Natasha Waalen was the "It girl -- the prettiest, smartest, kindest," recalled Carrie Hutchens, Waalen's friend of 20 years. "She had it all together. And she was the champion for the little guy."

But the one person Waalen apparently struggled to stand up for was herself -- a too-common trait of victims of domestic violence, experts say.

On Sept. 19, two days after Waalen told co-worker Denise Jellis that she was seeking a protection order against Ryan Boland and that she "feared for her life," Waalen's body and crashed motorcycle were discovered on an Andover street. Waalen, 28, had been beaten to death that night, according to authorities. They say Boland, 33 -- Waalen's live-in boyfriend -- and his brother, Timothy, 31, staged the crash.

"Our friends begged her to get help, but she was too afraid," said Scott Kalpakoff, who had known Waalen since the eighth grade. "Tasha told me that Ryan once tried to strangle her and that he threatened to kill her if she ever left him or took [their young daughter] away."

Kalpakoff said he never understood it: "Tasha's a tough chick who would never allow something like this to happen to someone else."

On at least three occasions, Waalen reported to Anoka police that she'd been physically abused, prosecutor Paul Young said Friday. One report is from 1999, when Ryan Boland was convicted of a misdemeanor. Another call came around Christmas last year. Yet Waalen never walked away from the relationship.

The fear factor

Fear is one factor that prevents women in abusive relationships from screaming for help or leaving, said Connie Moore, executive director of Alexandra House, Anoka County's only shelter for battered women. Barriers include the inability to find affordable housing, the threat of drawn-out legal procedures, displacing a child and the uncertainty of life after the safety of a shelter, according to Moore and Young.

"Like a lot of women who get in these relationships, they get scared to leave," said Jessica Kern, Waalen's friend since middle school. Kern declined to talk about Boland, saying only: "There's people who fool people all the time."

Of the five homicides in Anoka County this year, Young said, three appear to have stemmed from domestic violence -- a "disturbing" percentage.

"Is it the economy, the desperation that stems from hard times that's become a motive that leads people to kill partners?" Young asked last week. "Think about the stress of what might appear to be a good relationship. Now toss in mental health issues, drug use, alcohol use. Too often, we hear, 'He only hits me when he drinks.' It's justified [in the victim's mind] -- and then never reported."

Waalen's friends knew she was having problems with Boland, her on-again, off-again boyfriend of 11 years and the father of her 4-year-old daughter, Savannah.

In addition, she had been assaulted by Tim Boland, who blamed her for ruining his brother's life, according to a court complaint by Waalen's brother, Travis.

"She said repeatedly that she was really scared of Tim," said Tierza Langston, who worked with Waalen at Achieve Services in Blaine, which serves adults who have developmental disabilities.

Travis Waalen's girlfriend, Amanda Larson, told authorities about the abusive relationship between Ryan Boland and Waalen. Larson also said that Waalen had told Boland to be out of their Anoka home by the end of September and that Larson then planned to move in with Waalen.

Waalen worked 35 hours a week with developmentally disabled adults at Achieve and 20 hours a week more as an acupuncturist at Family Friendly Chiropractic in Andover.

Andrea Novack, a massage therapist at the clinic, said that she never saw any marks or bruises on Waalen, and that she "never said anything about violence."

"But if she was bummed out and I asked her about it, she'd say, 'Oh, it's just stuff at home,' " Novack said. " 'It's no big deal.' "

That seemed in character. Even though Waalen, with her bright blue eyes and ice-melting smile, often was the most attractive person in a crowd, she had a knack of diverting attention from herself, friends said.

"She had this kindness, this special quality that let you know that she really wanted to know you," Kern said.

Waalen's funeral was held Sunday at a Mounds View church.

Sometimes charming

Friends such as Paula Ulrickson, who said she graduated with Waalen's sister and Ryan Boland, said she never understood anyone's attraction to the Bolands, whom she characterized as "bullies" when they were at Anoka High School.

But Ryan Boland could be charming, many of Waalen's school friends said. Before he and his brother were charged last week with second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree murder, Ryan Boland worked for his father, a former teacher and Coon Rapids High School assistant principal who left education to start his own construction company.

Warren Crane, a Coon Rapids homeowner who retired from the Star Tribune, said he met Ryan Boland two years ago when he needed some roofing work done.

"He was nice, very conscientious and talked as if he was married," Crane said. "I even met his daughter, who must have been 2. For the two weeks I knew him, he seemed like a real family man."

Efforts to reach the Boland brothers in jail Friday were unsuccessful.

Meeting at a bar

On Sept. 18, the Bolands arrived at a Ramsey bar at 8:15 p.m., leaving between 9:30 and 9:45, according to court documents. A Spectators Bar server, who said she usually gets along with the Bolands, said she tried to avoid them that night. They seemed different, she told authorities.

Ryan Boland told authorities that it was Waalen who had been drinking that night and that they argued in their garage.

But Langston, Natasha's co-worker, said that Waalen did not like to party, that she was too devoted to Savannah. The Anoka County medical examiner by Friday had not filed a report addressing blood-alcohol content levels, Young said.

This much is certain: When Waalen was found nearly 50 feet from her 2004 KTM Enduro Rendezvous motorcycle, there was a red strap tied around her body and arms, defensive wounds to the back of each hand and three wounds to her forehead inconsistent with a possible crash, authorities said.

"Here's an example of a young woman with a master's degree, with a good job, living with a man who was working," Moore said. "Domestic violence affects all economic levels, all communities.

"People said he was charming. It shows that you can't identify an abuser just by looking at him."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419