The 70-something couple would not have stood out amid the shoppers at the Sanbusco Market Center, the upscale mall next to Pranzo Italian Grill, where the couple was about to sit down for lunch.
But this would not be a leisurely meal, like so many others that crisp May day.
Soon, the white-haired man was in the back of a patrol car, explaining himself to Santa Fe Police Department Officer Michelle Williams.
He still had food on his plate, according to Williams' report of his account, but his companion was in a hurry to leave. She had finished her martini and refused to eat. She was, he said, an alcoholic, much to his frustration.
He resented having to carry her purse because she was drunk. He resented having to walk her through the parking lot, where they began to argue over who had—or should have—the car keys. When she started cursing at him, he said, he lost his temper.
And not for the first time.
To a witness in the parking lot, it looked like he'd "clotheslined" his companion. He told Williams he'd swung the purse at her face. Either way, the woman fell to the ground, and passersby gathered to help her to her feet. Witnesses heard the man shout that he would "do away" with her, then kill himself.
The threat echoed one heard in dozens of domestic violence cases documented in Santa Fe over the last year. It was different in that the man shouting it was neither young nor poor.
Officer Williams arrived to find the couple's take-out containers strewn through the parking lot. The woman's face was bleeding and swollen. Her companion did not heed Williams' order to stand back, she wrote; instead, he "puffed up his chest, gritted his teeth, and moved toward me while he clenched his right fist and cocked his right arm back."
That move landed him in handcuffs. He spent a week in the Santa Fe County jail, charged with two counts of domestic violence and assault on a peace officer.
Prosecutors dropped that last charge. He pleaded guilty to domestic violence, and Santa Fe County Magistrate Sandy K Miera punished him with unsupervised probation, a $114 fine and a written apology to the victim. It seemed a light sentence, considering the woman's evident injuries, the dire tone of his threats and that this was not the first time he had been arrested for beating a woman close to him.
Would it have turned out differently had the man been of lesser means?
Unlike many convicted abusers, this man, Michael Snideman, could afford to hire a private attorney, who presented him as a sympathetic character, solicited expert defenses on his behalf and filed motions delaying his appearances in a busy courthouse where judges are often overwhelmed. (Miera did not return a message.)
Snideman lives on one of Santa Fe's most famous and upscale streets, Canyon Road, in a $573,000 condo, and is president of the owners' association. Before retiring, the victim of his abuse had her own successful career. (She did not return SFR's call.)
On the surface, this incident seems tame next to some of the horrific domestic violence cases Santa Fe has seen over the last six months. One ended with a 17-year-old dead in her own home, a bullet hole through her pregnant womb, her father's body lying next to her. Others featured arsons, stabbings and, quite often, guns pointed at women's heads.
The rising alarm of victims' advocates and law enforcement has begun to capture the attention of a few local politicians. Recently, they gathered in the Santa Fe County Commission chambers to talk about how they might prevent more women from getting killed by their boyfriends or husbands. They talked about the role of drugs and alcohol. They talked about the stresses this hard-times economy puts on families.
They spoke less about the true scope of the problem.
In each of the recent, highly publicized domestic violence cases, the couples lived in housing projects, trailer parks and other less-than-chic corners of Santa Fe. This fact appeared to confirm what some already assume: The occasional OJ Simpson case aside, poor people are the ones who go around beating their spouses, children or partners. But those who work in the field—knocking on doors after the neighbors hear screaming, consoling a weeping woman afraid for her life—know nothing could be further from the truth.
"It's everywhere here. It's everywhere. I have no doubt," Santa Fe Police Department Lt. Tom Wiggins, a 16-year police veteran who takes a special interest in domestic violence cases, says.
There are many reasons why wealthy wife-beaters don't make the local police blotter as often as their poor counterparts. For starters, this country's upper class is very small compared to its rapidly shrinking middle class. But more important is the stigma that still surrounds crimes of sexual and family violence, and the widespread expectation that a person should keep such matters private.
"If you're in a position like us, a police officer, or you have a political career, it's an easy thing to say, 'I was a victim of a burglary.' But if you're a person of some importance, it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to say, 'I'm involved in an abusive relationship,' or, 'I know someone who's involved in an abusive relationship,'" Wiggins says.
To get a better sense of the scope of the problem across demographic lines, SFR requested more than a year's worth of domestic violence reports from the Santa Fe Police Department in three patrol areas that cover downtown and the northern hills—areas of the city that have some of the higher property values. SFPD returned with a list of nearly 250 incidents in which its officers made reports. (That number makes the problem appear smaller than it is: Last year, city and county police wrote reports on fewer than half of the 2,855 emergency calls made regarding domestic or sexual violence in Santa Fe.) Though many incidents occurred at lower-income areas downtown, others took place at prominent public spots such as Rio Chama, Temple Beth Shalom, the Inn of the Governors and the Frank Ortiz Municipal Dog Park. SFR then ran address-by-address searches from the SFPD list, looking for property values or any other information that might give a clue as to the status of the people who live there.
