On paper, Woynshet Woldemariam was the aggressor. She was the one arrested for hitting her husband, violating two orders for protection and convicted on domestic abuse charges.
Over a two-year period, she was alleged to have slapped her estranged husband, Anteneh Tsegaye, spit in his face, possibly scratched him and at least once threatened to kill him while violating orders for protection he had taken against her.
But on Sunday, the day after the 41-year-old woman was shot to death in an Apple Valley parking lot by Tsegaye, also 41, in what police described as "a straightforward murder-suicide," a different picture is emerging; one in which friends and acquaintances say the Ethiopian immigrant, a naturalized citizen, is the victim on a variety of cultural, judicial, emotional and physical levels.
"She was the victim ... from Day One, there is not one shred of doubt on my part," said Evangelina Aguilar, a former guardian ad litem in Dakota County who worked for months with the family. "But he did manipulate the system, and he was very clever. He wouldn't let up, and she would threaten him. He would record it, but without context -- and there was always context."
Aguilar said she recommended that the children end up with the mother because of Tsegaye's emotional and physical abuse, including forcing his estranged wife to have sex with him at hotels in order to see her children.
"It is my opinion," Aguilar wrote in a June 9, 2010, report to District Judge Tim Wermager, "that emotional and verbal abuse and manipulation was a 'normal behavior' used by Mr. Tsegaye towards Ms. Woldemariam. It is my opinion that Ms. Woldemariam was the victim of ongoing physical, emotional, sexual and verbal abuse by Mr. Tsegaye and not the other way around as Mr. Tsegaye has alleged."
Wermager awarded custody of the couple's two children, now orphaned at ages 5 and 4, to Woldemariam despite her convictions on domestic abuse charges and violations of the orders for protection.
Apple Valley police, who are investigating the case, said the killings over the weekend look like a "straightforward murder-suicide," police Capt. Mike Marben said on Sunday.
Witnesses told police they saw a man in a red shirt chasing a woman through a parking lot at 12790 Germane Av. They said he shot her several times with a shotgun before turning the gun on himself. Both were dead when police arrived.
Marben said police obtained search warrants and looked for evidence at the man's Eagan apartment and in his BMW car, found at the shooting scene.
Sally Mortenson, Tsegaye's former lawyer, said on Sunday that she was surprised at what happened, given Woldemariam's record.
She also said that she disagreed with Aguilar's conclusions and the judge's actions because the court and police files paint a different picture of the woman. Her client, she said, was not the bad man described by Aguilar and others.
"They had different impressions than I did or is reflected in the court documents," Mortenson said. "He, to me, was a very concerned father. This [murder-suicide] seems completely out of character for the man that I knew."
The actions of Wermager and Aguilar were but two of many instances where court workers, battered-women's advocates, prosecutors, therapists and others apparently tried for years to correct what many saw as the injustice of her being victimized by her estranged husband and the legal system, said Jennifer Macaulay, Woldemariam's attorney.
"Winnie was a victim in this," a tearful Macaulay said. "At the end, everybody was trying to help her out."
How else to explain, Macaulay said, the state Court of Appeals allowing her to withdraw one of the two domestic abuse guilty pleas? Or an Apple Valley prosecutor dropping one charge and reducing another from a felony to a misdemeanor? Or a battered-women's shelter allowing Woldemariam to live there despite the convictions on her record?
"The only reason that that makes sense is they had a sense that she was a victim instead of an abuser," Macaulay said.
A complex cultural context
The couple was married in 2007 in Colorado and moved to Minnesota because Tsegeye was transferred here by his employer. In court filings, Woldemariam said the troubles with her husband started almost immediately after the move.
Macaulay said the biggest obstacle Woldemariam had to overcome was her inability to tell police what was going on or to press charges against her husband. Ethiopian women, Woldemariam said in court testimony, are expected to fix any problems with their husbands themselves or with the help of their families.
"They are not supposed to talk with the police," Macaulay said. "She thought if she talked, this would make her less of a mother, less of a woman."
As a result, police responding to domestic calls at her home would get only one side of the story. And that imbalance continued to mount until it overwhelmed Woldemariam, who lost her job as a nurse at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center because she was missing so much work due to arrests, stress, anxiety or court dates.
In 2010, she applied for unemployment to make ends meet. The Department of Veterans Affairs challenged her claim, even though Woldemariam provided them letters from a social worker stating that she and her children "suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse," according to unemployment law Judge David Huber.
"Woldemariam was discharged ... for reasons other than employment misconduct," Huber wrote in supporting her claim. "Being a victim of domestic abuse is not misconduct."