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.
° ° °
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.
° ° °
In the last 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.”
By the numbers
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.”
What to do about it?
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, 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 has no 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.
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 pan 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.”