A life-changing moment for Gael Strack came in 1995 when she learned that two teen girls who had recently been murdered by their ex-boyfriends had previously reached out to police and said they had been strangled by their soon-to-be murderers.
The deaths of Casondra Stewart, 17, and Tamara Smith, 16, shook Strack, the lead deputy city attorney in San Diego responsible for the Child Abuse and Domestic Violence Unit.
In an incident before her death, Stewart had called 911 and said she had been strangled. However, like so many victims of domestic violence, she recanted that claim by the time police arrived.
Police left and no charges were filed. She was dead two weeks later.
Smith’s killer was arrested for domestic abuse before her death. But he was released without bail. Her body was found the day her killer was scheduled to be arraigned on domestic abuse charges.
Both victims had been strangled in incidents before their murders. But officials had not connected the dots in time.
Their deaths led Strack to focus her career on addressing strangulation through education, investigation and prosecution. And this month, her objective brought her to Walla Walla.
After the teens’ deaths, Strack and her boss, then-San Diego City Attorney Casey Gwinn, vowed this could never happen again. The two began an education campaign in San Diego about the dangers of strangulation.
Recognizing that strangulation is not just a San Diego problem but one seen nationwide, the two have since co-founded the Alliance for HOPE International, an anti-domestic violence organization.
One of its programs is the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention, which Strack coordinates.
Strack, Gwinn and other staff members travel the country training law enforcement officers, prosecutors, paramedics, victim advocates and other interested parties in the risks of strangulation, how to recognize its signs, and how to help prevent it.
Walla Walla training
Chalese Rabidue Braman, Walla Walla Police Department’s domestic violence victim advocate, attended via Zoom a two-day session of the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention last year.
She knew she had to bring the organization to Walla Walla for a session.
“Last year we made it a priority to bring the training here,” Rabidue Braman said.
Funding from the Walla Walla Police Foundation, the Walla Walla Sheriff’s Foundation and the Walla Walla County Department of Public Health was used to bring the training here, Rabidue Braman said.
The Walla Walla and College Place police departments, as well as the Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office, all train their officers and deputies together in sessions throughout the year. All three departments committed to requiring all their officers to attend the strangulation training.
Strack hosted the training for half of the Valley’s law enforcement officers on Tuesday, Oct. 3. She was joined by Joshua Helton, a police officer for Davis, Calif., and a strangulation prevention trainer.
On Tuesday, Oct. 10, she will return to Walla Walla — this time with Gwinn — to conduct the training with the other half of the officers in the area.
Also present were firefighters, paramedics, prosecutors, victim advocates and a Walla Walla County Superior Court commissioner.
The training focuses on non-fatal strangulation.
Strack said the work can save lives.
“I call the work in strangulation prevention, homicide prevention,” she said.
Strangulation can be deadly. According to medical information complied by the Training Institute, victims can lose consciousness within seconds and can die within minutes.
Though by definition non-fatal strangulations are strangulations where the victim survives, even these can have deadly implications.
According to the Training Institute, women who have been strangled by a man are 750% more likely to be killed by that same man in a later incident.
This was the case with Casondra Stewart and Tamara Smith in San Diego. Though almost 30 years have passed since their deaths, it was clear at the Oct. 3 training session that Strack remains haunted.
Tears welled in her eyes as she talked about mistakes made by officials at the time.
“Some good has to come from their deaths,” she said.
Because women who have been strangled in the past are more likely to die of domestic abuse in the future, intervening early and prosecuting strangulation cases can prevent deaths.
But there are obstacles.
Hurdles with investigation, prosecution
Often, there are no visible injuries as a result of strangulation.
“You can strangle someone to death without leaving a mark,” Strack said.
Unlike a victim with bruises as a result of a punch or other strike, a strangulation victim might look fine. Law enforcement officers or police dispatchers therefore might not consider it as big a deal and move on.
