One day after Mariah Carpenter was gunned down by her ex-boyfriend, her mother met local police at a storage unit in Columbus, Ohio, belonging to the killer. They rolled up the door and made a shocking discovery: There, among dozens of pairs of new Air Jordan sneakers, were at least 20 guns, including assault rifles.
A convicted felon, Quantaine Tate was barred from having any of them under federal and state law.
It wasn’t just the volume of guns Tate owned that was stunning. So was the number of warning signs that should have alerted authorities to be especially vigilant about protecting Carpenter from the father of her 2-year-old son. Tate had physically abused Carpenter late in her pregnancy, threatened her with a gun and grabbed her by the throat – all key indicators that an abuse victim is at grave risk of eventually being killed.
Recognizing red flags
Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor at Johns Hopkins University whose pioneering work includes dozens of studies examining why abusive relationships turn deadly, said Carpenter’s case makes her cringe. “So many red flags,” she said.
Recognizing red flags is essential for police, prosecutors and courts to make informed decisions as they try to protect domestic violence victims and their families — for example, by requiring abusers to relinquish any firearms they possess or by helping victims connect to shelters and other lifesaving support services. Thanks to researchers like Campbell, there is a large and growing body of knowledge about which victims are most at risk of being killed, as well as assessment tools that can help victims and law enforcement understand the magnitude of the danger before it’s too late.
Now red flags have captured the attention of lawmakers in Washington. A new bipartisan law, signed by President Joe Biden in June, contains a provision encouraging states to enact so-called red flag laws that allow police to temporarily remove guns from people at extreme risk of harming themselves or others, including intimate partners. The legislation, aimed at preventing mass shootings like the recent ones in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, is the most significant gun safety bill to pass Congress in nearly 30 years.
But red flags can help save lives only if police, prosecutors and judges know how to identify them — and if they act on that knowledge. In scores of domestic violence gun homicides from 2017 through 2020, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that the opposite often happened: Law enforcement repeatedly ignored even the most glaring signs that a victim was at high risk of being killed.
FBI data: Law enforcement agencies provide little “red flag” training
According to more than three dozen interviews with domestic violence and criminal justice experts around the U.S., most law enforcement agencies provide little or no training in how to recognize red flags or how to use them to protect victims and their families. Many police departments also don’t use lethality assessments, widely seen as the best way to steer high-risk victims into support services. Instead, police often become frustrated by the dynamics between a victim and her abuser, domestic violence experts said, dismissing warning signs as part of a dysfunctional pattern that can’t be changed. Even when agencies do make the effort to put assessment tools in place, police, prosecutors and courts often don’t follow through — for example, they frequently don’t seize abusers’ guns even when those firearms are illegal.
The failure to heed red flags is one of the factors contributing to soaring rates of domestic violence gun homicides in the U.S. — up 58% since 2010, to the highest level in nearly three decades, according to FBI data analyzed exclusively for Reveal.
The repercussions often ripple far beyond the abusive relationship. According to a 2014 study, 20% of people killed in domestic violence homicides are not the intimate partners themselves but family members, friends, neighbors, police and bystanders. More than two-thirds of mass shootings in the U.S. from 2014 through 2019 were domestic violence incidents or were perpetrated by people with a history of domestic abuse.
Carpenter is a case study in what can happen when law enforcement agencies don’t act. She dated Tate for less than a year, unable to tolerate his possessive, controlling ways. But after their breakup, he wouldn’t leave her, or the baby they were expecting, alone. In 2016, when the pregnant Carpenter refused to move in with him, Tate choked her, pulled a gun from his waistband and threatened to kill her. The following year, Tate again tried to strangle Carpenter, throwing her onto a bed and leaving her scratched and bruised.
Women who have been non-fatally choked by their partner are seven times more likely to eventually be killed than other abuse victims; women who are abused while pregnant are three times more likely to be slain, Campbell’s research has shown. Just owning a firearm makes an abuser five times more likely to take his partner’s life; if he actually uses a weapon to threaten or assault her, her risk of being killed is 20 times higher than for other abuse victims. The combination of risks makes a situation like Carpenter’s “all the more dangerous,” Campbell said.
Yet the criminal justice system’s handling of Tate didn’t reflect that extreme danger. Following a standoff with a SWAT team in the first attack, Tate was charged with kidnapping and felony assault on a police officer, but after spending more than four months in jail awaiting trial, he ended up pleading guilty to a lesser charge of attempted assault on a police officer and serving one month of probation. In the second incident, he was convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence and spent 49 days in jail, with another two years’ probation. Tate’s convictions meant he was legally barred from having firearms, but Columbus authorities didn’t have protocols in place to relinquish any guns, and there’s no evidence in court files that the judges presiding over his cases ordered him to do so – an issue that surfaced again and again in the cases reviewed by Reveal.
