By: Melissa Jeltson

It was just a few minutes into 2016 when shots rang out in El Cajon, California. Neighbors assumed it was celebratory gunfire; it wasn’t unusual for someone to fire off a few rounds to mark the new year. Hauati Fa’anunu, 41, called police and said he’d shot his wife, 34-year-old Mary Fa’anunu. Their six children were home, and a prosecutor said the couple’s 8-year-old son witnessed everything.

On the other side of the country, in Queens, New York, 19-year-old Joceline Romo and her boyfriend, Fabian Maliza, 24, argued after coming home from a New Year’s Eve party. Later, her body was found facedown in her bedroom, beaten and strangled. Her boyfriend has been charged with murder. Romo had the grotesque honor of being the first homicide victim in New York City in 2016.

Stephanie Bradberry, 24, and her boyfriend, Jay Patrick Bowman, 21, fought after leaving a friend’s house in Amazonia, a small town north of Kansas City, Missouri. A few minutes past midnight, Bowman called 911 to report he had accidentally shot his girlfriend in the head. The couple had a 4-month-old son. A few days earlier Bradberry had posted a photo on Facebook of her baby with the caption, “My lil man’s first Christmas.”

On just the first day of the year, at least eight women in different parts of the country were killed. In each instance, the suspect was a husband, boyfriend, ex or lover.

And the bloodletting didn’t let up in the month that followed. Every day, somewhere in the U.S., at least one woman was allegedly killed by an intimate partner. Some days four or five women died.

All told, at least 112 people were killed last month in suspected intimate partner homicides, a staggering death toll that includes children and bystanders, The Huffington Post found.

We reached that tally by recording and then following up on local news reports. We counted all fatal attacks in which the victim and alleged perpetrator were married, dating, had children in common or previously had been in a romantic relationship. Though we undoubtedly missed some cases, we believe we accumulated a comprehensive snapshot of the carnage.

The federal government doesn’t track such deaths in a meaningful way, even though there is a compelling argument for it to do so. Experts consider intimate partner homicides among the most predictable and preventable of all murders, because they tend to follow well-established patterns.

In the cases we examined, we found evidence that a large portion of the women killed had previously been abused by their partners. In many instances, there were signals that circumstances might turn deadly.

More women are killed by intimate partners in the United States than by any other group of people. It’s not strangers, friends or acquaintances who pose the biggest threat to women’s lives: It’s the men they date and marry.

Thirty-seven handguns. Five shotguns. Three rifles. That’s the arsenal deputies found in an Apex, North Carolina, home when they responded to a 911 call about a possible homicide on Jan. 9.

Ashley Fite, 17, had graduated from high school the day before. Fite had a smile for everyone, according to her obituary. She had plans to join the Marines. By the time the police showed up, Fite and her mother, Melissa McLain, 44, had both been shot dead. Melissa’s boyfriend, Lemuel Gabriel Miller, 47, had called a friend and confessed to the killing. Deputies would eventually find him in his truck on the side of a road, killed by an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Firearms were responsible for 57 percent of suspected intimate partner homicides in January, according to our analysis. Experts say that if an abuser has access to a gun, victims are five times more likely to be killed. Even just living in a state with a high rate of gun ownership increases a woman’s chance of being fatally shot in a domestic violence situation, according to a study published earlier this year.

A recent Associated Press analysis found that an average of 760 Americans were killed with guns annually by intimate partners, though that is likely an undercount as it did not include children or bystanders. More than 80 percent of the victims were women.

“It was a senseless act committed by an idiot,” said Fite’s father, Todd, in a Facebook message. “I’ve lost my only child, nothing is going to make it better or easier to deal with.”

Emily Young, a 24-year-old mother of three in Medina, Ohio, had an active protective order against her husband, LaReece KeSean Woods, 22, at the time of her death on Jan. 7.

She filed it in October, a few months after giving birth to twin daughters. Her husband had pushed her into broken glass, she explained to the court. He also slashed her tires and smashed a window in her apartment. The court complied with the request, and ordered her husband to stay at least 500 feet away from Young and her children.

He didn’t listen. The next month, Young asked that Woods be held in contempt of court for violating the protective order. He kept calling her on restricted numbers, she said, and he’d created a fake Facebook account to spread the rumor that she had HIV.

