1.Two months after Jenna Brovold and Casey J. DePriest broke up, Brovold told her sister she was afraid to stay at her home that night.
DePriest had said something to the effect of “You will be sorry,” according to court documents.
3.The night after Steven and Rebecca Kohs talked about divorce, Steven at about midnight Dec. 2 stormed into a Darien apartment, said “Who wants to die tonight?” and shot Rebecca and a friend who was there, William W. Swift.
Rebecca survived, but Swift did not. Steven took his own life.
4.In the past seven months, these three homicides—no more than 5 miles apart—have a common denominator: domestic violence.
Experts and research show such a trend is not limited to Walworth County. Far from it.
So how did these instances end with such violence?
One potential sign, among many, includes the elevated danger that comes when a relationship has ended, said Jessi Luepnitz, a YWCA Rock County program director.
“Basically that person has taken away the power and control over the person that’s being abusive,” she said. “So then aggressiveness escalates. Abuse, physical abuse, everything escalates.”
Looking locally, across the state and nationwide, research shows stark and troubling patterns.
Ten of Janesville’s 22 homicides between 1986 and 2012 were domestic-violence related.
Wisconsin in 2016 saw more deaths connected to domestic violence—73 total, 59 victims and 14 perpetrators as part of murder suicides—than any year since 2000, which is when End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin started tracking such data in its annual homicide report (although the report says it’s possible the high figure is due in part to more available information over time).
In 2017, the statewide number went down to 62.
After analyzing 4,484 killings of women in 47 major U.S. cities during the past decade, The Washington Post found 46% of those women were killed by an intimate partner.
When the Post more closely looked at five cities, it found more than one-third of men who killed a current or former partner were publicly known to be a potential threat.
Three women in the U.S. are murdered every day by their husbands or boyfriends, said Darald Hanusa, who is a psychotherapist specializing in domestic violence, teaches at UW-Madison and has 40 years of experience in the field.
“Domestic violence is a very private kind of violence,” he said. “Victims don’t tell. They oftentimes try to cover it up because they’re afraid. He said he’ll kill her. ‘If you tell anybody, I’ll kill you. It will be the last day you breathe a breath on this earth.’”
When Haley Johnson hears there’s been a domestic-related homicide, she wants to know if it was ever one of the cases her office prosecuted. Was there something they could have done differently?
“Because that’s something I’m very fearful of,” the Walworth County assistant district attorney said. “I wanna have a good response on my end and hopefully prevent something like that happening, which obviously it’s not always within our control.”
Domestic violence, which affects more women than men but can happen to anyone, thrives in the shadows. It takes many forms.
Hanusa listed damaging property, making threats, pushing, grabbing, slapping, burning, cyberstalking and invading privacy as some of several examples.
But exactly what are the warning signs? Most perpetrators of domestic violence don’t end up killing someone. How could a misdemeanor offense progress to murder?
Looking at the recent Walworth County cases, court records show another woman had a harassment restraining order filed against DePriest and said in 2013, “I have safety concerns regarding Casey’s untreated substance abuse issues and mental health issues.”
The woman later wrote she no longer felt threatened, and in June 2016 a judge lifted the order.
Johnson said she does not get a lot of referrals for restraining order violations, but added it’s hard to know their effectiveness because violations aren’t always reported.
Every case is different. One defendant might take it seriously, another might think, “it’s a piece of paper,” and tensions could escalate, she said.
A friend told police Steven Kohs had previously made threats to her and Rebecca, according to police reports. Steven also threatened to take his own life.
Threats with a weapon or threats of killing are part of one evidence-based tool that is becoming more popular among local police. It is the 11-question Lethality Assessment Program, which was developed by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.
Instead of waiting for follow-up over the few days after an incident, police can connect survivors with services on the spot.
Janesville police started using the assessment last year and are already seeing results. Luepnitz of YWCA Rock County said from January to May, their 24-hour phone line has received more than 200 crisis calls—with police initiating 45% of them, compared to only 21% before the assessment.
Beginning Aug. 1, the Elkhorn Police Department will use the assessment when its officers respond to domestic violence calls, said Heidi Lloyd, executive director of New Beginnings APFV. She hopes after a year the department will have a track record of success to show others nearby.