In June 2018, a little over a year after he was released from jail in the second attack, Tate shot 24-year-old Carpenter in the head before turning the gun on himself. “She passed away right at the baby’s feet,” Carpenter’s mother, Dawn Sutherland, said of the couple’s toddler son. When police kicked in the door of Carpenter’s apartment, they found A’Mill Carpenter bouncing in his exersaucer, his socks drenched in his mother’s blood, Sutherland said.
40 years of research dismissed or ignored
Research into why some women survive their abusive situations while others succumb dates back to the 1980s. Since then, public health and domestic violence experts have studied hundreds of intimate partner killings in multiple states and around the world, comparing those deaths to cases in which victims lived. Most of the research focuses on male abusers and female victims.
Campbell and her colleagues ultimately identified at least 20 factors that put victims at increased risk of being killed. One of the most dangerous periods, they discovered, is when a woman decides to end the relationship; in one study, a victim’s chances of being killed by her abuser tripled after a separation and increased ninefold if he was highly controlling. Intimate partner violence is fundamentally about power, and when a victim walks away, the power dynamic shifts. “Leaving means the abuser believes their control is over,” said Micaela Deming, policy director for the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Violence is also more likely to turn lethal if an abuser exhibits stalking behavior toward his intimate partner or if he has forced her to have sex, researchers found. The threat is compounded if an abuser is unemployed or has a history of drug use, alcoholism or suicide threats. One often-overlooked risk factor is the presence of children unrelated to the abuser. A woman is twice as likely to be killed if her abusive partner is not the biological father of her children.
As part of Reveal’s project on intimate partner gun homicides, we’ve examined hundreds of cases around the U.S. in which firearms were used to kill domestic abuse victims, their relatives and bystanders, including police. In many of these cases, obvious, overt red flags were repeatedly overlooked or dismissed.
Melissa Shoop’s mother lived in fear of what her daughter’s ex-boyfriend might do to their family. John Paul Belew had a long criminal history and struggled with addiction, and he rarely held a job. In a relationship that spanned 11 years and the birth of two daughters, he stalked Shoop, harassed and assaulted her, broke into her Ohio home and threatened her relatives on multiple occasions, according to police reports. Shoop did her best to break free, reporting his abusive behavior to police, seeking refuge with friends and obtaining protection orders from local courts. But Belew wouldn’t let her go. “She was his meal ticket,” Melanie Shoop said. “She was his everything.”
Melanie Shoop tried to advocate on her daughter’s behalf. “Every time he would come up on charges for anything, I would personally send a letter to the judge and ask him to give him maximum jail time to keep my daughter and granddaughters safe,” she said. She directed one such plea to the Toledo Municipal Court judge overseeing two 2019 cases, one in which Belew stole Melissa Shoop’s car and another in which he overdosed while their younger daughter was in the back seat. “I would say, ‘Please review his history. Please know that he is dangerous and please give him the maximum jail time that you can,’ ” she said. But instead of a jail sentence, Judge Timothy Kuhlman ordered Belew to continue in a drug treatment program while he was on a year’s probation.
In an interview, Kuhlman said he thought helping Belew address his addiction and mental health problems would do more to protect the public in the long term than briefly locking him behind bars. “Unless you can put someone in jail for the rest of their life, you cannot guarantee victim safety,” Kuhlman said, noting that the cases before him didn’t include a domestic violence charge. “What we cannot do is predict where and when a person might get to the point where they kill their partner and lock them up before that.”
The incidents made Melissa Shoop, 31, even more determined to move on, her mother said; Belew responded by escalating his harassment and threats. “He always thought he could reel her back in, but this last time I think he became a desperate man,” Melanie Shoop said. “I think he really thought she was getting away from him.” One night less than a month after Kuhlman’s ruling, Belew emerged from the shadows near Melissa Shoop’s home in the town of Maumee, outside Toledo, as she sat on the front porch with friends. He fired several shots, killing her, then himself.
In the case of 42-year-old Shanae Clayton, a hospital medical assistant in Pontiac, Michigan, the red flags were so obvious that even a child could recognize them. Zariah Clayton, now 24, was a first grader when she said she witnessed her mother’s boyfriend trying to choke her. “Roger’s going to kill you,” she warned her mom.
