By: Sasha Foo


SAN DIEGO, CA (KUSI News) — For survivors of domestic violence, it’s a terrifying red flag. Strangulation by a husband or partner is often just the prelude to murder.

Much more than using a gun or a knife, the act of choking a person is one of the most intimate and terrifying acts of violence.

Related Link: Special Report: Preventing the most dangerous form of domestic violence

And, in the context of a relationship between a man and a woman, it’s also a solid predictor that the abuser is just a step away from murder.

The mother of Kathy Scharbarth can’t forget the day when she learned that her daughter had been murdered.

“Police came around 10:00 p.m. and told us that they had found her and that she wasn’t with us anymore. Those are moments you never forget,” said Ginny Scharbarth, Kathy’s mother.

In 2011, on the day before Thanksgiving, the 34-year-old woman was strangled by her ex-boyfriend in her Carlsbad home.

According to, Kathy’s ex-boyfriend would stalk her, call her and just wouldn’t leave her alone.

On Nov. 17, 2011, Kathy was granted a temporary restraining order, but it was immediately violated.

A neighbor of Kathy’s reported seeing her ex hiding in some bushes near her property.

On Thanksgiving Eve, November 23, Kathy walked her new friend to his car at 11:30 p.m. While she was outside, her ex snuck into her residence, laid in wait, and strangled Kathy when she returned.

“He had killed her there and they her took her to bury her body. He had severed her hands at the wrists and her buried her off Rice Canyon and then he went to his friend’s house for Thanksgiving dinner,” Ginny said.

Kristen survived years of abuse by a former boyfriend. She was good at lying about the obvious bruises, but no one could tell just by looking that Kristen was also choked.

“I remember tears falling from my face and he just kept strangling me and just holding his hands as tight as he could around my neck and the only way he would stop was me saying I would do whatever you say,” she said.

One is a survivor’s story and the other is the story of a mother who still grieves.

But both share a mission to alert others to the dangers of domestic violence and to help those who are being abused to find a way out.

In the stories of abuse survivors, strangulation is often the common thread, an intimate and terrifying act of violence, but one that’s too often un-reported. Casey Gwinn is determined to change that.

“Police officers were missing it. Prosecutors were missing it. Doctors, nurses, therapists, advocates. Nobody was realizing what was happening and how significant or serious it was,” Gwinn said.

As the head of the Institute for Strangulation Prevention, he’s hoping to underline the very real threats posted by strangulation.

Gwinn said the research is unequivocal, a man who strangles a woman is far more likely to go on to murder.

“If a man chokes a woman once in an intimate relationship, the likelihood of him eventually killing her goes up 800 percent.”

The effects of strangulation are immediate. In 10 seconds, a state of unconsciousness occurs and in 35 to 45 seconds, a person can die.

Even if a woman doesn’t become unconscious or die, strangulation deprives the brain of blood and can cause irreversible brain damage.

“They’re scared to death. They realize that he’s got the power over life and death when he puts his hand around their neck, but they may not know they’re suffering brain damage from it,” Gwinn said.

With lectures and illustrations, the Institute educates police, prosecutors, medical personnel and victims advocates about the hidden dangers of strangulation.

The institute gives law enforcement officers more techniques to investigate these cases. Using props, police officers can ask victims to demonstrate just how they were choked.

Investigators are told to look for hemorrhages in the eyes or tiny red spots on the head, much like the small bleeds that are also occurring internally, inside the victim’s brain.

Kristen left her abusive boyfriend, but the effects of the choking remain.

She’s been told by a chiropractor that the damage to her head and neck is consistent with injuries from a serious car crash.

“He told me that I have severe whiplash to the point where he thought I had been in a horrendous car accident and that woke me up because that was five years ago,” Kristen said.

Gwinn said the criminal justice system must pay more attention to strangulation. It’s a red flag that more violence is bound to follow.

“We’ve now documented that in 4 out of 5 domestic violence homicides, a woman is strangled or ‘choked’ before he ends up killing her.”

Kristen has founded a group to help other survivors of domestic violence.

“We have already helped over 500 families and individuals across the country and I know for sure that we’ll probably get to at least 1,500 by the end of this year, unfortunately.”

Ginny Scharbarth has started a foundation in her daughter’s name — Kathy’s Legacy — that offers help to survivors and their children.

“What would Kathy want? She didn’t want us to move on, she wanted us to move forward … It was a way for us to help all the Kathy’s we would never know to make a difference for the victims of domestic violence. ”

Each has found a path, a path out of darkness, determined to keep traveling.

For survivors of strangulation, there are many long term health consequences that are just coming to light. There’s evidence that some survivors suffer CTE, the brain disease that’s been documented in football players who have had repeated concussions.

There’s also a link to strokes later on in life.

Although the victim of abuse may feel very isolated and alone, there is a community of people who are waiting to embrace them and have made it their mission to help.

Original Article: Special Report part 2: Survivors of strangulation