Hanusa said other warning signs include when the victim has a child by a different partner—it’s a reminder of something the perpetrator couldn’t control—as well as stalking and strangulation.
The criminal charge of strangulation and suffocation as it exists today in state statutes was enacted in 2008, Johnson said.
It’s a felony. Other charges for instances of domestic violence—simple battery and disorderly conduct, for example—often start out as misdemeanors.
When the push for control escalates, Lloyd said that is a warning sign.
The year before the recent string of domestic violence homicides, she said, New Beginnings noticed the number of survivors who reported attempts of strangulation “had increased significantly.”
Domestic violence prevention, Hanusa said, can be like nailing Jell-O to a wall.
Victims often are afraid of reporting because they might be financially dependent on the perpetrator. Or perhaps they still care about them deeply. Or simply, there have been threats. What will happen to the kids?
Luepnitz said she sees it as a combination of hope and fear—hope that things could be like they used to be, or fear that it could get worse. There’s also isolation from family, friends and other emotional support.
So, what can be done to stop such horrendous killings?
Luepnitz said the two domestic violence shelters in Rock County offer “immediate emergency safety” and security, even when they only have space on the living room couches because they are “frequently full.”
The YWCA also leans on local homeless shelters and a men’s shelter—all of which she said are almost always full, as well.
“It just goes to show how prevalent the issue is in our community,” she said.
They also sometimes look across Wisconsin and beyond to Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota. Sometimes, she said, leaving the area is what’s safest.
Walworth County doesn’t have an emergency shelter. Although 2018 saw 62 families needing relocation, the nearest shelters are 30 to 50 miles away, according to New Beginnings.
The organization is trying to build an emergency shelter in downtown Elkhorn, but it still must get city approval. The city plan commission takes up the proposal Thursday, July 11.
In the meantime, Lloyd mentioned a “stop back” program of police officers and advocates returning to homes to check up on survivors after incidents. New Beginnings is implementing this with police in Whitewater and Fort Atkinson with hopes of expanding to Palmyra and elsewhere.
“Sometimes, it’s really hard for people to reach out to us,” Lloyd said. “By us making that contact, that lets them know we’re people who care about you who want to help you get your life to a place that is safer.”
Walworth County in November started a Domestic Violence Diversion Program, which Johnson said gets first-time offenders into counseling. If they’re successful in the program, their offenses are wiped from their records, similar to what programs such as treatment courts offer.
Hanusa, who also treats perpetrators, said changing attitudes is a “huge part of the work.” He works on conflict resolution skills, de-escalation techniques and examining thought distortions and masculinity.
Men he works with often have their own traumatic histories, and they store the trauma internally as shame. He said men in his office have broken down in tears realizing they became exactly what they saw from their own fathers—something they vowed they wouldn’t be.
So, what more could be done?
Luepnitz wants to see more convictions in the court system, such as with restraining order violations.
Johnson said she would like to see more counseling for everyone involved, not just perpetrators.
Lloyd encouraged those who know someone dealing with domestic violence to inform them about available resources.
Above it all, though, Luepnitz wants a safety plan, which she called “paramount.” It can be a document that lays out steps to leave—such as having bags packed with medication, money, documents such as a birth certificate and whatever else is needed.
“Just having that step-by-step safety plan in place before actually putting it into place would be huge in saving someone’s life, potentially,” she said.
Lloyd wants survivors of domestic violence to know there’s hope. They’re not alone.
But she said New Beginnings is honest with everyone who comes to the organization—leaving is hard and can lead to a perpetrators’ “last ditch efforts to keep control.”
“We tell them right up front,” she said. “‘Once you try to leave, that’s when the danger increases significantly.”
James Akbar came home from Vietnam in 1967 to a crowd he never forgot.
“Our officer warned us to get into civilian clothes because there were hostile people outside the plane,” Akbar remembers.
He changed from his uniform into a suit he bought in Vietnam, but it didn’t matter.
When he got off the plane, the shouting started.
“They called us women killers and baby killers,” Akbar said. “They spit on us. They threw rotten tomatoes and eggs at us. The type of greeting we got I wouldn’t wish on a dog.”
