Texas family killed: In domestic violence cases, more focus on red flags

Increasingly, advocates and law enforcement officials are teaming up to show that some of the worst domestic violence situations can be prevented. However, in a Texas tragedy, Ronald Lee Haskell is accused of killing six members of his ex-wife’s family.

Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle/AP
Ronald Lee Haskell collapses as he appears in court on Friday in Houston. Haskell is accused of killing his ex-wife's sister, Katie Stay, her husband and four children, ranging in age from 4 to 14.

When Ronald Lee Haskell faced the charges against him at a probable cause hearing in Houston Friday – that he fatally shot six members of his ex-wife’s family, four of them children – the shackled defendant collapsed twice.

The case could prove to be one of the more extreme examples of the devastating ripple effects of domestic violence. It’s a crime that not too long ago was often dismissed as a private affair between intimate partners, but increasingly, advocates and law enforcement officials are teaming up to show that some of the most dangerous situations can be identified and prevented.

“These are among the most predictable of homicides and therefore are the most preventable,” says Toni Troop, a spokeswoman for Jane Doe Inc., a Massachusetts coalition against domestic violence. These cases are preceded by a “history and pattern of domestic violence,” she says, and as the risk factors become more pronounced, protections for victims and accountability for offenders need to be boosted as well.

One common high-risk factor is access to firearms. It’s not yet clear whether a legal gun was used in Mr. Haskell’s alleged crime. But in Texas and many other states, people who have been charged with domestic violence, as Haskell previously was, can still legally access guns. There are also legal loopholes that allow access to guns even for people who have had restraining orders taken out against them, Mother Jones reports.

Some additional key risk factors for domestic violence escalating into homicide include an increasing frequency or severity of attacks, threats to kill, strangulation, and alcohol and drug abuse, according to research by Prof. Jacquelyn Campbell of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Red flags in the Texas case, experts say, include the fact that not only Haskell’s ex-wife, but also his mother had requested restraining orders against him. Haskell’s mother accused him of choking her and threatening to kill her and others about a week before the alleged murders, court documents show.

Prosecutors say that Haskell shot the sister of his former wife and her family in Spring, Texas, after demanding to know where his ex-wife was, and that he was on his way to her parents’ home when police arrested him. He had been identified by a 15-year-old victim of the shooting who survived by pretending she was dead, they say.

Haskell’s appointed attorney said Friday he will focus on Haskell’s mental condition and suggested there may be a history of mental illness that will show he was not responsible for his actions at the time.

It’s difficult to quantify domestic violence homicides. The US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reports there were 1,640 female victims of intimate-partner homicide and 700 male victims in 2007 – down significantly, along with many other crimes, since the early 1990s.

Of all female homicide victims in 2007, 45 percent were killed by an intimate partner. Domestic violence also accounted for 21 percent of all violent but nonfatal victimization between 2003 and 2012, the BJS reports.

There’s no single set of statistics that tracks nationally how many people are killed who are not the direct victims of domestic violence, but are targeted as family members, bystanders, or those who intervene to help.

Jane Doe Inc. has tracked such homicides across Massachusetts. Between 2003 and 2013, it counted 283 homicides of domestic violence victims and associated victims. Female domestic violence victims were 60 percent of those cases, male domestic violence victims just under 9 percent. Thirty men, 10 women, and 25 children were victims associated with the domestic violence victims. Eleven were killings of perpetrators, usually by police or the victim in self-defense. Twelve victims were in various other categories.

The group also counted 109 suicides of perpetrators in cases that included murder or attempted murder.

The killing of family members of domestic violence victims is on the rise across the country, says Rachel Louise Snyder, an author and professor at American University in Washington who has been investigating the subject for 10 months.

But at least one model has shown such violence can often be stopped in its tracks. In the Newburyport area of Massachusetts, the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center runs a “high-risk team” to identify and address cases with the most risk for extreme violence. It includes people from law enforcement, the courts, and batterers’ intervention groups, all of whom are trained to assess the risk factors identified by Professor Campbell.

Massachusetts also allows for “dangerousness” hearings to determine if an alleged offender poses too much risk and should be held pretrial for up to 90 days. That allows for more victims and their children to remain at home and feel safe rather than going into hiding and being isolated, says the Geiger Crisis Center’s CEO, Suzanne Dubus.

Each year, a dozen or more of the roughly 1,300 cases at the center are referred to the high-risk team. In the 11 years since the team began, there have been no domestic violence murders in the area, Ms. Dubus says, compared with eight such murders in the previous 10 years. Many communities have begun to replicate the model.

Despite the extremely violent cases that make headlines and may spark fear about offering help, Dubus urges people: “Don’t shut off the victim. Try to stay open and be that bridge. So often it is friends and family that help a woman and her children get to safety.” The vast majority who do so aren’t harmed, she says, and they can call on local advocates to be best informed about how to protect themselves and the victim they are helping.

If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-SAFE (7233). 

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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