Las Vegas Sun

September 25, 2017

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Brutal homicides put domestic violence top of mind for Las Vegas community

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Steve Marcus

Paul Meadows, right, godfather to slaying victim Makayla Rhiner, listens as Freddy Lopez, Rhiner’s friend, speaks during a news conference at Metro Police headquarters Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017. Rhiner, 21, was found stabbed to death on Aug. 3, 2017. Her ex-boyfriend Brandon Hanson, 33, was arrested in the death.

"I’m going to tell you my story,” Rose Floyd said, striking up a conversation about her daughter with a cashier at a local thrift store.

Floyd had noticed a table display of inspirational quotes related to the shop’s dedication to supporting women’s shelters, and she shared the source of her deep appreciation. Floyd’s 33-year-old daughter, Veronica Caldwell, and 18-year-old granddaughter, Yvonne Rose Reyes, were shot along with Reyes’ boyfriend, Cory Justin Childers, in a triple slaying linked to domestic violence. Blake Widmar, Caldwell’s 21-year-old husband, followed the trio out of an apartment and repeatedly pulled the trigger before taking his own life.

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A makeshift memorial is shown Tuesday, July 11, 2017, in front of 10337 Numaga Road, where a day earlier the bodies of a man, woman and baby who died in an apparent murder-suicide were discovered.

Floyd’s story, the cashier said, inspired her not to return to the abusive relationship she’d just fled. Lifting up her blouse, the woman revealed scars from when her partner beat her “to a pulp” and dragged her across the asphalt.

Floyd’s girls and Childers were three of the 33 homicides related to domestic violence in Metro Police’s jurisdiction in 2015 — about a quarter of all homicides investigated that year. Statistics on the greater issue in Nevada are grim. The Las Vegas-based Safe Nest shelter made roughly 30,000 contacts with victims in 2016, and Metro officers responded to more than 60,000 domestic disturbances.

This summer, a rash of tragedies has put domestic violence top of mind for the community.

July 10: People conducting a welfare check in the southwest valley made a grisly discovery. John Lunetta had shot and killed his 11-month-old boy, John, the boy’s mother, Karen Jackson, and the family dog before shooting himself.

July 26: Tyler Knaub tied up and stabbed his estranged girlfriend, Cierra Cabrera, and their 4-year-old son, Nova, then stabbed himself to death. The woman’s mother rushed her daughter and grandson to the hospital, where the boy died.

Aug. 3: Per his own confession, Brandon Hanson fatally stabbed Makayla Rhiner, whom he’d dated briefly. Depressed over their breakup, he surprised her in the garage of her apartment building after vandalizing the vehicles of Rhiner’s boyfriend and mother.

Sept. 6: Cynthia Alden died from a gunshot wound to the head in front of the North Las Vegas home she shared with boyfriend Toby Lara. Authorities later arrested Lara, who allegedly pulled the trigger during a fight.

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Elynne Greene, a victim advocate with Metro, thanks those in attendance who honor those lost their lives due to domestic violence during a ceremony hosted by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and the Community Coalition for Victims' Rights on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016.

Six times from 1998 to 2014, Nevada ranked first in the nation for female deaths at the hands of men and was consistently in the top five, according to the Violence Policy Center. In the most recent report from 2014, four out of five victims knew their killers, and the majority of them were in intimate relationships.

Pinning down concrete reasons for Nevada’s elevated numbers demands more research, said Safe Nest Executive Director Liz Ortenburger. But some experts point to the high number of transient residents in tumultuous circumstances in the Las Vegas Valley, which sees most of the state’s incidents. Hot summers also force people inside for longer periods of time, and patience can run thin (until this July, homicides involving platonic roommates were classified as domestic violence).

Although heartbreaking losses dominate the dialogue about domestic violence, survivors, advocates, police officers and everyday people are working to curb the violence, and they are making progress.

“I’ve seen incredible changes,” said Elynne Greene, manager of Metro’s victim services and human trafficking unit. “If we can catch it in the very beginning, and have that face-to-face conversation and offer resources, we have a real good chance.”

• • •

Floyd began her journey toward advocacy in the dark moments of March 4, 2015, a day after she lost her heart.

She and her daughter spoke at the same time every morning. The first missed call wasn’t alarming — perhaps she was in the shower — but after the second and the third, Floyd “somehow already knew.”

An acquaintance reached out after seeing something on the news, walking near the police tape and saying, “I think it’s Veronica’s apartment.” Floyd called the police, and the Coroner’s Office confirmed the death. She remembers screaming, then hyperventilating. Paramedics helped calm her, but she was unable to speak.