The town of Beloit man served with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, also known as the Sky Soldiers. In combat, Akbar took two machine gun bullets to his lower left arm, which left him permanently disabled.
“I lost a part of my body fighting in the war,” Akbar said. “Then to have my country turn against me, that’s a bad move on the part of those who did it. You never get over it.”
He told former Beloit City Council member David Luebke about the incident, which Akbar called “one of the saddest things that happened to me in my life.”
“My family has served in the military since before the Spanish-American War,” Akbar said. “I was the one who came home in disgrace. That’s the way they (anti-war protesters) made it look.”
More than 50 years later, Luebke decided it is time to honor the service of Vietnam veterans.
He is the spark plug behind a special “Welcome Home” event for Vietnam-era vets and Gold Star families who lost loved ones in the war.
The tribute will be part of the traditional patriotic celebration at Beloit’s Riverside Park on Thursday, July 4.
Vietnam vets and Gold Star families from throughout the area are invited to attend.
Akbar will be among the Vietnam veterans handing out medallions, each with a “welcome home” message, to vets and veteran families.
“I have felt for a long time that the men and women who served during the Vietnam War have never been welcomed home and thanked for their service,” Luebke said. “Unlike World War II, where the whole country sacrificed and felt the threat of the war, Vietnam did not really affect the daily lives of most Americans.”
He has known many soldiers who sacrificed during the Vietnam War, and he has followed their lives.
“Simply put, I want these men and women to know that our community appreciates and thanks them for their sacrifices and service,” Luebke said. “Hopefully, these vets will feel Beloit’s heartfelt thanks as they are specifically recognized and honored at our Fourth of July Holiday Pops concert.”
The Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra will perform stirring music to celebrate servicemen and women and the nation’s independence. The BJSO also will play “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” as veterans receive medallions. In addition, the Badger Chordhawks will lead the audience in the national anthem and perform with the BJSO. Fireworks will follow the music and recognition of veterans.
The event might be more than 50 years late.
“But it needs to be done,” Luebke said. “I personally have been concerned about the lack of the Vietnam vets getting proper recognition for many years.”
He is chairman of a committee with more than a dozen members working to make the event happen.
Beloit City Manager Lori Luther will introduce the tribute and the servicemen who will greet vets as they come forward to receive their medallions.
Veterans who do not want to come forward can have their medallions delivered to them in the audience, Luebke said.
Gold Star family members can receive medallions for those who lost their lives in the war or who are unable to attend.
“We do not know how many will be present,” Luebke said. “But we will be prepared.”
Akbar called the welcome home “way past due.”
“There is a whole group of us who made it home but who are now gone,” he said. “We had an epidemic of suicides take place because of the way we were treated. I think the welcome home event can do a great deal of healing.”
Tom Nightingale also will hand out medallions.
“The ‘thank you’ has been a long time coming. But there’s something about it that feels good,” he said. “I have close friends who have gone through some awful stuff over the years. It doesn’t hurt to have someone say ‘thank you’ for a change.”
Fifty-one years ago, Nightingale came home from Vietnam to an unusual silence.
“No one said anything about Vietnam,” he remembers. “It was kind of like I took a vacation and came back.”
In June 1968, the young Marine left a base in Okinawa and flew home on Friday the 13th.
He brought with him searing memories of the TET offensive earlier that year, when North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched a coordinated attack against a number of targets in South Vietnam.
“All hell broke loose,” Nightingale said of one of the major battles of the war. “Hue got hit especially hard.”
He was stationed 12 miles from Hue at the time.
Town of Beloit resident Roger Koopman plans to attend the welcome home. He served in the U.S. Army as a forward observer in Vietnam and came home in August 1969.
He is coming to honor a high school friend and college roommate—Edwin F. Brown—who was killed in Vietnam. He also is attending because Vietnam vets never got a proper welcome home, he said.
If veterans choose to stay away, it might be because “they are used to being quiet about it,” Koopman explained. “Some were hurt badly and have not healed from the disappointment when they returned.”
He believes vets can give each other support.
“I am going to encourage other veterans and to be encouraged by them,” Koopman said. “I am proud to be a Vietnam veteran, and I want them to be proud. I honor all service of Vietnam veterans.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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