Young was found shot to death in her car weeks later. The twins were in the backseat, unharmed. Woods was charged with aggravated murder, violating a protection order and domestic violence.

“We tell women repeatedly to leave the abuser, leave the abuser, leave the abuser, but when she does she increases her risk of homicide,” said Susan Sorenson, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania who researches violence prevention.

In our findings, at least half of the women killed had left their partner or were in the process of leaving before the fatal incident. Two women who had already split from their partners were killed while returning to their homes to pick up their things.
One woman died on the same day she broke up with her boyfriend. Police retrieved text messages showing she had ended the relationship, and that he had refused to accept it.

Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said it’s critical for women attempting to leave an abusive partner to make a safety plan. Victims should reach out to their local domestic violence coalition, she said, for assistance with planning and resources.

“There are opportunities at many points along the line to evaluate risk factors and provide additional support and safety for the survivor, so that she doesn’t become a homicide victim,” she said.

For Young, a protective order simply wasn’t enough to save her life. Her family is now left wondering if anything could have been done differently.

“I miss her like crazy,” said Alyssa Stechow, Young’s cousin. “She had the best laugh and could turn any frown into a smile, despite struggling with her own personal battles.”

Since her cousin’s death, Stechow has been helping take care of Young’s three small kids. “They’re helping us get through this more than they could ever understand,” she said.

On Jan. 16, Christina Quinones, 31, fatally stabbed her boyfriend Ruben Jimenez, 31, at her home in Staten Island, New York. She told police that she had used a knife in self-defense after Jimenez tried to strangle her.

Strangulation is recognized by experts as a major red flag in domestic violence situations. A woman who has been strangled by an intimate partner is seven times more likely to become a homicide victim down the line. One study found that 43 percent of women killed in intimate partner homicides had been strangled in the past year by their abusive male partners.

It was Quinones’ first arrest. Her family told local reporters that Jimenez had abused her for years. He was twice arrested for assaulting her, including for a prior strangulation attempt. She is mother to three children — two of them Jimenez’s — who were present during the stabbing.

We identified 12 women who were suspected of killing their male intimate partners in January. In a majority of those cases, police and family members reported that there was a history of domestic violence between the couple.

Daniel Saunders, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work, said that men and women’s motives for killing an intimate partner tend to be quite different. Women who kill their intimate partners are usually protecting themselves or their children, he said.

“Men who kill, on the other hand, do not report nearly the same level of fear as women who kill,” he said. “They are most often motivated by extreme jealousy and possessiveness.”

Quinones has been charged with murder, and is being held without bail.

Police in some states recognize that they can actually help prevent these homicides. By using a lethality screening when responding to domestic violence calls, officers can determine if a woman is highly vulnerable and take steps to protect her.

First responders ask a woman a series of questions designed to determine her risk level: Does your partner threaten to kill you? Does he have access to a gun? Has he ever strangled you? If a woman has a high score, police alert her to her danger level and refer her to services on the spot. Police may further monitor abusers marked as high-risk, and the criminal justice system may use that information to manage the case.

Jacquelyn Campbell, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing and leader in the domestic violence prevention field, said it’s been her career-long quest to get good information in the hands of victims. “Many women underestimate the risk that they are in, or put it in the back of their minds,” she said. “Women seldom overestimate.”

The Department of Justice is currently studying the lethality screening model to see if it can save lives.

There’s evidence that strengthening gun laws could also help reduce intimate partner homicides. Federal law technically bans convicted abusers from buying and owning guns, but substantial loopholes allow them to skirt restrictions. An Everytown for Gun Safety analysis found that states requiring background checks for private handgun sales saw 46 percent fewer women shot to death by their intimate partners.

Another study found that state laws restricting firearm access to people subject to protective orders was associated with a 25 percent lower rate of gun-related intimate partner homicides.

But it’s not just the government or criminal justice system that can help stop the carnage. Friends, family and employers must hold abusive partners accountable for their behavior, Gandy said, adding that our society needs to treat abuse as morally reprehensible and socially unacceptable.

“The simple answer? We need to stop being OK with men’s violence against women,” she said.

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