The results should surprise anyone who thinks domestic violence is a problem for The Jerry Springer Show set, as one letter-writer to SFR recently complained. But they didn't surprise Carol Horwitz, who, as Santa Fe's domestic and sexual violence liaison, sees every single case report local police produce. Last year, she had a records clerk make a map of every domestic violence call where police responded. Its appearance is somewhat deceptive, as the pinpoints marking each incident appear dense in the projects and spread out over the hills. But, as Horwitz says, "It's not that there's less incidents up there." Rather, "when you live in a half-million-dollar house, you buy space."
From the bird's-eye view offered by police statistics, it seems domestic abuse is no less common among the wealthy but is, for a variety of reasons, often less bloody. And while families everywhere tend to keep secret violence within the home, those at society's upper echelons guard that secret all the more diligently—and often more successfully, thanks to inconsistent law enforcement record keeping.
The pervasiveness of the problem raises questions about what really lies behind domestic violence. Clearly, it is not purely a result of poverty, substance abuse or "culture," a phrase some use as code for machismo. From where, then, does all this rage and sorrow spring?
A couple dozen people, most of whom work in criminal justice or social services, have come for an evening meeting on domestic violence in the Santa Fe County Commission chambers. It is, as Lt. Wiggins puts it, "choir time"—a small gathering of like minds for the purpose of mutual hand-wringing over the grave state of affairs. At a table up front sits Wiggins, the county sheriff, two nonprofit directors, the mayor, the district attorney, a family court judge and, as if to emphasize the low attendance, an empty chair.
"This is a serious and difficult issue," Mayor David Coss says. "It is holding back our community. We're 400 years old. We're one of the most famous communities in the world. And this is hurting us. This is killing us. And this can't go on."
After the invited speakers have taken their turns, a woman in the back of the room stands. She tells her story, at moments through tears. It is a common story.
"I've never had to deal with domestic violence until now. I also feel that the resources I've had have failed me," she says. "I went to the courts, had an order of protection issued. My ex continued to violate it. As we left the courthouse, he was trying to run us off the road. I called SFPD…they told us there was no probable cause because they did not witness the violence. They would not even take a report from me…I feel like it's going to take a body bag in order for law enforcement to enforce an order of protection."
It's not necessarily surprising that people without the means to hire a lawyer have trouble navigating the criminal justice system or find social service agencies unhelpful. It's even less surprising that women with money to spare have some real advantages when it comes to escaping a violent partner.
"Women who are wealthier might go stay at a hotel," Horwitz says. "I had one victim say, 'I'm going to the Bahamas for a month. I'm going to a spa.' It was like, 'That would be nice. I could use a week in a spa.'"
There is a flip side, though. Simply having more to lose can make the decision to leave a relationship gone bad—already agonizing, for many people, especially when children are involved—that much harder.
"When there's money, there can be even more control," Horwitz says. "People who love each other and who do have a lot of money, they are so hideously horrible to each other…If you've ever been through sitting through one of those [domestic relations] hearings, it's kind of disgusting. You want to shower when you leave."
Horwitz recalls one wealthy couple—at least, the man was wealthy—in the process of separating. "She had to ask him for money for food for the children. He would give them nothing. She had to beg," Horwitz says. "He completely turned off everything she had been counting on. There's that. Then there's the attorney stuff. When there's access to money on one side and the other person doesn't have access, there can be attorneys hired who do a lot of damage."
At its worst, domestic violence exposes gender inequities in American society that many would prefer to think exist only in places like Afghanistan, where the law still treats women as property. All over the world, the vast majority of violent abusers are men, and men remain, more often than not, the prime breadwinners. This means, even for wealthy American women, leaving an abusive husband can mean starting from zero.
"People in million-dollar homes are not going to go to [a] shelter," Sherry Taylor, executive director of the Esperanza Shelter for Battered Families, says. "There's just certain standards of living you've gotten used to."
Indeed, every woman and child who checks into Esperanza becomes technically homeless. Nine out of 10 "clients" there make less than $30,000 a year, according to Esperanza's last annual report. One in 20 earn more than $47,000 per year, the highest income category on the shelter's intake sheet. Taylor believes this higher-income group often includes women in the most dangerous situation—who, despite their apparent financial resources, have nowhere else to turn.
