When Nicole Meier's ex-boyfriend shot her to death and then killed himself several weeks ago, as police say, some things about that tragedy fit classic patterns of domestic abuse everywhere.

Jesse Oakley had a history: His former wife said he had repeatedly threatened to kill her or himself, and she had a protective order against him.

Meier had moved out over the summer and was worried enough to call for a police escort.

But the killing fit another pattern that officials are struggling to understand: It happened in Anoka County.

From November 2006 through early this month, 11 women have died in domestic homicides there -- more women, per capita, than anywhere else in the Twin Cities.

The county's domestic homicide rate is nearly twice that of its closest entirely suburban peer, Washington County, according to data from the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.

Those in the county who deal with the aftermath of domestic abuse are searching for insight into what is driving domestic homicides. So far, they are hard put to explain whether the numbers are a fluke.

"It's a great social science question," said Paul Young, chief of the county attorney's violent crime division. "Based on our economics, based on our social histories, whatever, there's something about the message about how to act appropriately in your domestic relationships that for whatever reasons isn't as effective as it is in other places."

In a seeming contradiction, requests for orders for protection in Anoka County dropped almost 27 percent from 2006 to 2010. But Young said that statistic may belie the real situation. It may suggest, he said, that some women simply aren't asking for help. In addition, he noted that prosecutions for the most serious domestic-related offenses are up in the county, and said some women are relying on the no-contact orders that come with those felony cases.

While Meier called for a police escort when she moved out last summer, she didn't ask for help Jan. 31, when she told co-workers she was worried about her safety before she went to Oakley's home to try to collect some back rent. Police found their bodies the next day after Meier didn't show up at work.

No clear explanation

As in other suburban and rural counties, domestic homicides account for a higher proportion of total killings in Anoka County than in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, where drug and gang issues are more likely to lead to violence.

"What it shows is that domestic violence -- no matter where you are -- is a key issue," said Connie Moore, executive director of Alexandra House women's shelter in Blaine. "It's a critical issue that every community should be looking at." But at her shelter, Anoka County residents went from accounting for 30 percent of the clientele in 2009 to 42 percent last year.

Those trying to unravel what might be behind the numbers consider many possible factors: In recent years, Anoka County has seen higher unemployment than the metro area as a whole, running a percentage point higher than the metro average in 2009. The county also was hit hard by foreclosures.

"When those things are already happening in relationships, other stresses might escalate the kinds of behavior that person has a feeling they have the right to," Moore said. "It's not the cause of it, but it might make things worse."

Recession also makes it daunting for women to leave.

"It's had a very negative impact on victims who are thinking they might get out of that situation," Moore said. "It's made it harder for them to reach out for help, made it harder for them to leave, particularly for women who don't work full-time or haven't worked outside the home for a while."

Steady efforts have been made to tame the problem. Last fall, the county launched a program that requires officers responding to domestic abuse calls to ask a series of questions to determine whether the victim is at high risk of danger. The "lethality assessments" are a chance for intervention and a reality check for women who sometimes would make excuses for the men they love, Young said.

Since September, four law enforcement agencies participating in the program have responded to 132 domestic violence calls. Officers did 92 assessments, and 63 people were deemed to be at high risk for violence. More than half of those 63 continue to receive assistance from Alexandra House.

There also are a host of education efforts for victims, abusers and kids. One program, Coaching Boys into Men, offers resources to sports coaches and other male mentors to be relationship role models.

"They have really taken some nice leadership roles in their community," said Liz Richards, director of programming for the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.

Young pointed to changes in dealing with domestic violence, with policies aimed at holding abusers accountable.

"Law enforcement is more in tune to it," he said. Thirty years ago, he said, "[Officers would] be called to a house ... and maybe the guy didn't get arrested, but the officer said, 'Bob, you can't do that to the wife.' Now you're going to see an arrest. I think the training is much better."

Anoka County sheriff's investigator Mike Wahl agreed, citing a recent case in which a suspect -- who he said fit the profile of a potential killer -- was tracked down and jailed the same night the emergency call came in.

MYOB hurts everyone

Like much of the state, the county has a strong sense of Minnesota MYOB; but in this case, minding your own business doesn't help.

"There's still a sense that what happens within a family is a family's business," Young said. "A lot of people get offended when government starts to go past that line, [feeling] what I do in my home is my business."

But there comes a point, he and others said, where law enforcement's role ends and the community's picks up. The general public has no idea, Young said, how pervasive domestic violence remains.

"If it's not the neighbor to the left or to the right, and you don't perceive it in your peer group, you don't believe it's going on," he said. "Maybe it's not the immediate neighbor, but the neighbor two doors down. This isn't a crime of what we would consider the lower classes. It doesn't know economic boundaries. It is strictly a power control dynamic, no matter how rich or poor you are, or other geographic or statistical background. ... My wish would be that people realize it still goes on way too much."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409