Murder with Impunity
As part of an ongoing examination, The Washington Post has compiled and mapped homicide arrest data and neighborhood demographics from more than 50 of America’s largest cities.Steps to get helpKaren Parker, CEO of Safe Alliance in Charlotte, which helps victims of domestic abuse, described four ways a woman can access help:• Contact police
• Seek medical attention
• Call a help line, such as the National Domestic Violence hotline at 800-799-7232
• Go to an assistance organization such as Safe Alliance
“Strangulation is the one common factor that emerges so very, very often,” said Sgt. Craig Varnum, supervisor of the domestic violence unit at the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department. The department has trained all of its members — as well as prosecutors, judges and health-care providers — to spot the signs of strangulation, which include bloodshot eyes, sore throat and confusion. Varnum said the department’s next goal is to create a strangulation task force to identify, prosecute and track men who attack women in that way.
Attempted strangulation is “the edge of homicide,” said Casey Gwinn, a former San Diego city attorney and president and co-founder of Alliance for Hope, which works with domestic violence and sexual assault victims. His organization trains first responders and doctors to spot the signs so they can intervene.
“Our goal is to say as soon as you hear ‘he choked me,’ bells and whistles will be going off,” Gwinn said.
Benjamin, of the Fort Worth Police Department, said men who try to strangle have been linked to extreme violence, including against police officers.
“In my opinion, any man who becomes so angry at a loved one that he can strangle them . . . is a man who is predisposed to murder,” Benjamin said.
Suzanne Parsons, a Fort Worth real estate agent, long feared that her husband, John St. Angelo, would kill her. The couple married in their 40s but had known each other since childhood, and Parsons endured relentless violence during their three-year marriage. St. Angelo refused to let her leave the house, dragged her from the shower by the hair, assaulted her because her cellphone was locked and tried to strangle her while the couple was on vacation in Mexico, according to her son, Joel Bishop.
St. Angelo, once an affluent developer, depleted his savings. The couple defaulted on their mortgage, and St. Angelo started using drugs and gambling, said Bangs, the prosecutor.
“It’s very disturbing to watch case after case unfold and know there were a bunch of warning signs that are easy to read.”
Mollee Westfall, District Court Judge
When St. Angelo moved out in May 2013, Parsons served him with divorce papers, requested a temporary restraining order, bought a firearm and applied for a concealed handgun license, Bangs said.
In December 2013, Parsons called the police to report that a prowler had set her swimming pool equipment on fire. Prosecutors said Parsons was confident that St. Angelo was the perpetrator, but police did not have enough evidence to charge him, Bangs said.
Days later, Fort Worth police found Parsons’s body slumped on her office floor at work. Her hands were covered in blood and defensive wounds. Half of a red-polished fingernail was ripped off and was lying on the carpet nearby, beside a blood-smeared necklace of interlocking hearts. Prosecutors said St. Angelo stabbed Parsons about two dozen times.
He was arrested the following day after attempting suicide and was later convicted of murder, receiving a life sentence. His lawyer, Kathy Lowthorp, said in an interview that Parsons was the aggressor in the violent encounter and that St. Angelo stabbed her in self-defense.
‘Daddy shot mama’
One of the biggest obstacles to preventing domestic violence homicide is the fractured system that aims to deal with domestic strife. In some cities, women often have to navigate multiple offices, disparate bureaucracies and opaque processes to seek help.
When Kimberly Garrett began working as the victims services coordinator for the Oklahoma City Police Department in 2011, she was shocked by what she found. The onus was on victims to figure out where they needed to go for help, and women often had to drive all over the city — to a courthouse one day, a police station the next, a social worker a week later. Some women would just give up, Garrett said.
According to The Post’s analysis, 47 of 104 women killed during the past decade in Oklahoma City were murdered by an intimate partner.
Garrett worked to open Palomar, a one-stop resource for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse known as a family justice center, in February 2017. People began asking for help filing restraining orders, seeking criminal charges and finding social services before the building opened.
There are 130 family justice centers nationwide, according to the Alliance for Hope, and they are open in at least 20 countries.
Many offer counseling and child care and allow domestic violence victims to attend court via video monitor so they do not have to be in the same room as their abusers, a shift that makes victims feel safer.
“There are people who have been in the field for a long time, and they’re comfortable with the status quo, and they feel like agencies should be isolated,” Garrett said. “I think, at the end of the day, that’s made it really hard for victims. There’s unintentional consequences.”
Advocates also battle the perception that domestic violence is shameful and should remain a private family matter.
“Twenty years ago or 30 years ago, it was a hidden secret, and now we’re finding that it’s still difficult to talk about,” said Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “We don’t want to talk about it until there’s an event.”
