When Domestic Violence Turns Deadly

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So far this year, 46 Arizonans have lost their lives to domestic violence. It remains the leading cause of homicide for women, according to the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Arizona ranks eighth in the nation in the rate of women murdered by men, according to the Violence Policy Center. This statistic prompted the ACADV to start a fatality review team to determine appropriate intervention and remediation needed to prevent future homicides.

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Susan Birchak was murdered in 2001 by roommate Kevan Kuhlman. Birchak was one of seven domestic violence-related deaths in the Payson area since 1993.

According to the study, more than half of the domestic violence fatalities in 2001 were murder-suicides, with 90 percent committed by current or former husbands or boyfriends. Guns were used in 70 percent of the 92 domestic violence fatalities.

Gina Elliott, program coordinator for the Time Out Shelter, said that many victims don't think their abusers have the capacity to kill.

"I don't think they believe they are going to die," Elliott said. "I don't think they honestly believe these men will kill them."

According to the coalition, there is a list of characteristics which may indicate an increased risk to women, but there is no easy way to predict when a batterer will turn homicidal.

Two years ago this month, TV 7 Station Manager, Susan Birchak was murdered by her roommate, Kevan Kuhlman.

"Kuhlman had domestic violence charges in three counties," Elliott said. "He got a slap on the wrist and ultimately someone was killed."

Court records indicate that Kuhlman threatened and abused several women prior to Birchak. When Kuhlman was prosecuted, a former wife testified that he had abused her.

"His ex-wife testified about their prior domestic violence incidents," County Attorney Daisy Flores said. "He was arrested for choking her -- there's your pattern of domestic violence offenses." Payson Police Det. Matt Van Camp investigated the murder.

"There was previous violence that was never reported to police," Van Camp said. "From what we understand, she had told him he had to leave the next day. There was a physical confrontation and he strangled her."

According to Elliott, when a victim is preparing to end a relationship, her risk of being killed is multiplied.

"Domestic violence is about power and control and when she's leaving, he's losing control over her -- she is empowering herself and taking back control of her own life," Elliott said.

Francisca Alatriz of Star Valley was wounded when her ex-husband, Manuel Diaz fired six bullets into her car in April.

Alatriz had an order of protection against Diaz since their divorce two years prior.

Gila County Sheriff's Det. Brian Havey said Diaz had been arrested twice before for violating the court order.

"We had an ongoing problem with violations of the court order of protection," Havey said. "This time, it boiled over big time."

"An order of protection is never a bulletproof vest," Elliott said.

"We don't have enough law enforcement to follow these guys around and catch them every time they re-offend."

Payson Police Lt. Don Engler said while orders of protection are frequently violated, they are still an important step to take.

"Anybody who is in that position and feels threatened ought to get an order of protection, we encourage it," Engler said. "It gives us a handle on the situation. When we get there on-scene, we can make an arrest for violation of an order of protection before something else happens."

Shelters do provide some level of protection for women fleeing high-risk abusers, but there is no guarantee of safety. The solution for some victims is transporting them to another location.

Engler said the crucial thing for victims to remember is that domestic violence almost always escalates.

"Even though we have had a limited number of homicides, the potential has been there," Engler said. "We do have several different situations in the community that are very concerning because you see the violence continuing. When you've been to that residence several times and you are on your way again, it's always a concern it will rise to the level of homicide -- we just try to intervene and get it stopped before it gets to that point."

Payson area domestic violence homicides

2001 -- Susan Birchak, 53 - strangled by roommate, Kevan Kuhlman.

1995 -- Lisa Bodine, 31 - stabbed with a bayonet by boyfriend, Scott Bellmont.

1994 -- Cindra Hoernke, 57 - shot her husband, William, then shot herself.

1993 -- Steve Nelson, 41 - shot girlfriend, Melody Comp, 32, then shot himself.

1993 -- Mary Beth Trainer - shot by husband, Albert "Sunny" Trainer.

The warning signs of potential lethality

  • Increasingly violent and specific threats
  • Obsession with weapons and displaying them
  • Violence toward pets, children or other adults
  • Substance abuse, use of drugs or alcohol
  • Threats of suicide or "ending it all," depression, mental illness
  • Separation/divorce in progress
  • Making statements such as "If I can't have you, no one will."
  • Obsession with the victim, stalking
  • Isolating the victim from family and friends
  • Easy access to victim and/or children
  • Repeated outreach to law enforcement
  • Hostage-taking

(Source: ACADV)

What to take when you leave

It may be beneficial to make copies of some of these documents and store them outside your house, or to place them all together in one location (that the batterer is unaware of), in case you need to leave quickly.

  • Identification for myself
  • Driver's license
  • Children's birth certificates
  • My birth certificate
  • Money
  • Lease, rental agreement, house deed, mortgage payment book
  • Bank books
  • Check books
  • Credit cards
  • Keys -- house, car, and office (including extra sets)
  • Medications for myself and my children
  • Small, sellable objects
  • Address book
  • Pictures
  • Insurance papers
  • Medical records
  • Social Security cards
  • Welfare identification
  • School records
  • Work permits
  • Green card
  • Passport(s)
  • Divorce papers and/or marriage license
  • Jewelry
  • Children's favorite toys and/or blankets
  • Items of sentimental value
  • Important telephone numbers to memorize

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