Saturday, December 16, 2017
News Roundup

Domestic violence homicides up in Pinellas

LARGO — Only six months into the year, Pinellas County already has logged seven domestic violence-related homicide cases — one more than in all of 2011.

Five of those cases were murder-suicides, while Pinellas had only one murder-suicide in 2011.

Those statistics alarm members of the Pinellas County Domestic Violence Task Force, which has tracked domestic violence trends in the county since 1996.

And the spike in numbers isn't occurring just in Pinellas County.

Leisa Wiseman, a spokeswoman with the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said her agency has been monitoring an explosion in the number of domestic-related homicides, stalking and other violent behavior across the state since 2009. The agency also has noticed an uptick in murder-suicides reported by Florida media in the last year.

Hillsborough County appears to be an exception. Officials there haven't seen a spike in domestic homicides, said fatality review team chairwoman Nikki Daniels.

The Pinellas task force doesn't study cases until they are closed by law enforcement, so members don't know why homicides seem to have skyrocketed in the county in the first half of this year. However, they suspect economic stressors, such as unemployment and foreclosure, or substance abuse, which data shows was a factor in 76 percent of cases over the past 12 years, might be playing a role.

The Pinellas task force is concerned about another recently determined statistic: In 69 percent of the 103 cases the task force has examined over the years, loved ones knew about violence within the relationship before the killing, but remained silent.

"What people will often say is they didn't know what to do. They didn't realize that someone being controlling or doing a lot of psychological abuse was just as harmful as the physical abuse and could lead to homicide just as physical violence could," said Frieda Widera, a victim advocate at the Largo Police Department and chairwoman of the task force's fatality review team.

"What that says to us is we need to provide more education, that the community needs to understand, not just the system," she said. "The only way we're going to end domestic homicide is if friends and family and co-workers and neighbors know how to recognize it and intervene."

Advocates realize some friends and loved ones might be reluctant to get involved for fear of retaliation, but Widera said there are safe ways to intervene.

"It's not stepping in when you see two people in the midst of a fight. That's when you put yourself in danger," she said. "It's more reaching out to a victim and saying here are resources. When you do that, it's a safe way because you're talking one-on-one. Perpetrators usually don't target someone who gives information, because the victim isn't going to tell them about that."

Among this year's Pinellas murder-suicides, as described by authorities:

• Thomas Cappadona, 51, killed himself in January after fatally shooting 52-year-old Shelly Gold, who neighbors say had voiced fears about asking her drunk, belligerent boyfriend of seven years to move out of their St. Petersburg home.

• Stephen Walsh, 58, killed his wife, Donalyn, and then himself in their Palm Harbor home in April after an apparent dispute.

• Eugene Agbebaku, 33, shot his 32-year-old estranged wife, Ingrid, and himself in Clearwater, where she and their children were staying with a relative. The couple had been scheduled to appear in divorce court the day of the June 5 shootings.

Each of the Pinellas murder-suicides this year was committed by males, police said. At least two of the couples were in the process of divorce. In two other cases, baffled loved ones told reporters they saw no warning signs.

Victim advocates say getting help from support groups, shelters and counselors to file restraining orders and create safety plans can greatly reduce the chance of a fatality.

Pinellas has two domestic violence centers: Community Action Stops Abuse (also known as CASA) in St. Petersburg and the Haven of RCS in Clearwater. But in 89 percent of local domestic fatalities studied by the task force, victims never had contact with the centers — either because of denial, embarrassment, fear or a lack of knowledge that such resources were available.

Local officials say sharing that information with the community will be key.

The Haven teaches lessons about healthy relationships to middle school-age boys and even children as young as preschool age.

Said Widera: "It's planting the seeds for a new generation that won't even consider domestic violence to be possible."

The nonprofit also gives free informational pamphlets and presentations to agencies and businesses, including hairstylists, dental offices and doctors, who sometimes deny that the problem affects their clientele.

The sessions train the professionals to recognize things like cuts to the scalp, broken dentures, canceled appointments or even unnecessary supervision by clients' partners as possible symptoms of abuse.

"There's still that stigma that it only happens to certain women and that it's not as prevalent as it is," said Courtney Hendrickson, Pinellas task force vice chairwoman and Haven outreach coordinator. "But it's not one race, one culture, one socioeconomic class. It's everyone."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

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