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Utah homicides down in 2011, but domestic violence killings increased

SALT LAKE CITY — A woman savagely beaten by her boyfriend, ultimately resulting in her death after spending several days on life support.

• A disabled woman who died after being bound crucifixion-style inside a closet.

• A woman shot and killed in a public park a day after filing for divorce from her husband.

These horrific incidents were just a few of the domestic violence-related tragedies in 2011 in Utah.

There were 39 homicides in Utah during 2011, according to statistics compiled by the Deseret News. That number could potentially go up as several suspicious deaths have not yet been classified. Seven homicides were investigated in December alone, including a double homicide discovered late Saturday in the small town of Mt. Pleasant, Sanpete County.

According to statistics kept by the Deseret News and the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification, 39 homicides would tie the lowest number recorded in many years. It also marks the fourth year in a row that the number of homicides in Utah was less than 50 for the entire state. There were 48 homicides in 2010, 41 in 2009 and 39 in 2008, according to BCI.

But police aren't celebrating this year's numbers or using words such as "just" 39 homicides. They say even one murder is tragic.

Advocates for fighting domestic violence note that, in fact, 2011 was a particularly bad 12 months.

"We've definitely seen a very disturbing increase in domestic violence-related deaths this year," said Kendra Wyckoff, interim executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Council.

In the majority of homicides this year, the suspect and victim were acquainted with each other. In at least 22 of the homicides, the victim was killed by a relative, boyfriend, roommate or caretaker.

Among the incidents in 2011:

• In March, one of the worst cases of domestic abuse of the year was investigated in Kearns where Christina "Nina" Harms, 22, who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, died as a result of dehydration and positional asphyxia from ongoing abuse, including being bound crucifixion-style inside a closet at her home. Harms' primary caretaker and the caretaker's parents whom she lived with were all charged.

• In May, officers responded to the death of Angela Michelle Jenkins, 44, in Millcreek. Investigators say she was beaten to death and may have been assaulted for 10 hours before she died. Her boyfriend was charged with murder.

"When people start to see violence in the home, they need to seek help — counseling, police — they need to start seeking help early," said Unified Police Lt. Justin Hoyal.

If a person is a victim of domestic violence, they should reach out to the services available to them as quickly as possible, he said. And if they're too afraid to do anything — as many victims are — police hope they ask a trusted friend to make the initial calls for them.

• Other cases of domestic violence-related deaths this year included 45-year-old Alecia Sherman, who police say was severely beaten by her live-in boyfriend in December. She fled to a neighbor's house, telling him her boyfriend "was out of control." She died after spending four days in intensive care.

Another disturbing trend in 2011 was the dramatic increase in the number of domestic violence-related murder-suicides, Wyckoff said.

Police in Utah investigated seven domestic violence-related murder-suicides in 2011, according to statistics compiled by the Deseret News. That number could have easily been eight if not for one person surviving his suicide attempt.

The perpetrator often times has an "If I can't have you, no one will" mentality, she said.

In nearly all cases, the violence between a couple does not begin with a murder.

"It's not uncommon that there is some history. That doesn't necessarily mean that history has been documented," Wyckoff said. "Often times that history has gone undisclosed."

In December, the Deseret News talked to AshLee Bambrough. Bambrough's former boyfriend was charged with kidnapping and aggravated assault after prosecutors say he pushed AshLee out of a vehicle moving 65 mph. She survived the incident, but was left with a fractured skull, broken hand and many cuts, scrapes and scars across her face and back.

AshLee said her boyfriend was very controlling.

"He tried to control what I wore, where I worked, how I looked, who my friends were, and he attempted to cut me off from my family. I now realize that these are actions of an abusive man," she wrote in documents filed in court.

But after each incident of abuse, she said he would come back the next day asking for forgiveness.

"When he'd start playing the nice guy again, I'd think, 'Maybe I did do something wrong. Maybe he was just trying to protect me. Maybe this, maybe that.' Honestly, now that I look back, I don't know what made me stay," she said.

