‘We really dodged a bullet’

EVERETT – It is a familiar story.

The woman endures a history of abuse, and even flees to another state to escape the violence. She turns to the courts for protection but can’t make a case that she is in real danger.

The Snohomish County Center for Battered Women offers emergency shelter, counseling, legal advocacy and other services. Its 24-hour hotline is 425-252-2873.

Her pleas for help are only heard in the loud explosion of gunfire.

On Monday, the victim lived.

Too many others have not.

“We really dodged a bullet,” said Tammy McElyea, domestic violence coordinator for the Mountlake Terrace Police Department.

Monday’s shooting rampage at a busy Everett convenience store apparently was sparked by a marital and child custody dispute spanning a decade and courts in two states.

The gunman opened fire inside the store, trying to shoot his ex-wife, witnesses said. The woman and a store employee huddled behind a locked door as the man reportedly shot and killed himself. No one else was injured.

“It could have gone one step further and become a domestic violence nightmare,” said Joan Cavagnaro, Snohomish County chief criminal deputy prosecutor.

People in Snohomish County last year sought 1,390 domestic violence protection orders. The woman who escaped death Monday was among them.

Experts familiar with the court system on Tuesday wondered whether more can be done to protect the women – and men – who are threatened by abusers.

“Domestic violence is real. It isn’t just a headline. People truly do die in these situations,” McElyea said. “The community needs to realize domestic violence isn’t going away.”

The gunman and his ex-wife, both immigrants from Sudan, Africa, were engaged in a contentious divorce involving custody of their four children. Wisconsin court records show that even before the couple divorced in 1997, the woman had asked for a restraining order to keep her husband away.

The Snohomish County medical examiner on Tuesday still was attempting to notify the man’s family of his death.

The woman and her children moved from Wisconsin to Washington state in 2000. Her ex-husband moved to Everett last summer, and the woman quickly petitioned the courts for a protection order.

She told the court she had come here to get away from his death threats. Her petition was denied when she could not produce clear evidence of recent abuse.

The man “had only been out here a week when she filed the (domestic violence) motion, because to her the threat was real,” the woman’s lawyer, Linda Passey of Marysville, said Tuesday.

Victims are often denied protection orders because the burden of proof is so high, McElyea said.

“If someone is coming to the courts and saying they are afraid for their life, why are the courts second-guessing people whose lives are in danger?” McElyea asked.

It is difficult for some victims to communicate their fears, said Annette Tupper, a victim advocate for the Snohomish County prosecutor’s office. It’s even tougher when the victims are from foreign countries.

“The judges, prosecutors and court system need to be aware of the differences in cultures and the way immigrants and refugees express their fears,” said Van Dinh-Kuno, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Forum of Snohomish County.

“They don’t like to deal with the law, so when they come to you for help, you’d better drop everything.”

Court commissioners hear the bulk of domestic violence allegations in Snohomish County. Making the right decision is sometimes “more of an art than a science,” commissioner Lester Stewart said.

Reliable evidence, including testimony from schoolteachers, medical personnel or eyewitnesses to threats or physical violence, can help tip the balance in favor of the victim, Stewart said.

“You do have to do some work,” said Miriam Dominique Kastle, who ran a domestic violence outreach program in the county until it recently ran out of money.

Often, the only witnesses to domestic abuse are children, or friends and family who don’t want to become involved, perhaps because they fear retaliation, she said.

Commissioners are sometimes hit-and-miss in granting protection orders, said Bob Lewis, a paralegal for the law office of Terry L. Turner in Bothell. He said he’s had mixed results helping men receive protection from abusive women.

A protection order is “a proactive attempt to prevent what happened” on Monday, Lewis said. The courts, especially in Snohomish County, use protection orders “as a Band-Aid after the violence has happened,” Lewis said.

Protection orders are only one tool, and are no substitute for taking other steps to keep safe, experts said.

“Ultimately, if someone is hellbent on committing a crime, a piece of paper is not going to stop them,” Cavagnaro said.

Reporter Jim Haley contributed to this story.

Reporter Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463 or hefley@heraldnet.com.

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