that tracks such information as the relationship of the offender to the victim, if it is known.

"The data isn't perfect," said Maryvictoria Payne, chief of communications at the Clarksburg center. "What we do know ... is that it's more likely that you're going to be killed by someone that you know than by someone that you don't know."

More specifically, at least a decade of national data has indicated chances are about one in three that any female homicide victim was killed by her husband or boyfriend.

In West Virginia, that connection is even stronger, according to a report compiled by State Police. The 2000 Crime in West Virginia, the most recent on record, showed more than half of female homicide victims were killed by their husband, ex-husband or boyfriend.

Not only do such numbers help law enforcement know that domestic homicide is a serious criminal problem, Payne said they can make it easier to solve cases in which the offender does not kill himself because it narrows the pool of suspects.

Look at Laci Peterson, she said of a California homicide prosecutors believe was committed by the husband. "Where do police spend their time?"

Regional Editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com