Last October, Rebecca Robertson and her boyfriend were arguing in their garage, relatives said, when she came out and told him: I’m leaving you.
The couple had known each other for more than a decade and had a daughter together. They had planned to marry.
As they argued into the early morning, Robertson went into their northeast Charlotte home for a cigarette, and her boyfriend, Barry Leake, followed.
“What you going to do?” Robertson asked him, according to a relative at the home. “Kill me in front of my kids?”
The Domestic Violence Advocacy Council marched in response to the killing last month of Ebony Taylor, Charlotte’s most recent domestic homicide. Davie Hinshaw – email@example.com
On the sofa, Robertson’s three children and their three young cousins slept.
Leake turned and shot his 31-year-old girlfriend. As the horrified children ran screaming into the street, Robertson, 39, shot himself. By the time police arrived, both were dead.
Robertson’s death illustrates the danger women often face when they decide to leave abusive partners – a danger highlighted in a new Mecklenburg report: “If You Leave Me I Will Kill You.”
In three of four cases that a local task force reviewed for that report, victims heard some version of that threat before their husbands or boyfriends killed them.
The Mecklenburg County Domestic Violence Fatality Prevention and Protection Review Team is a pilot project created by the state in 2009 to identify gaps in services and promote communication among agencies that investigate and intervene in domestic violence. The goal: Prevent domestic violence-related deaths. Mecklenburg County is the only one in the state that has such a review team.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police respond to about 35,000 calls about domestic violence each year, according to the report.
“Our numbers are disturbingly high,” said retired District Judge Jane Harper, who heads the team. “There’s a disconnect between the innovative programming and the consistently high numbers.”
‘I’ll kill you with this’
Last year, nine people died in intimate partner killings in the county, according to the Mecklenburg Women’s Commission. So far this year, two have died. Each year since 2002, Mecklenburg has led the state in domestic violence homicides.
The fatality review team is prohibited from naming people involved in the homicides they reviewed, but the report finds common factors in each.
In all four cases, the victims were women and their abusers men.
One victim died of a gunshot wound, two were strangled and the other died from blunt force head trauma.
In two of the cases, the suspect committed suicide immediately after the killing.
At least three of the four killers had previously made death threats to their victims. One man showed his victim a gun and told her, “I’ll kill you with this,” according to the report.
Finally, friends, family or co-workers knew about the violence or threats leading up to each killing.
“Some … expressed their concern to the victim and encouraged her to leave her abuser,” the report said. “But not one person reported the abuse to law enforcement.”
None of the women ever sought a domestic violence protective order against their abusers, even though one of the men had been charged with violence against the woman he later killed.
Only one woman was in contact with a domestic violence service provider, and apparently none ever told health care providers about their abuse, including one woman who made several trips to the emergency room.
Nowhere to turn
A domestic violence survivor on the review team recalled her own violent three-year marriage. When she was eight months pregnant, her husband kicked her in the stomach and pushed her down a flight of stairs.
It’s wasn’t until later that she found the courage to leave. She remembered hearing her young son scream as his father broke down a door during an argument.
“No, I’m not having this,” she told herself. “I’m going to end up going down the stairs again.”
As she reviewed the homicides for the report, she thought back to her own abuse. She could feel the women’s frustration and pain.
“They didn’t know where to turn.”
The team’s report includes recommendations for police, the courts, health care professionals, local domestic violence agencies and even friends and family who suspect a loved one is being abused.
The report encourages prosecutors to have convicted abusers ordered to complete batterer intervention treatment programs.
The team found that primary care providers and obstetric and gynecological offices should screen for domestic violence, as well as emergency room staff.
Signs of strangulation
Angie Alexander, the forensic program coordinator at Carolinas Medical Center, said every female age 12 and older who comes to the hospital’s emergency room is screened for domestic violence, regardless of the reason for her visit. Men are also screened if their injuries appear suspicious.
The report said doctors and nurses should make it clear to victims when injuries must be reported to police – such as injuries caused by a weapon or those that cause grave bodily harm. Victims fearing reprisal might not reveal how they were hurt if they believe it will be reported to police.
Many of the report’s recommendations were for police, who the team found had insufficient training to handle the high volume of domestic violence calls they receive.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department requires 12 hours of domestic violence training for recruits and two hours more every other year.
But the report said that’s not enough. It suggests additional training and strategies including:
Temporarily seizing weapons in a home where violence has occurred.
Staying with a victim until her safety is reasonably assured.
Identifying signs of strangulation – a common means of attack that often leaves little physical evidence.
A death prevented?
Police in some areas of Charlotte are experimenting with new efforts to combat domestic violence homicides.
Talk of making changes in three of the police department’s 13 divisions began last year after the murder-suicide involving Rebecca Robertson.
A victim of domestic violence is 70 percent more likely to be injured or killed when she is leaving her abuser, said Amanda Wilson, United Family Services’ director of strategic initiatives and advocacy.
If Robertson had established a relationship with police maybe she would have called to let an officer know she was leaving her boyfriend, said Capt. Gregg Collins, commander of CMPD’s Freedom Division.
“We might have prevented that one,” Collins said.
To read the full report, visit charmeck.org/mecklenburg/county/CommunitySupportServices/WomensCommission/AboutUs/Outreach/Pages/DVFRT.aspx