Matula and Steger, whose legal last name remained Steger after her marriage, both reportedly were trying to separate from their partners.
The threat of losing a spouse represents the ultimate loss of control to abusers, so they “up the ante” in the intensity of their abuse, Carlson said. The risk of domestic homicide is greatest in the first three months of a breakup, and especially in the first week.
“In my mind, I can’t live without this person,” Carlson said. “So I take the next step. … These men are desperate. They’re on the edge.”
Almost attempted murder
King, now 37, said his abusive tendencies came from his teen years when he was in gangs that habitually mistreated women. Abuse emerged in many forms in the relationship with his wife — from his insistence on knowing her whereabouts, to his comments that undermined her in front of their kids, to physical confrontations when she defied him.
But he never thought he was capable of lethal violence until the night five years ago when his wife came home and tried to wake him by slapping him.
King knows how fortunate he is that his wife is alive and he isn’t in prison. He recalled watching as a judge thumbed through a stack of medical records regarding his wife’s injury. Inspecting X-rays and MRI results, the judge said the severity of injuries would determine whether King would be charged with attempted murder.
“He looks down, looks up, looks down, looks up, and he goes, ‘Somebody is looking down on you,’ ” King recalled, “ ‘because there’s no fractures, no tears, no bruising.’ ”
Men underestimate the level of violence they commit.
At a men’s nonviolence class in Duluth, Scott Miller draws a line on a board with “staring” at one end and “homicide” at the other. At first, most men claim they are at the far end of the scale and are low risks. By the end, they admit they are more violent than recognized, said Miller, who runs the Duluth Model’s domestic abuse intervention project. Kicking in a door might not seem like a lethal action until the men envision what might happen if their partners are on the other side.
Many victims in their 20s
Even with this year’s spike in domestic homicides, it isn’t clear that the state is seeing a growing problem. Annual femicide reports, assembled since 1989 by the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, have shown the number of women dying from domestic violence vary from a yearly low of 12 to a high of 40.
The number of women needing hospital care for domestic abuse injuries also hasn’t changed, according to the state Department of Health. Around 950 women have needed such treatment each year for the past decade. The hospital data, assembled at the Star Tribune’s request, show a higher rate of victims in their early 20s.
It’s unclear whether young abusers are at greater risk of killing or inflicting severe injuries than others. Carlson worries that childhood exposure to violent media content puts them at risk, but the state femicide reports show a wide range in the ages of men who kill.
Websdale, the national expert, said there is some data showing that young women are at greater risk of domestic homicide — especially if their abusive partners are 10 or more years older than they are. Matula, Jelinek and Steger were 30 or younger. Steger’s husband, who has been charged with second-degree murder, is 39.
Calls to domestic abuse shelters spiked with the publicity of the searches for the women. Most came from people worried about relatives and how they can safely remove themselves from abusive relationships.
King, who lives in Cloquet, learned of the deaths from a news report about Matula playing softball at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He believes the solution is greater public education that reaches abusive men and corrects their attitudes toward women.
Counseling has helped him shed the controlling attitudes that fueled his anger and abuse. After a separation, he reconciled with his wife and they are raising their three children together. Now at counseling, he sees new young men coming in with the dangerous attitudes he once had.