Pretty much every day in Santa Fe, a man threatens to kill his wife, girlfriend or ex, judging by a review of recent incidents reported to local police or courts.
From a July 21 protection order request: “[H]e was going to have one of his homies do him a favor and have my family and I killed since I didn’t want to get back with him.”
From a July 20 protection order: “I cannot take it anymore after a bizarre series of texts…some saying I was his goddess…others saying I was the devil…I am afraid. He has guns. And he has been going to my mother’s house.”
Victims aren’t the only people who hear these murderous threats. From an unrelated arrest report across town, the same day: “If this crackhead doesn’t shut up, I’ll kill her.”
Such threats are not always idle, as the recent murder of a pregnant 17-year-old and her father shows. The New Mexico Department of Health calls domestic violence a “serious public health problem.”
Santa Fe County has roughly 7 percent of New Mexico’s population, but was home to 10 percent of the state’s reported domestic violence victims in 2007, according to SFR’s analysis of the most recent city and state figures. That could be a good sign, if it means more such incidents get reported here. Indeed, in 2008, local emergency calls regarding domestic or sexual violence increased 10 percent over the prior year. City or county police generated 1,508 incident reports on such crimes last year. The bad news is, more than half involved battery, but fewer than a quarter resulted in arrests.
This year has brought troubling trends. Deborah Potter, a victim advocate in the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office, says while the number of domestic violence cases has not increased dramatically, the cases are getting more severe.
“We’re seeing more knives used, a tremendous amount of guns—more handguns than I’ve ever seen used,” Potter says. “The people inside the field are getting it, but the community’s not getting it—how violent it is.”
If a woman seeks help—and that’s a big if—a judge or hearing officer may issue a “protection order.” What that order amounts to is a piece of paper.
SFR’s survey of recent cases suggests that when an abuser gets arrested, his time in jail will likely be brief. Should a judge convict him—unlikely, when a victim has been terrorized into recanting—the sentence may amount to probation. And despite what the law says, the abuser can often keep all the guns he wants. Few people interviewed for this story took strong exception to this characterization. District Judge Michael Vigil, however, did.
“It’s important to be concerned about the times we are wrong, but there’s an awful lot of times that we’re right. And people do get the proper counseling. And they do put their families back together,” Vigil says. “People don’t talk about it because it doesn’t sell newspapers.”
Granted, Vigil bears some responsibility for creating the impression that even dangerous repeat abusers—the ones most likely to kill their wives—can get off easy. Last month, Vigil gave Steven Romero 4½ years probation, with no jail time, after he beat his pregnant wife. Romero had previously faced five charges for violent felonies, including two guilty pleas five years apart.
Like every case, it was complicated. Potter, who is in close contact with the victim, says Romero’s wife believes the police exaggerated their report, though she had bruises; she also hates what she purportedly characterizes as one-sided, agenda-driven press coverage (but declines to speak to SFR). Potter says the victim relied on Romero to feed their two children and that she still loves him.
Her love is irrelevant, victim advocates say. “It is not up to the victim to do the sentencing,” Esperanza Shelter for Battered Families Executive Director Sherry Taylor says. “Somebody should’ve looked at his record and said, ‘This is a very, very dangerous man.’”
Considering the uncooperative victim, Judge Vigil understands why prosecutor Cynthia Hill worked out a plea with Romero.
“What the state is trying to do is at least get the person under supervision, rather than take the risk of going to trial [and] getting acquitted,” Vigil says.
Unaware of prior convictions, juries can have a hard time identifying a serial abuser. “People tend to have compassion, especially when the couple is trying to stay together,” Sheriff Solano says. “A lot of people don’t understand the cycle of abuse. We see it in law enforcement. But the public doesn’t see it—and the public’s on juries.”
A review of felony domestic violence cases already in court, along with recent police reports and protection orders, reveals a troubling pattern: The state often fails to protect women who have been threatened, beaten or worse by men they live with, share children with or once upon a time dated. (Not all abusers are men—just most of them.) And even when police, prosecutors and social workers know offenders’ names and addresses, they can stay beyond the reach of the law.