Wyckoff calls it the "cycle of abuse," and said all domestic violence victims need to recognize the signs to know when to get out of a relationship. The first part is the "tension building phase" in which a couple will quarrel and the perpetrator will try to keep the victim isolated from friends and family. Then a violent episode will occur, followed by a honeymoon period filled with false promises.

"That is the cycle seen in many domestic violence relationships," she said.

Red flags that victims and their friends should look for include increased physical violence and controlling behavior such as threatening to harm a partner's children or pets, threats of suicide and forced sex.

Those looking to leave a violent relationship are encouraged not to act alone, Wyckoff said. A friend or a neighbor or a local women's shelter should be notified. If someone is in immediate danger, they should call 911, she said.

Otherwise, if someone is seeking to leave a violent relationship, the can call the Utah Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-897-LINK (5465) or the national hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

"If you or someone you know is experiencing, abuse, break the silence," Wyckoff said. "You can't end the abuse without breaking the silence."

Another case that captured the emotions of Utah residents in 2011 but will not be included in the BCI's statistics because it happened just over the Utah border in Nevada, was the death of 16-year-old West Wendover High School student Micaela "Mickey" Costanzo. Investigators say Micaela was taken after school by a schoolmate to a remote area of the west desert near the border, killed and left in a shallow grave. Kody Cree Patten, 18, and Toni Fratto, 19, are scheduled to go on trial on murder charges.

Eleven times in 2011, a person was killed in Utah and the person suspected in the crime was a husband or boyfriend. In four additional cases, the defendant was a roommate.

Five of this year's homicides included children younger than 3 years old.

Provo had four homicides in 2011. Although recently released statistics from the FBI showed a significant drop in most major crimes in Provo, the exception was homicides, which rose from one in 2010 to four in 2011.

Two of those homicides came March 14 when a distraught woman set a fire inside her apartment near 750 S. 650 West. The resulting inferno claimed the lives of two neighbors, Karen Murray and Catherine Crane.

"We're down 7.2 percent (in overall crime) through the end of November," said Provo Police Chief Rick Gregory. "I attribute it to really good police work and partnerships with the community. Overall, the quality of life is improved with the reduction of crime."

As for the four homicides, Gregory says all of them are considered solved.

"(The homicides) are unfortunate. It's very, very difficult to prevent those acts from occurring," he said.

BCI does not include all homicides in its statistics. It counts only first-degree felony murders and manslaughter and does not tally homicides committed on federal land.

The Deseret News counts most felony homicides in its statistics, including child-abuse homicide and negligent homicide, killings on federal land with Utah and incidents that were originally charged as murder, even if the defendant pleaded to a lesser charge in court. Neither the BCI nor the Deseret News included automobile homicides, officer-involved shootings or executions. Those are treated as separate classifications.

Utah had its fair share of officer-involved shootings during 2011. Among those fatal shootings in which the officers were later determined to be legally justified include:

• Jan. 4 — Cody White, 25, was shot and killed by police following a car chase and exchange of gunfire in a field near 6500 West and 2575 North near Hooper.

• April 1 — Steven Charles Leonard, 63, was shot and killed by Salt Lake police after committing an armed bank robbery and later refusing to obey the commands of arresting officers when he was cornered.

• June 24 — Jesus Merino, 31, was shot and killed in West Valley City by officers during a gun battle with multiple agencies after shooting first at officers while fleeing from them. Merino was believed to have just robbed a gas station. Two officers were hit before other officers fatally shot Merino. Police fired a total of 33 rounds.

• Aug. 5 — A Utah Highway Patrol trooper shot and killed Josue Ismael Ramirez-Perez, 19, inside a vehicle on the 700 North I-215 off-ramp after the man fired several shots at the officer. The two became involved in a shootout from close range.

• Dec. 29 — Three West Valley police officers fired shots that killed Kent Ashworth, 49. Police say he had a gun and would not drop the weapon, despite repeated demands. Few details have been released and the shooting is under investigation.


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