As a result of Cisneros’s death and others like it in the Fort Worth area, Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson has significantly changed how the office handles domestic cases, putting the Texas county at the vanguard of new approaches to prevention.
She created a specialized domestic violence division, which handles the office’s most serious offenses. It has 450 to 600 cases at any given time. In the county’s biggest city, Fort Worth, 43 percent of women killed in the past decade were murdered by their intimate partners, according to The Post’s analysis, or 40 out of 94 female homicide victims.
Wilson’s office stopped accepting requests from women to drop charges against their suspected abusers. It now brings forward cases even if a woman doesn’t want to cooperate, evaluating the strength or weakness of a case through evidence such as medical records, photographs taken by forensic investigators and 911 calls. The approach, known as evidence-based prosecution, is increasingly in use nationwide.
“The oldest one looked up and said, ‘Daddy shot mama, didn’t he?’ And I said, ‘Yes, baby, he did.’ ”
Carolyn Parnell, mother of Desirae Parnell
“There are some people who, quite frankly, just aren’t ready, but if we can piece together a case in her absence or piece together a case even without her wanting us to, that’s our responsibility to protect her and the community and the family,” said Spencer B. Merriweather III, the district attorney in Mecklenburg County, N.C., which includes Charlotte.
In February 2017, six Texas counties, including Tarrant, received pilot funding to form domestic violence teams to intervene in cases like Cisneros’s. Law enforcement officials and victim support organizations meet monthly to discuss cases. District Judge Mollee Westfall built a docket entirely of high-risk cases, and domestic violence killings in Tarrant County have fallen since the changes were implemented.
“We’re trying to keep people alive,” Westfall said. “It’s very disturbing to watch case after case unfold and know there were a bunch of warning signs that are easy to read.”
Police departments across the country use a lethality assessment to gauge the danger a woman in an abusive relationship faces. They connect victims who score at high risk to advocates while still at the crime scene.
The assessments consist of questions including whether an abuser owns or has access to a gun, whether the victim moved out in the past year or whether a death threat was made, said Campbell, of Johns Hopkins, who developed the assessments.
“If she’s at high danger and high risk and she’s told, ‘You are at high risk,’ that being told is an important part of the process,” Campbell said. “Women will oftentimes underestimate their risk of being killed.”
By the time Desirae Parnell began making a move to protect herself, she was already facing extreme danger.
In December 2016, Parnell contemplated filing a restraining order against Zachary Blake, the father of her two children, according to her mother, Carolyn Parnell. Desirae Parnell met Blake in 2007 and fell for him quickly. She gave birth to a son in 2009, and Blake wanted her to stop working, her mother said.
“It was his way of controlling,” Carolyn Parnell said. “He took everything. Her self-esteem, everything, away from her.”
Parnell gave birth to a second son in 2011 and, against Blake’s wishes, got a job at an urgent-care clinic in Oklahoma City. Parnell thrived, eventually managing two clinics. But her relationship deteriorated, and emotional abuse began to escalate to physical attacks, her mother said. In 2016, Parnell found Blake using heroin in the couple’s bathroom and left him, her mother said. He sent threatening text messages that she reported to police, but her mother said the threats didn’t rise to the level of a crime.
Parnell started putting her life back together. She coached her sons’ baseball team. And she tried to keep Blake involved with the boys. One night, she asked Blake to take their sons to a wrestling event. He took them to a friend’s apartment instead, and Carolyn Parnell said her daughter realized she no longer trusted Blake and wanted to put legal distance between them, so she told him she wanted to file a restraining order, also known as a victim protective order, or VPO.
“He told her, ‘If you get a VPO, I will kill you, and I will kill myself,’ ” Carolyn Parnell said. “We just thought he was blowing air, like he always did.”
Though she knew little about the process, Desirae Parnell decided that week to seek a protective order with the help of a friend who was a police officer, her mother said. They planned to do it shortly after Parnell took care of a few things at work.
Carolyn Parnell said co-workers saw Desirae abruptly run out of the clinic. She got in her car, and Blake was hiding inside, Carolyn Parnell said. Parnell drove around the strip mall lot before getting out of the car. Blake remained inside, aimed a gun out the driver’s side window and shot her in the head, killing her instantly. He then killed himself, according to Oklahoma City police.
Desirae Parnell died Dec. 7, 2016. The public viewing was three days later, on what would have been her 31st birthday. Her parents decided to have a closed casket.