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Participants shed some tears as victims who lost their lives due to domestic violence are remembered at a ceremony hosted by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and the Community Coalition for Victims' Rights on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016.

A monthslong crippling depression followed. She could not concentrate. She stopped eating and nearly landed in a hospital bed.

“For me, losing my only daughter, my only granddaughter — they were the only children in my life. I had no purpose, so fighting to exist every day was a struggle,” Floyd said. “I had nothing to live for.”

But slowly, she found a voice, and the strength to speak out in the hope her story would make a difference in someone’s life. Her efforts, including twice speaking in front of state legislators, helped push Veronica’s Law. Signed by Gov. Brian Sandoval on May 24, it “amends current law to ensure family members are timely informed of the death of a loved one by the appropriate authorities, and also provided the coroner’s report so that they know the cause of death.”

Floyd could not identify her daughter’s body initially because those rights belonged to Widmar, who for several days survived his attempted suicide and legally remained Caldwell’s next of kin. This also was the reason Floyd didn’t hear about the shooting from authorities.

“I was so passionate about making change in our state for others, because I don’t want anyone to ever hurt like I did,” she said. “I don’t want any other person to ever, ever have to feel the added trauma on top of the trauma of murder.”

• • •

As of late August, Metro detectives have investigated 18 domestic violence-related killings this year.

In some cases, friends and neighbors saw signs of trouble, while other tragedies seemed to come out of nowhere. Floyd does not believe her daughter’s murderer had been physically violent with her prior to the shooting, though she suspects there was emotional abuse. Stories from the victim’s coworkers seem to back that up, and Floyd laments that her daughter stayed silent.

“What was going on over there, Veronica kept from me,” she said. “It really breaks my heart, because all she had to do was tell me.”

Rarely do the pieces of the puzzle fit together neatly, said Lt. Dan McGrath with Metro’s homicide unit.

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Metro Police Homicide Lt. Dan McGrath listens during a news conference organized for the family of murder victim Makayla Rhiner at Metro Police headquarters Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017. Rhiner, 21, was found stabbed to death on August 3, 2017. Her ex-boyfriend Brandon Hanson, 33, was arrested for the murder.

“It’s unfortunate, when we go back and start talking to people after a real tragedy happened and (find out) that people knew little pieces,” McGrath said. “It’s such a difficult, challenging topic, because I don’t know that we’ll ever solve the problem. But we need to keep trying.”

Metro spokesman Jay Rivera, who does outreach to the Hispanic community about the issue, said officers respond to domestic disturbances every day. There can be social, economic or religious reasons why a victim might not ask for help or leave, Rivera said. Within the Hispanic community, for example, he’s seen victims hesitate to report violence over the fear of immigration authorities. One emotion shared by every affected group is the desire to keep families together, Rivera said.

“Some of them are routine, and maybe they’re just arguing,” McGrath said of the calls that come in. “Cops get frustrated when they go to the same house, six, eight, 10 times, and they arrest the person three or four different times, and they get back together.”

It’s a concern shared by prosecutors, Ortenburger said, explaining that many victims end up recanting or withdrawing statements against their abusers.

One reason is love, Greene says. Or a couple might share a business or have children together, complicating an already thorny situation. There’s also the fear of being judged by family members and society, or crippling shame that they allowed themselves to get to that point.

When a tragedy unfolds, Ortenburger said, observers tend to ask: Why didn’t she leave? “The question we should be asking is: Why does an (abuser) feel it’s OK to do whatever he did to the victim?”

Altering that pattern could change how domestic violence is addressed, some advocates say.

“Victim-blaming is a lot easier for us as a society, because blaming them is saying, ‘That’s never going to happen to me, so she or he should’ve left; they should have gotten help; they should have called the police,’ ” said Kristy Oriol, policy coordinator at the Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence. “It’s a lot harder to look at why we are allowing violence to occur, what in our community is empowering abusers to assert that control over the victims, and where we are failing when we’re only blaming victims and not looking at the structures that allow violence and oppression to exist.”

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Another rose is added to a vase as victims who lost their lives due to domestic violence are remembered at a ceremony hosted by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and the Community Coalition for Victims' Rights on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016.