Further, no one can be sure these wealthier victims are getting any help at all because they so rarely enter "the system"—a patchy network of police officers, court staff, probation officers, caseworkers and poorly paid counselors.
Experience shows that for every woman who seeks help, many more suffer alone. The shame of abandoning a failed relationship can be even stronger for those who have more to lose and who, outside of closed doors, appear successful.
"We have a society that doesn't treat victims very nicely. We treat them like losers," Frank Ochberg, a prominent Michigan-based psychologist who has treated wealthy domestic violence victims, says. "There are cultural reasons why victims shrink from doing what they need to do to protect themselves and feel good about themselves. And there may be certain biological reasons we're still trying to figure out."
There will probably be a Nobel Prize for whatever scientist can answer the question: Why is she with that asshole?
In the meantime, those "cultural reasons" are more explicable.
Advocates say some wealthier victims feel no one would believe them, given the stature of their abusers. Taylor recalls one case involving a surgeon "who was very, very abusive to his family, and he did horrible things. But he took care of them. The more space you have and the more money you have and the more power you have, the more [likely] things wouldn't be reported," she says. "I've seen women who are successful in their lives hook up with somebody who is like, 'You don't really need to keep your job, because I can take care of you.' Once you start giving up those things, they have so much power over you."
As Taylor finds herself repeating to audiences, time and again, domestic violence is all about power and control. It is a crime that damages the mind before the body.
Ochberg, who founded the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, is known for coining the term "Stockholm syndrome." It refers to the phenomenon in which some hostages develop sympathy for and eventually side with their terrorist captors. Which sounds a lot like what happens in relationships where emotional abuse escalates toward violence.
While Ochberg doesn't think most domestic violence victims experience Stockholm syndrome, per se, "there are many cases where there's a sense of relief, where a woman feels like she might be killed and she isn't," he tells SFR. "But, by and large, it has to do with other choices and the shame for ending [a relationship] and the responsibility for the kids."
In that sense, the emotional power abusers have over victims transcends money and class. Nowhere does the role of money seem less significant than in cases where a victim's assets exceed her abuser's. American women may be slowly catching up to men in terms of career opportunities and income, but their roles within relationships can still be retro.
Her late husband had a successful career as an entertainer. He had never been a household name, but they had enough money to keep a $650,000 home on Tano Road. After he left her a widow, she developed a relationship with a 77-year-old man who lives and works in a studio on her property; he continues to live there, though the relationship ended two years ago, according to court papers she filed against him.
A sheriff's deputy served a temporary protection order on the man on Sept. 29, five days after the widow claimed her tenant was found peering through her windows. When she confronted him in his studio, he body-checked her, then blocked the exit, she claims. When she tried to dial 911 for help, he made a grab for the phone; she threw it across the room and, as he chased it, took the opportunity to escape.
"He was shaking the whole time with rage," the widow writes. "I am very afraid of him. He was a former wrestler, and in the army, a machine gunner." She fears he may still keep firearms.
A hearing at the 1st Judicial District Court was scheduled for Oct. 13, as SFR went to press. The woman did not return a message.
On Sept. 27, three days after that incident, the SFPD responded to a domestic violence call not far down Tano Road in the Ridge Pointe subdivision, a slightly more modest neighborhood amid luxury condos and mansions.
It was 5:11 am.
Officer Faron Rodriguez found a 32-year-old woman running along the street, barefoot, in pajamas and "crying hysterically."
Rodriguez saw red marks on her wrist, a cut on her lip, a fresh rug burn on her knee, and bruises. She said her boyfriend of four years, Patrick C Baca, had pinned her to the carpet and smacked her around. Baca is seven years younger than his girlfriend, and court records indicate he comes from the other side of the tracks. If anyone had financial security in their relationship, it was the woman.
The first time officers tracked Baca down, after finding his girlfriend at home with a swollen face and a torn T-shirt, he had fled to his father's $40,000 trailer on a dirt road off W. Alameda Street. That was in 2006. Baca might have gotten away had his girlfriend's injuries not been so obvious, and had he not told an officer to "go fuck yourself you fucking faggot" over the telephone.
On his way to jail that night, Baca claimed his girlfriend had scratched his chest. Later, police lifted his shirt and found no scratches.
Police came again in 2007. Police reports indicate Baca had gotten drunk and screamed at his girlfriend's son over a pool game they'd been playing.
That time, and the time before, the victim's children called their grandparents, who called the police. SFR reached the victim, who declined to speak, except to say she's not in contact with Baca, who is free on $3,000 bond.
These cases, like any such crimes, came to light only because someone who saw or heard the abuse contacted the authorities. From that point, a tiny fraction of the whole truth is documented as the cases enter "the system" and create a publicly available paper trail. At the end of that paper trial, assuming everyone has done their jobs, a judge hands down a sentence in the interests of justice.
