Predicting cases of lethal abuse of women is difficult, experts say.
Robert King had threatened to kill his wife before, and he’d hit her before, but nothing quite like this.
The burly man knocked his wife to the ground, grabbed her neck, and squeezed. He shrugged off a nephew trying to stop him.
“I heard something pop in my head,” he said, “and I got up and looked at my hands, and looked at my wife. She was gagging and gasping for air. And I called the cops …
“I thought I killed my wife.”
The psyche of men who kill their spouses or girlfriends is a growing concern in Minnesota, where a spike in domestic homicides has provoked a jump in calls to domestic abuse shelters.
Details of the cases of Mandy Matula, Danielle Jelinek and Kira Steger — three Twin Cities women presumably killed by their boyfriends or spouse — show how difficult it is to predict what type of abuser is capable of lethal violence. But experts said there are some telltale warnings signs that should be heeded in order to reduce the death toll.
Nine boyfriends or husbands have allegedly killed their partners so far this year. The count is 10 if it includes Matula, 24, whose body remains missing and whose boyfriend shot himself before police could interview him. The state is on pace to double the 2012 total of 14 deaths.
“The level of violence I’m seeing? Things are getting worse, not better,” said Heidi Carlson, who leads the men’s counseling program for the Domestic Abuse Project in Minneapolis.
The profile of a typical abuser is a man who has been victimized himself in childhood and has developed such insecurity that he has an overwhelming desire to control everything around him — especially the routines and whereabouts of his spouse or girlfriend.
The abuser who is more likely to kill owns a gun, and brandishes it during arguments. He is likely to have made death threats to his partner in the past, and to have raped or choked her.
A less common but telling risk is when an abuser hurts a pregnant partner, said Neil Websdale, a Northern Arizona University professor considered one of the nation’s top experts on domestic homicide. “Pregnancy is a tender time between couples. A man that is willing to assault and abuse his pregnant partner, I think, is logically more dangerous.”
Predicting a killer
Even with this information, preventing domestic homicide is challenging because the majority of men — even those known to be abusive — don’t kill their partners. And there is no research to date indicating that an abuser who has made 10 death threats is riskier than a man who has made one threat.
Recent Minnesota cases have involved men with warning signs such as gun ownership, but no history of aggression, said Aaron Milgrom, director of therapy for the Domestic Abuse Project.
“These appear to be emerging as the guys who are most lethal,” he said. “The police were never called on them. They never went to treatment. The neighbors thought they were OK or just kept to themselves. And then they burst forth into the news. … It’s really problematic for us.”
The deaths of Matula, Jelinek and Steger reflect this complexity. Matula’s suspected killer was not known by others to be abusive; he was well-known to the Matula family and beloved by some of her relatives. Jelinek’s family, by contrast, described at least three incidents in which Aaron Schnagl hurt Danielle, including one incident when he choked her. Schnagl is in prison on a probation violation and is a person of interest in Jelinek’s death.
While the abuser capable of murder is harder to identify, the timing of fatal abuse is easier to predict. An estimated seven in 10 fatal abuse cases occur after women have left abusive partners or threatened to leave.
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