Living in fear: Domestic abuse affecting thousands in SJ, but Stockton well above other cities in number of cases reported
This story was produced as part of a larger project led by Almendra Carpizo, a participant in the 2019 California Fellowship.
Other stories in this series include:
[CALIXTRO ROMIAS/THE RECORD]
Trisha Aguilar never envisioned herself in such a situation.
He had called her stupid and dumb. And she made herself believe the belittling and degrading were tolerable — it would pass. Little did she know it would get worse.
Aguilar met him when she was in her late 20s and divorced.
The verbal abuse started before the young couple celebrated their first anniversary and escalated into physical abuse shortly afterward.
“It blindsided me,” she said. “I began questioning whether I was going to stay in the relationship.
“I decided to push it under the rug.”
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IN STOCKTON
Intimate partner violence, or domestic violence, directly affects thousands of lives throughout San Joaquin County. Women and men daily in the county are beaten, berated and sequestered, but data obtained by The Record shows no other city sees the number of cases reported at the level of Stockton.
In a 40-month span beginning in January 2016, there were 15,894 domestic violence or intimate partner violence-related reports taken by the Stockton, Lodi, Manteca and Tracy police departments, as well as the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office. These numbers reflect only reported cases, as this crime continues to be underreported, according to law enforcement documents.
Stockton alone saw 10,496 reports, which accounted for about two-thirds of the intimate partner violence incidents authorities investigated in the county.
Ken Puckett has been with the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office for 30 years, and has seen the issue grow exponentially countywide. But while the agency prosecutes cases from other cities, he said the vast majority come from Stockton.
Of the 5,876 domestic violence cases the District Attorney’s Office handled last year, 4,483, or 76 percent, originated in Stockton, said Puckett, chief deputy district attorney.
Authorities can’t pinpoint an exact cause for the higher number of cases, but said population size alone is not the sole contributor to the disparity. Stockton, a port city in California’s Central Valley, has a population of more than 311,000, approximately 41 percent of the San Joaquin County populace.
Puckett and Sgt. Andrew Hendricks, a 24-year veteran with the Stockton Police Department, have noticed one significant trend — more men are coming forward as victims.
In 2011-2012, about 5 percent of victims in domestic violence cases in San Joaquin County were men, Puckett said. That has risen to between 15 to 20 percent.
A PERILOUS SITUATION
An analysis of Stockton Police Department arrest records from the past 3.3 years shows women and men were abused in almost every corner of the city on any given day. On Christmas and Thanksgiving days, on bike trails, in ramshackle tents along the levees, in modest apartment complexes and in opulent homes overlooking the lush fairways and greens of golf courses.
Aguilar, who was born and raised in Stockton, endured harrowing days and nights during the 15 years she was with her abuser.
There were many frightening experiences — times when her husband became enraged and would hurl plates of food against the wall if he didn’t like what she cooked, times when she hid in cars hoping he wouldn’t find her, times when she thought, “this is going to be it.”
She tried to break free from him many times, she said. But each time, despite the abuse and cheating, “it just became a part of me to forgive him.”
“I felt so sad all the time,” Aguilar said. “I felt so alone.”
“I still think that he’s coming after me sometimes,” she said. “I don’t know how to stop it, but I get anxiety really bad.”
Experts have long seen how escaping an abuser is the most dangerous time for a victim. Perpetrators scheme and turn to extremes to prevent a person from leaving their side.
A victim’s reasons for staying are complex and, in most cases, are based on the reality that their abuser will follow through with their threats: The abuser will hurt or kill them, they will hurt or kill the kids, they will win custody of the children, they will harm or kill pets or others, they will ruin their victim financially, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
This is why it takes seven or more times for a person to leave an abusive situation for good, said Bernadine Dickens, shelter program coordinator for Dawn House, an emergency shelter run by the Women’s Center-Youth and Family Services.
“Domestic violence is all about manipulation and control,” she said. “If I’m your abuser and I know you’re leaving, I’m losing control. Whenever (the perpetrators) feel that feeling, they have to dig in deeper. So if I can just scare you to stay home, than that’s what I’ll do. If I have to hurt you to stay home, that’s what I’m going to do.”
