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Murder-suicides make news, but more abuse hides behind closed doors

Four words in a headline — Husband kills wife, self — is all it takes to quicken the pulse and grip the heart. Four words to trigger the memories, regrets and fears all around.

In the offices of a domestic violence shelter, Linda Osmundson wonders, and worries, if this was one of the women her group was unable to protect.

Audrey Mabrey debates attending the funeral for the woman she did not know, worrying that the scars from where her own husband once set her ablaze might make her unwelcome.

Paula Moore sits at her desk in the accounting department of a Tampa firm and silently recalls the bruises, broken bones and mental torture she once endured.

That poor woman, they all seem to say, could have been me.

The murder-suicide in Clearwater last week was the sixth case of its kind in Pinellas County in less than five months.

Some of the victims were young; others were older. Some were separated; a few shared a home with their killer. Many of their neighbors were surprised; some were not.

To the survivors of domestic abuse, those details are almost inconsequential. They have already lived through the daily horror of that story.

To them, there is one trait of domestic violence that is nearly universal. And a murder-suicide might be the ultimate example, for it's the final word in power and control.

"It is 100 percent about dominance and control,'' said Moore, who fled Ohio two years ago to escape an abusive relationship. "You look at women who stay and stay and stay, and you wonder why. It's because they have no more self-esteem, no self-respect.

"You've been beaten physically and mentally for so long, you get to the point where you think that's all there is, or all that will ever be.''

Anecdotally, it might seem as if the number of murder-suicides is suddenly spiking. Statistically, it is harder to track.

For law enforcement agencies, the investigation ends once a ruling of murder-suicide is confirmed. And that means it may never reach the desk of a domestic violence unit.

What we do know is the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has tracked roughly 90 to 120 murders of spouses or co-habitants every year for the past decade.

And those numbers don't even begin to tell the story of women who endure their beatings in silence. Women who are afraid to leave. Who don't have the means. Who worry what will become of their children if they try to flee.

In fact, the desperation of a murder-suicide is often precipitated by the possibility of the woman leaving the relationship. Of the six recent cases in Pinellas, at least four involved some level of separation between the couples.

"The violence often escalates when the guy feels he's losing control,'' said Osmundson, executive director of Community Action Stops Abuse in St. Petersburg. "If he starts threatening suicide, it's a huge red flag for us. If he is willing to commit suicide, then you are entering a really, really dangerous situation.

"That's what murder-suicide is: I've got you, and I'm taking you with me.''

Even in cases when the abuse was not as apparent, or not as severe, the trigger before the escalation is almost always there.

In Mabrey's case, which drew national headlines in 2009 when her husband doused her in gasoline and threw a candle at her, physical abuse had arrived only in the final days.

It was when Mabrey moved out of their home and began preparing for a divorce that the situation turned dangerous.

"The point of hitting is to obtain and maintain control,'' Mabrey said. "My husband was not a violent man before that. He was a cop. He was the last person you would have expected to do something like that.

"But at the end of the day, when a person who is used to being in control feels like they've lost everything, then they're capable of doing anything.''

Mabrey now devotes her life to speaking out against domestic abuse and spreading the word for groups such as Community Action Stops Abuse and the Family Justice Center of Hillsborough County.

The Justice Center has created an advocacy committee called Voices, where domestic abuse survivors tell their stories and encourage battered women to seek help.

"We can answer their questions, identify with their fears, speak their language,'' said Kimberly Alexander, who is chair for the Voices committee. "All of the women in Voices have been to hell and looked Satan in the eyes, and we've survived. We would be doing ourselves and our legacy a disservice if we didn't speak out.

"As a society, we've become kind of insensitive. Yes, it's in the news and you're talking about it today, but in a few days we will have forgotten about it. But that doesn't mean it's not still out there behind a lot of closed doors.''

.Fast facts

Need help?

The statewide domestic violence hotline is, toll-free, 1-800-500-1119.

That number will direct you to the nearest domestic violence center.

Murder-suicides make news, but more abuse hides behind closed doors 06/09/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 9, 2012 8:18pm]
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