Of course, the system doesn't always work. And some abusers have the power to make problems go away.
Sometimes, neighbors don't call the police—even when the screams come from next door. Who can hear a fight inside the next McMansion over?
Sometimes, police fail to investigate domestic calls thoroughly or don't document the scene in detail, leaving prosecutors nothing to work with.
Rita Smith, executive director of the Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, says savvy abusers, particularly those with means, can cover their tracks. That power begins with the tendency of many police departments to seek out criminal behavior among the poor while giving respectable-seeming citizens the benefit of the doubt.
"The police would be much more likely to file a report in a neighborhood where there's lower-income people living than in the wealthiest communities. I think it's much less likely there would even be a paper trail. If there were a paper trail, the batterer might have the ability to have that record expunged," Smith says. "I'm sure it's happened. I can't give you hard data about that, but I've talked to lots of women who've had batterers who were either a police officer or in city government or had very close ties to officials who could remove that type of data from a system: The police report somehow disappeared."
SFPD Deputy Chief Abram Anaya says those assumptions are false—especially given that domestic violence calls tend to be the most dangerous for responding officers. "There's absolutely no difference. We will respond exactly the same, whether it's the housing projects or a higher-income home on the east side," Anaya says.
That may be. Nevertheless, in several recent cases SFR reviewed, the paper trail stops short when it leads toward a wealthy person's home.
For example: Last December, an SFPD officer responded to a domestic violence call at a home near Hyde Park Road worth more than $1 million. The homeowners are a prominent local couple, the type who serve on foundation boards and charity task forces. The officer's report—at least, the summary available to SFR—lacked the kind of details prosecutors say they need to build a case. The summary report reads, in its entirety: "A couple was involved in a domestic dispute over marital discrepancies by the male spouse. Incident was documented as a domestic dispute and no further action was taken." The report indicates alcohol was involved. The couple's names were not included on the report, a courtesy not granted to everyone who gets in a drunken argument and has the police show up at their home.
Two days after the police came to the couple's house, the wife of the house filed for divorce, citing "discord." Within two months, the divorce petition was withdrawn. SFR is withholding the names of the homeowners because the events leading up to the police call couldn't be determined. The reporting officer did not return a message.
So it remains a mystery why "no further action" was taken. There may simply have been no violence. On the other hand, there may be no record of violence or abusive behavior because no real investigation was conducted.
SFPD Lt. Wiggins says it's possible the responding officer didn't know what to look for or asked the wrong questions. Some officers, Wiggins says, are more concerned about other types of crimes, be they traffic stops or drug busts.
Which means when a victim calls police for help, she is rolling the dice. She can only hope the officer who shows up won't be the kind who does the bare minimum, makes sure no one is bleeding, asks everyone to calm down and drives to the next call.
In that sense, too, wealthy victims can be in the same bind as that woman of modest means who stood up in the back of the County Commission chambers, and told how it felt when no one would help her.
National victims' advocates fear 2009 could turn out to be one of the worst years on record for domestic violence, thanks in part to the recession. New Mexico has long been among the nation's worst on this score. Last month, the Washington, DC-based Violence Policy Center said New Mexico had the seventh-highest murder rate per capita of women by men. Half of those murders were of wives, ex-wives or girlfriends—a statistic that likely skews low, because police don't specifically track crimes involving ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends.
"This is a dangerous state to be in a relationship," David River, co-facilitator of the Santa Fe Coordinated Community Response Council, a group established to combat domestic violence, says. "Our community isn't the best set up to help [victims] escape."
Last December, Diana McWilliams took over as executive director of the Santa Fe Rape Crisis and Trauma Treatment Center on Valentine Way. Years before that, she worked in Delaware, in both poor and wealthy areas. She found that women faced the same issues whether they were trying to protect the children from drug-dealing boyfriends who were in and out of jail, or trying to escape an abusive, embezzling husband with a string of capital letters after his name. "You see that families are struggling, and it doesn't matter what their income level is—it just doesn't," McWilliams says. "It's not race. It's not money. It's called being human."
Regardless of their class, regardless of their stature, regardless of their excuses, domestic abusers "need to be held accountable for their behavior," McWilliams says.
"With regard to sexual assault, we call that perpetrator a rapist and we go after them. They are considered a feral animal. Folks perpetrating domestic violence crimes are no different. They're doing that crime behind closed doors, and they're walking out, acting like everything's fine." SFR
WEB EXTRA: A group consisting mainly of criminal justice and social services workers met on Oct. 7 in Santa Fe County Commission chambers to discuss the worsening domestic violence in the area.