Carolyn Parnell and her husband are now raising the couple’s sons, who are 9 and 7. They are doing well despite the trauma, she said. When she told them that both of their parents were dead, the older boy knew almost instinctively that their father hurt their mother: “The oldest one looked up and said, ‘Daddy shot mama, didn’t he?’ And I said, ‘Yes, baby, he did.’ ”
Where things went awry
Last year, San Diego was the safest of America’s largest cities in terms of violent crime, according to the FBI. But it has a long-standing problem with domestic homicides. The Post’s analysis shows that 51 percent of women killed in the city during the past decade were murdered by an intimate partner, the highest of any city analyzed.
While some jurisdictions are focusing on the precursors to homicide, San Diego County has made headway in its focus on domestic violence by also carefully examining the killings afterward. Each time a person in the county is killed by an intimate partner, representatives from law enforcement, social services, the medical field, schools and the military gather and try to determine where things went awry. The group is known as the fatality review team.
The district attorney’s family protection unit, which covers sprawling San Diego County, said it prosecuted 94 domestic violence homicides from 2007 to 2017, though the number of domestic violence deaths in the county has dropped in the past few years.
“All egos have to be checked at the door, and we’re going to look together as a community and ask: Can we prevent that murder?” said Prior, the chief deputy district attorney.
Did the killer have access to weapons? Was there a previous escalation of domestic violence, and, if so, was it reported? Was there a history of threats? Did the family have contact with child welfare agencies? Did the victim take out a restraining order?
The nation’s first family justice center opened in San Diego in 2002, and the fatality review team started 22 years ago. Its police department has a dedicated domestic violence unit. It was on the leading edge of programs that are now commonplace around the country, including strangulation training. The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office received a grant last year to create an algorithm to predict which cases have the potential to turn fatal.
‘If I could go back’
In Missouri, officials are just beginning to dig deep into domestic violence, and they are battling a pervasive problem that exists with all types of crimes: getting victims and witnesses to cooperate.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner is lobbying to change state laws that require victims to turn over a trove of personal information, including their last known address, when they seek a restraining order.
“Our laws are very lax in how we protect victims and witnesses,” she said.
The state created a domestic violence fatality review team for St. Louis last month, and the city started using the lethality assessment earlier this year.
In St. Louis, 48 of 148 women killed from 2007 to 2017 were murdered by an intimate partner, according to The Post’s analysis.
In the case of Ciera Jackson, there were eight possible witnesses outside her apartment building, but prosecutors got only one, her neighbor, to cooperate and testify at Whittier’s trial.
The other witness was Jackson’s brother, Reggie, who was 11 at the time of the murder. He was playing video games in the apartment when the gunshots were fired. Normally, if there were gunshots in the area, Ciera would tell Reggie to get down, but he did not hear her. Instead, he testified, he found his sister’s body.
A jury found Whittier guilty of first-degree murder and armed criminal action. His public defender, Erika Wurst, declined to comment on the case.
On a Friday morning in November, Whittier, in an orange jumpsuit, his hands and feet shackled, walked into the courtroom of Circuit Judge Thomas C. Clark II for sentencing.
Reggie walked to the witness stand. The teenager opened a piece of paper, held it with both hands, took a deep breath and read aloud.
“You took a person who was like a mother to me, one of my biggest supporters,” Reggie said quickly, his face anguished. “If I could go back, I wish I could have stopped you.”
Zezima reported from St. Louis and San Diego. Paul reported from Fort Worth. Rich, Tate and Jenkins reported from Washington. Wesley Lowery, Kimbriell Kelly and Ted Mellnik in Washington contributed to this report.
About this story
Using data on homicides in 50 major U.S. cities compiled by The Washington Post, reporters examined the killings of more than 7,000 women to determine if the alleged killer was a current or former intimate partner of the victim. In about 4,500 of those homicides, reporters were able to determine the suspect’s relationship to the victim using news clips or other public records. In more than 2,000 of those cases, the alleged killer was a current or former intimate of the victim. (For the study, The Post excluded the deaths of anyone else who was killed at the time of the intimate-partner homicide, such as children or bystanders). Reporters further studied nearly 300 intimate-partner killings in five cities where public records were readily available, looking for signs of previous violence committed by the accused killers, including restraining orders, convictions for violent crimes and other run-ins with law enforcement over domestic matters. Such signs existed in more than one-third of the killings. Experts say that number probably underestimates the extent of prior violence because much of it goes unreported to authorities.
Design and development by Clare Ramirez. Graphics by Aaron Williams. Editing by Josh White and David Fallis. Produced by Julie Vitkovskaya. Photo editing by Robert Miller. Copy editing by Matt Schnabel.
Zezima reported from St. Louis and San Diego. Paul reported from Fort Worth. Wesley Lowery, Kimbriell Kelly and Ted Mellnik in Washington contributed to this report.