But Clayton’s relationship with Roderick “Roger” Washington continued on and off for 18 years. Despite his lengthy criminal history, including convictions for felony drug possession, attempted home invasion and misdemeanor domestic violence, he always seemed to have a revolver. In 2018, Clayton awoke to find her tires slashed and a note accusing her of sleeping with someone else. But when she called police, “they were very dismissive,” Zariah Clayton recalled. “They said the letter was so detailed, a woman must have written it. … They made my mom second-guess herself like she was crazy.” Another time, Zariah Clayton was the one Washington threatened — an incident she recorded on her phone. When she called police, “they asked me, does he have any weapons? I told them yes.” But instead of arresting Washington and looking for the gun, police gave him a ride to his father’s house and never followed up, Zariah Clayton said.
Capt. Andre Ewing of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office said in an email that there is no record of Zariah Clayton calling his agency to report Washington threatened her. Nor was there “any evidence that Washington committed any crime, or he would have been arrested,” following the 2018 incident, Ewing said.
Then, like many domestic violence victims across the U.S., Shanae Clayton found herself trapped with her abuser during the pandemic, even as he lost his factory job and his drinking and violence escalated. When she contracted a near-fatal case of COVID-19, she saw her recovery as God giving her another chance. “I have to get my life together,” her daughter recalls her saying. “Roger has to go.”
Instead, Clayton became part of a grim pandemic trend: a spike in domestic violence homicides. According to unpublished FBI data analyzed for Reveal by Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, gun homicides by intimate partners soared 25% in 2020 compared with the previous year. Women accounted for more than two-thirds of those killed. During a fight on April 24, 2020, Washington pulled out a gun, punched Shanae Clayton in the face, then shot her twice. Washington pleaded no contest to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 22 to 50 years in prison.
Not Using This Lifesaving Tool Is ‘Malfeasance’
Domestic violence cases are among the most complex and dangerous crimes that police handle. They make up the largest category of calls to police and lead to a handful of law enforcement deaths every year. Yet police academies devote an average of just 2% of their training time for new recruits on domestic abuse.
Likewise, prosecutors and judges get little training, compounding cultural biases that may lead authorities to blame victims. Some judges are actively resistant to training, said Amber Lueken Barwick, who conducts trainings for the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, believing that identifying high-risk situations “isn’t their role – this is somebody else’s job.”
“We need to help (judges) understand the role they play and how that could save someone’s life, especially when it comes to pre-trial conditions,” she said. “If it means that someone needs to stay in jail while a victim gets safe, that needs to be considered. There needs to be a heightened level of monitoring the defendant.”
There are also proven tools that could aid authorities: lethality assessment tools that help measure the level of risk. The most widely used tool is an 11-question checklist based on Campbell’s research that police officers are supposed to administer after any domestic disturbance call and takes just five minutes to complete.
Introduced in 2005 by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, the assessment’s main purpose is to help victims understand the extent of the risks they face and seek help – for example, by taking refuge at a domestic abuse shelter, reaching out to a mental health counselor, joining a support group or putting together a longer-term safety plan. But it can also help law enforcers recognize the danger signs even if they haven’t received in-depth training.
According to Campbell’s research, many domestic violence homicide victims never realized the gravity of their situation. People killed by their abusers also tended to have limited contact with advocates; in one report, only 4% of intimate partner homicide victims nationwide had ever reached out to domestic violence programs for help. Yet that report shows that high-danger victims are 60% less likely to be reassaulted if they go to a shelter. After police departments across Maryland began using the assessment tool based on Campbell’s work, intimate partner homicides dropped by one-third over a five-year period, according to the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.
Not only should more law enforcement agencies be using the lethality tests, said Mark Wynn, who conducts domestic violence workshops for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the U.S. State Department and the Justice Department, but they also should be coordinating with other local agencies to use the tools more effectively. “When it’s a community early warning system, you’re more likely to see behaviors of the offender earlier,” he said. Not using lethality assessments to save lives, he added, is “malfeasance.”
But even when police departments do try to put such tools in place, there’s no guarantee they will be used correctly — or at all. That’s what happened in Columbus, where Quantaine Tate killed Mariah Carpenter and himself in 2018.
Sgt. Rick Ketcham, head of the Columbus Division of Police’s domestic violence unit, recalls learning about the Maryland lethality assessment at a conference in Boston in 2013: “I thought it was beneficial — this was the direction we need to go.” But the tool took two years to implement, and the department’s 900 patrol officers didn’t use it consistently. In 2016, for example, after Tate choked Carpenter and threatened her with a gun, there’s no evidence that Columbus police gave her an assessment. “They may not have thought about it,” Ketcham said.
The next time Tate strangled her in 2017, Carpenter went straight to prosecutors, Ketcham said.
Once again, no lethality assessment was done.