Ortenburger likened enduring domestic violence to combat. “You’re really talking to someone who’s recovering from a war-zone scenario that was inside their home, (perpetrated) by the person who was supposed to love them the most in the world,” she said. “It really strips somebody down to sometimes unrecognizable levels from what they were before the violence began. I think understanding the psyche of a victim and where a victim is and what a victim might be going through, we all have to sometimes pause, take a deep breath and realize that the decisions that victim is making are the right decisions for them, hopefully with a supportive advocate by their side.”

Greene stressed that sensitivity is crucial. You might think a friend is crazy to stay with an abusive spouse or lover, but saying so suggests he or she is stupid, which can shame the person into staying quiet when speaking out might be life-changing, or even life-saving.

Police advise victims to contact them, and to stay committed to accepting help. Metro Police are required to make an arrest if there is any evidence of abuse. With the alleged abuser removed, officers provide guidelines to victims on what they can do, including filing for a temporary protective order.

In the absence of immediate danger, advocates suggest that both victims and concerned loved ones consult with professionals before confronting an abuser.

“The true highlight to our day is when we hear somebody on a hotline in crisis, and we’re able to get them into a shelter, they’re able to heal and then they’re able to leave that program ready to start a new chapter in their life,” Ortenburger said. “That’s what keeps us going, because if we just had the homicides and just had everything that the media portrays about domestic violence, this work would be crushing every day.”

WHAT IS DOMESTIC VIOLENCE?

Worst states for female homicides committed by men

Based on 2014 data released last year by the Violence Policy Center, the 28 deaths of women at the hands of men in Nevada ranked the state No. 3 in the nation. Adjusted for population, Alaska was the worst, followed by Louisiana, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, New Mexico, South Dakota, Georgia and Tennessee. Most of the Nevada women knew their killers, the majority in intimate relationships. But domestic violence also affects men. According to a 2016 report from the Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, 48 percent of women and 31 percent of men in the state have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner.

Domestic violence is not only physical (including sexual), but could involve psychological, emotional and economic abuse, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. It’s a “pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.” It can happen to anyone.

“There is a pattern to it, but unfortunately, even those patterns are hard to be recognized by close family members or friends,” Ortenburger said.

According to the DOJ:

Physical abuse includes hitting, pinching, biting, denying a partner medical care and forcing alcohol or drug substances upon them.

Sexual abuse includes attempting to coerce sexual contact without consent. The behavior can include treating a partner in a sexually demeaning manner, and rape can occur even if the couple is married.

Emotional abuse is when a partner undermines a person’s sense of self-worth or self-esteem, which can include constant criticism, name-calling and damaging one’s relationship with his or her children.

Economic abuse is when a person makes or attempts to make a partner financially dependent, withholding access to funds or not allowing a person to work or go to school.

Psychological abuse includes intimidation and threatening physical harm to oneself or a partner, children, the partner’s family, friends or pets, and forcing isolation.

A HUB FOR INTERVENTION

Metro’s Family Justice Center, an interventional resource hub for people suffering from domestic violence, sexual assault and/or human trafficking, is slated to open in November.

The center, retrofitted from a former Metro training facility at Mojave Road between Washington Avenue and Bonanza Road, is funded by Metro, grants and donations and envisioned as a safe, victim-centered environment. With multiple law enforcement and advocacy groups under one roof, the public’s access to services is expected to improve.

It’s a model with proven success in other cities across the world, and the center will be the first of its kind in Nevada, Greene said. She added that one of the biggest roadblocks for victims is having to go to so many places to get their needs met, sometimes putting them in greater danger if they’re being followed or stalked. The Family Justice Center will provide social and criminal justice services, as well as safety planning.

Addressing concerns that staff will conduct cursory screenings of those who enter, Greene said that it’s an effort to keep abusers out and ensure the safety of victims and their children. Information gathered will not be used for immigration purposes, nor is it used for that purpose when a victim contacts Metro about abuse.

RAISING AWARENESS AND FUNDING

According to the latest Status of Women in the States report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, more than 12 percent of girls and 9 percent of boys in high school in Nevada have already experienced physical violence in dating.

“This is a community problem, and it requires the community to not only be involved in addressing domestic violence (but also) talking to their children about prevention,” Kristy Oriol, policy coordinator at the Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, said of early intervention. “Until our community sees this as an issue and recognizes it as a public-safety concern, we’re just going to continue finding it operating in the margins. ... We have to educate people that when someone tells you that secret, you’re being a good friend to tell somebody or to get help for them, as opposed to being that bad friend that kept that secret until it’s too late.”

Oriol sees missed opportunities to reach school kids with formal messaging, a sentiment echoed by McGrath. Domestic violence is a learned behavior, he said, and teenagers would benefit from more guidance on healthy dating, even though it can be an “uncomfortable” topic.