For Aguilar, the attacks continued after she left.
A Molotov cocktail was thrown into her home one evening and on another occasion, her daughter’s vehicle was set on fire. There was no evidence found at either scene, so there were no arrests or investigations, despite Aguilar’s belief that she knew exactly who was responsible.
The worst, she said, was when her ex-husband began to fight for custody and prompted a Child Protective Services investigation.
Aguilar confided in her family members, but they too were afraid of him and did not want to get involved because they assumed she would eventually go back to him.
“I don’t know what I felt that I needed from my family, but for them to turn their backs on me and say, ‘Well, you’re not going to leave him, so why are you telling me?’ made me feel more alone,” she said. “They’ve seen the black eyes. I hid in their homes because he was drunk and I was scared.”
Abusers will isolate victims to prevent them from leaving, Dickens said. And they will show up to family member’s homes time and time again to cause problems, because sooner or later the victim will be turned away.
Hendricks said more than 20 percent of the city’s 100 top offenders are documented gang members or sexual registrants.
“They have a propensity for violence,” he said.
SAME PROBLEM, NEW APPROACH
“We are really dealing with our most vulnerable victims,” Hendricks said of the Stockton Police Department’s Family Crime Unit.
He is one of the two sergeants tasked with overseeing the division that handles child abuse, sexual assault, elder abuse, missing persons and domestic violence under its umbrella. His role is to focus on domestic violence and elder abuse.
“I’m of the opinion that domestic violence is the No. 1 crime our officers respond to,” he said. “Some calls may not be documented because (the officers) are just there to keep the peace.”
There are 12 detectives and two community services officers who make up the unit, but of those, only two focus on domestic violence. The investigators face the heavy and cumbersome task of divvying up the 4,400 intimate partner violence or domestic violence-related cases that come through the department each year.
“With two detectives, you can’t fully investigate everyone,” Hendricks said. “We kind of triage everything.”
Out of the 4,400 reports — an average of 12 a day — the detectives prioritize the about 1,700 felony cases they receive.
• “Has he/she ever used a weapon against you/threatened you with a weapon?”
• “Does he/she have a gun or can he/she get one easily?”
• “Has he/she ever tried to choke you?”
Officers can assess the victim’s risk level by asking these questions and if there are certain questions or multiple situations to which the victim has responded yes to, then the lethality protocol is triggered and the victim is put on a crisis line with the Women’s Center or District Attorney’s Victim Witness.
By putting the victim in contact with someone — whether they’re seeking services or not — they learn about the resources available to them, Dickens said.
Stockton police have been a great partner under the leadership of Hendricks, Puckett said. He is very involved and Stockton police conduct a thorough investigation to make sure that in every case the district attorney receives photos and 911 tapes, which help prosecutors make the right decision on how to charge a case.
“You’d think that’s common, but we don’t always get that (information),” he said.
The Stockton Police Department also is a pioneer in using the lethality assessment, Puckett added.
“I didn’t know what to expect when we first put that in,” Hendricks said. “I didn’t realize that approximately 65 percent of our incidents trigger the lethality protocol — much higher than what I thought.”
‘PLEASE LISTEN TO US’
Aguilar has been in therapy for the past several years. There are days when the verbal venom her abuser spat toward her still stings, but she said she has resolved to move on with her life.
“I’m not going to let him tear up my happiness that I built back up,” she said. “I got these wings and I got them for a reason and I’m not going to let nobody take them from me.”
Aguilar, who works with victims of trauma, has become a champion of women, particularly those from the Latino community and victims of domestic violence. Her belief is that women who’ve lived through domestic violence can and should help others.
Her plea to society, authorities, and victims’ family and friends is to be more understanding and less judgmental.
“When we do speak up, please listen to us without judging us,” Aguilar said. “Because that’s when we’re ready to talk.
“We may be ready or be getting to the point where we’re breaking out of it.”
This article was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2019 California Fellowship.