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In leaving abusive situations, women should seek help

Law enforcement personnel gather outside a home where two people were found dead and two others were injured after a shooting inside the home on the 5900 block of Grotto Avenue in Shoreview on Tuesday. Ben Garvin | Associated Press

By Annie Baxter

MPR News 91.3 FM

ST. PAUL — A moving truck sat idle on the street of a home in Shoreview, Minn., Tuesday, surrounded by police cars. As a police helicopter hovered noisily above, police poured over the home to investigate multiple shootings that left two people dead and two others wounded.

The truck was there because Nancy Sullivan, 57, was moving out of the house she shared with her longtime boyfriend, Johnny Lee Simpson, 65. Police are investigating the deaths as a murder and suicide and consider Simpson the suspect.

Officials haven’t released many details about the crime, but they say while the move was in process it appears Simpson shot Sullivan and wounded Kathleen Maureen Fay, 29, and Tony Sewell Brown, 28, both of St. Paul.

Police said they have not responded to any calls involving domestic violence at the home in the past five years.

But in cases where there has been a pattern of abuse, a break-up can be dangerous, as is clear from a recent spate of tragically similar killings.

Six other Twin Cities area women appear to have been killed this year as they tried to leave their boyfriends or husbands.

Advocates for victims of domestic abuse say most women leave bad situations safely, but the threat of violence escalates when a separation is imminent.

"A victim of domestic violence is at a 75 percent greater risk of being murdered or seriously injured when they attempt to leave," said Shelley Johnson Cline, executive director of the St. Paul Domestic Abuse Intervention Project.

Johnson said there are a number of warning signs an escalation in violence may be coming.

"Jealousy is huge," she said, and men may grow increasingly controlling. "It’s that idea of feeling that they have nothing to lose."

With that in mind, Cline said it’s important for women who want to get out of abusive situations to have a plan to leave, and it’s best to craft that plan with police or advocates for battered women. The plan, she said, should address key questions:

"What is her access to help? Does she have a cell phone? Does she have a place to go if the violence escalates? What about the children? How do you get out? Are there weapons in the house? All those different factors we talk about."

Involving friends or family is helpful but Cline said it’s best to bring in professionals, and also police.

In two cases this year, women who were leaving their partners did have family members present, and those people were drawn into the escalating violence.

Cline said that above all else, women should not hesitate to call 911 if they feel endangered.

"When you think violence is escalating," she said, "trust your gut."

Cline’s organization has received more calls recently from women who are spurred to action by reports in the media of women killed by their husbands or boyfriends. She said the callers say they don’t want to be the next victims.

But Cline doubts any of the perpetrators are copying the actions of others.

Neil Websdale, an expert on domestic abuse and homicide at Northern Arizona University, agreed.

"It may be tempting to think one event is influenced by another," he said. "But what I think you’re seeing is common patterns of abuse that build over time."

Websdale said most women who try to leave an abusive relationship do so safely without a fatal ending and that the overall rate of women killed by an intimate associate is dropping.

"We’ve seen a very substantial decrease, probably a 35 percent or so reduction from the mid 1970’s," he said.

Like Cline, Websdale advises women who want to leave an abusive situation to seek help from victim advocates to avoid a violent breakup. After they leave, he said, it’s important to avoid trying to limit exposure to the person. The safest thing to do is to stay away altogether, at least for a few days.