Ortenburger said the issue is political and tough for the Clark County School District to navigate. “We continue to work quietly and consistently with the school district to allow us to provide relevant education for the kids,” Ortenburger said. She added that she would like to see funds poured into research on drivers of higher rates of domestic violence here, in the interest of creating a national model for prevention. That’s a tall order, though, considering the funds available for directly supporting victims.

Nevada allocates $25 from each marriage-license fee to the Account for Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence. That formula was established in 1991, when the wedding industry was booming. Since 2000, the marriage rate has dropped from 72 percent to 31 percent, so the “vast majority” of program funds come through the federal government and grants, Oriol said.

On Sept. 16, 2015, the National Network to End Domestic Violence surveyed domestic violence programs across the U.S., with 100 percent of those identified in Nevada responding. They reported that in the 24-hour survey period, 334 people were served, though 108 requests were unmet — 69 percent of them for housing and emergency shelter. The report pointed to reductions or eliminations of local programs in the prior year, an ongoing issue underlined by the Shade Tree shelter for women suspending its transitional housing program in August, meaning 160 beds and additional spaces for pets are no longer available. The shelter is working to raise the more than $2 million needed to revive the program.

 

    • Recognizing signs of abuse

      Metro officers are trained to spot evidence of domestic violence on any call, even when victims assure them nothing has happened. And casual observers can take cues.

      Victims might have an anxious demeanor around their abusers or a raspy voice, which may indicate having been choked. If a friend, neighbor or family member notices anything suspicious, authorities say, they should speak up even if they aren’t sure abuse is occurring.

      “You’re literally in the position where you can save someone’s life by simply picking up the phone and dialing 311 or 911 based on what you’re hearing or seeing,” Rivera said. “We’d rather respond to a call where they’re playing and it sounded violent than to respond to a call where somebody ended up getting killed and we come to find out that there’s no reports to 911 about domestic violence.”

      For individuals without law enforcement training, UC Davis Medical Center pinpoints warning signs that someone you know is in an abusive relationship, as well as guidelines for taking action.

      • People being isolated by an abuser may: be restricted from seeing family and friends; rarely go out in public without their partner; have limited access to money, credit cards or a car

      • People being physically abused may: have frequent injuries blamed on “accidents”; frequently miss work, school or social occasions, without explanation; dress unseasonably to hide bruises or scars

      • People enduring abuse generally may: seem afraid or anxious to please their partner; go along with everything their partner says and does; check in often with their partner to report their activities; receive frequent, harassing phone calls from their partner; talk about their partner’s temper, jealousy or possessiveness

      • People being psychologically abused may: have low self-esteem, even if they used to be confident; show major personality changes (from outgoing to withdrawn); be depressed, anxious or seem suicidal

      Supporting someone in an abusive relationship requires understanding and patience. While you shouldn’t wait for a potential victim to come to you, it’s vital to express concern and offer help without judging, blaming or pressuring.

      Instead of giving advice, listen and validate the person while pointing out resources that are immediately available. If you suspect a friend, loved one, neighbor or coworker is in this position, have a one-on-one conversation to share troubling things you’ve noticed. Even if he or she denies any abuse, stress that you’re there to lean on, as it may take some time for that person to evade an abuser’s attention or manipulation enough to open up.

      If you hear or see something worrisome in your apartment complex, neighborhood or office involving someone you don’t know, pay attention and don’t hesitate to call police emergency or non-emergency numbers or go to company leadership, depending on the situation.

    • Resources for those seeking help

      The Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence leads trainings and workshops around the state through local programs, and the topics range from self-care for advocates to understanding teen relationship abuse. Those interested in learning about or supporting its mission, which extends to public policy, should visit ncedsv.org.

      The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence offers a comprehensive database of resources aimed at preventing and addressing domestic violence, separated into categories based on gender, age, ethnicity and other circumstances. Visit ncadv.org.

      If you are experiencing abuse or have witnessed suspicious behavior, you are encouraged to call law enforcement and service providers:

      • Emergency: 911

      • Non-emergency: 311

      • Metro Police: 702-828-3111

      • North Las Vegas Police: 702-633-9111

      • Henderson Police: 702-267-5000

      • Crime Stoppers: 702-385-5555, crimestoppersofnv.com

      • Safe Nest: 702-646-4981, safenest.org

      • The Shade Tree: 702-385-0072, theshadetree.org

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