Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Article: Domestic violence deaths: At least 34 in Minnesota last year, report says

At least 34 Minnesotans, including four children, were murdered in 2011 as a result of domestic violence, according to a report released this afternoon by the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.

The total also includes 23 women and one man killed by an intimate partner, and six people who were friends, relatives or someone who intervened. It compares with at least 29 murdered in 2010 and 25 in 2009.

"We document these brutal murders to direct attention to the dangerous reality of domestic violence and the urgency to do more to protect the victims of domestic violence," said Liz Richards of the coalition, which has published the Femicide Report every year since 1989.

Richards, other victims' advocates, law enforcement and victims gathered at the Best Western Kelly Inn this afternoon to announce the release of the report.

Leigh Olson lost her daughter Mikayla in 2004 when her ex-husband, John Tester, killed the 5-year-old and then himself during visitation time. Olson, formerly of St. Paul, had filed for orders of protection against Tester and told Ramsey County court officials that he should not be granted unsupervised visitation.

"I thought if I left my abusive marriage, life would improve," Olson told the hotel gathering. "I was wrong."

"If people understood the manipulation and control that is part of domestic violence, if everyone took domestic violence seriously, if everyone made safety a priority, safety would improve," Olson said. "Please

get involved."
While it is impossible to predict which batterers will end up killing their partners, the Femicide Report cited several "red flags" that researchers have identified:

Separation; extended history of domestic or other violence; pregnancy; threats of homicide or suicide; access to a gun; stalking; attempted strangulation; forced sex; extreme jealousy and control of daily activities.

Of the 23 women killed, 11 were separated from their abuser or attempting to leave.

"While conventional wisdom persists that leaving an abuser will always make a battered woman safer, separation often increases the risk of further harm, as batterers 'step up' their efforts to control or intimidate the victim," the report said.

Twelve of the 23 women were shot; six were stabbed, two were strangled, two were beaten and one was killed by an as-yet-undisclosed cause.

Among those killed:

-- Katherine Pohjonen, 19, Vadnais Heights. Murdered by her husband, Kalen Pohjonen, who then shot and killed himself.

-- Nicole Meier, 26, Blaine. Shot by her ex-boyfriend, Jesse Oakley, after she moved out of their townhouse. Oakley's ex-wife had obtained a protective order against him. It required that he give up his guns. He had not done so.

-- Tabitha Belmonte, 16, Amor. Shot by her boyfriend, Dylan Cox, who then shot himself. They were living with their 7-month-old daughter and Cox's parents.

-- Kimberly Grew, 51, Virginia. Shot four times by her estranged husband, Brian Grew, the evening he got notice that she had filed for divorce. He then shot himself.

-- Cintia Ornelas Bustos, 28, Oakdale. Shot by her boyfriend, Jamie Velasquez, who took his own life after also shooting their live-in babysitter, Angela Uscanga Gonzalez, 43. The couple's 3-year-old son was home at the time and their 6-year-old daughter found the bodies when she got home from school.

-- Megan Neely, 27, St. Paul. Found dead in a cubbyhole of her home. Her estranged boyfriend was arrested in Miami and named a suspect. He has not been charged.

-- Lori Christine Baker, 39, Oakdale. Stabbed in her home. Her boyfriend, Thomas James Fox, had fled from a halfway house while on a work release and is the only suspect. He has not been charged.

-- Susan Marie Courteau, 44, Coon Rapids. Called police on the day of her death to say that her boyfriend, Patrick Benton, had been drinking and was scaring her. Police escorted him off the property. Later that day, Courteau was stabbed to death. Benton has been charged in her murder.

The children killed were Aiden Hoyer, 4 months, of Rochester; Alexis VanHoutan, 5 months, Coon Rapids; Devin Drake, 3 years, Anoka; and Mario Ruiz Meja, 5 months, Pelican City.

Shawn Schneider died when he tried to help. The Lake City police officer was shot in the head while responding to a domestic violence call Dec. 19. His intervention helped shooter Alan Sylte Jr.'s former girlfriend to escape unharmed. Sylte then shot himself.

Bob Jacobson, chief of public safety in New Brighton, said that over the 28 years he has worked in law enforcement there have been positive changes in how domestic situations are handled by police.

No longer do officers simply leave the scene after telling abusers to "calm down" or "cool off," Jacobson said.

They try to respond quickly, assess situations for how likely they are to be potentially lethal, and connect the victims with resources, he said. They also work with schools and community groups.

Emily Gurnon can be reached at 651-228-5522.

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