The lack of visual evidence, as well as the high rate of victims who won’t cooperate with law enforcement and who might recant their statements, can make such cases difficult and unappealing to pursue, Helton said.
Much of Helton’s portion of the training was to stress that police officers must learn to build a case without the cooperation of a victim.
He said this is common in another type of case.
“How many of you have ever worked a murder case?” he asked. Many of the cops in the room raised their hands. “How many of your murder victims testified? … We have never had a murder victim testify in court. I try to work domestic violence cases like that.”
He said officers must treat domestic abuse cases as they would a murder case and prove it using the elements.
Steps can include many things, including taking many pictures of the victim, the suspect and the environment.
When a victim does speak, Helton said, police must ask direct questions and not assume a victim will bring up strangulation on her own.
Rabidue Braman said this is one of her biggest takeaways from the training. She said every victim of domestic violence needs to be asked whether they have ever had someone block their airways.
She now does that with the victims she works with. She said a surprising number of them have said yes, confirming her fear that this is an issue in Walla Walla.
Helton and Strack also stressed asking the right questions.
If someone says they have been strangled, simply asking whether they passed out might not be enough because people who have passed out have reported not knowing they had passed out.
One should also ask whether the victim has any memory loss, because some victims report remembering being strangled at one moment and suddenly being on the floor with no memory on how she got there.
This is a sign the victim lost consciousness while being strangled.
Connecting to other crimes
At the training session, Strack and Helton presented research that indicates many acts of domestic violence, including strangulation, might be motivated by the feeling of control over the victim. They also showed research that ties strangulation to other crimes.
Strack said research from the Training Institute revealed that 44 police officers were shot and killed deliberately in 2017. Of those, 33, or 75%, were killed by men with a history of strangling women.
Area police officers who attended the training session said it was informative and will improve their domestic violence investigations.
College Place Police Chief Troy Tomaras attended the training with several of his officers.
“We learned a lot about strangulation investigations that will be immediately applied to our procedures,” Tomaras said. “Training of this quality helps us better serve our community.”
Earlier this year, he told the U-B that combating domestic violence is a departmental priority.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to learn more about protecting victims from domestic abuse,” he said.
In Walla Walla, detectives Kelton Fulmer and Nick Klicker said they found the training useful.
“There is a lot of new information gained, speaking for myself,” Fulmer said. “Specifically, the signs to look for with a domestic violence victim who may or may not have been strangled … Some more in-depth clues in terms of things to look for in the eyes and skin, and things you may not see at all.”
Klicker said he was surprised to learn the connection between strangulation and other crimes.
“The first thing that was a huge surprise to me was it showed that the suspects involved in strangulation cases showed a track record of being more highly violent subjects,” Klicker said. “(Subjects who) can be involved in officer involved shootings or are more violent in the streets with the general public.”
He also said he was surprised to learn the long-term effects strangulation victims suffer.
“The other factor to come into play is the long-term issues faced by victims of strangulation,” he said. “They are showing symptoms years down the road that may have gone unnoticed.”
The Training Institute published a fact sheet about strangulation that is available here
The fact sheet includes the sources of the data presented in its claims and in the training.
The document also shows signs that could indicate strangulation one should look for when more obvious signs, such as bruising, are not present.
These signs include, but are not limited to, droopy eyelids on one or both sides of the face, bloody eyeballs, bruising behind the ear, bleeding of the ears, facial drooping and swollen tongue or lips.
How to help
What does the general public need to know?
Rabidue Braman said she hopes people understand the seriousness of strangulation, the risk of death it presents to victims, and the fact it is harder to detect than other forms of domestic violence.
She said if someone suspects anyone they know who might be a victim of strangulation, they should ask that person. And if necessary, Rabidue Braman said they can call her, and she can offer further assistance.
On its website, the WWPD encourages victims not ready to contact police to reach out to Rabidue Braman at 509-524-4400.
The YWCA is also available to assist domestic violence victims at 509-525-2570.
Source: Jeremy Burnham, Union Bulletin, Click here for original article