Domestic violence and the importance of red flag warnings for preventing homicide

Steven Lake murdered his family on
June 12, 2011 in Maine

Red flag warnings exist in most cases of domestic violence homicide. Just as in the case of Steven Lake, seen in his well-circulated arrest photograph, domestic violence has predictable consequences that afford law enforcement a window into the risk of escalating DV. By examining red flags, police have the opportunity to foresee the escalation of intimate partner violence. The timeline of domestic violence and the red flags that are present such as strangulation, any use of a firearm or forced sexual behavior are most common in the most high risk cases. The first given understanding is that DV is a secret, coercive and menacing problem that underlies many relationships, even those of law enforcement officers themselves. Advanced investigative prowess is crystal clear in hindsight. Lenore Walker has said that most family violence goes unreported and is cyclical. Police respond to the cycle after approximately 7 rounds of physical and emotional abuse when victims fear the safety of their children, according to Walker, a psychologist and expert on intimate partner abuse. When a potential victim is sure that her husband or family member will attempt to kill them than one may anticipate a higher level of risk than in a case of DV with physical abuse alone. The spontaneous disclosure of the expectation of death or being fatally beaten is a bold red flag – even higher than cases of pathological jealousy without mention of the fear of one-day being killed by a partner. Similarities exist such that tracking red flags will allow LEO’s on the scene to see for themselves the prevalent danger in many families and arrest men who are most abusive.  Having couples separate until cooler heads prevail does not work in lowering risk – in fact, it raises the level of danger in dysfunctional systems.

The police in Austin, Texas, here in the United States, are dealing with a horrific case of domestic violence homicide just this week in April 2021. A former Traverse County sheriff’s detective killed three members of his family while picking up his son for a monthly supervised visit. Stephen Broderick shot and killed his former wife, step-daughter and the girls boyfriend. He did this all the while he was coming to visit the 9 year old boy. Broderick fled the murder scene was captured 20 hours later. That Broderick was a police officer made this case of special circumstance.

The 16-year old child, who was among the victims, begged for a more restrictive supervision from her step-father who had been released from jail on lower bail and was not required to wear an ankle bracelet after a period of 3 months. The order of protection was brought against former police detective who was now unemployed. In spite of the protection order being in place, even the teen knew that orders of protection were often violated and difficult to monitor. It is reported that when victims believe that they will one day be killed by an intimate partner then the danger is real and should be considered a red flag. Having a child unrelated to the abuser In the household is another significant red flag. The analysis of any case of DV, that is heading toward a terminal event (domestic violence homicide), requires a careful review of symptomatic and behavioral research and observations of cumulative pre-incident indicators exhibited prior to the referenced homicides and suicide. In this case there was none offered.

“In the year that Amy Lake’s protection from abuse order was active against Steven, he violated that order at least five times but spent fewer than two days in jail for those violations, the report found. He also stalked her on Facebook, according to Diane Bowlby of the Bangor Daily News who was at the scene shortly after homicides.

Now nearly 10 years on, the psychological autopsy conducted in 2011, looked at the red flag warnings that are common to DVH everywhere. some I have described above. What brought my attention to the case in Maine was the purported prosecutorial impotence demonstrated by the district attorney Christopher Almy provided to local television. Almy said there was “nothing that could have been done” to protect the victim, Amy Lake and her two children, from her estranged husband Steven Lake. By saying there was nothing that could be done to protect the Lake family, the DA inadvertently undermined not only the police but the many agencies and medical professionals charged with drafting safety plans for victims of intimate partner abuse everywhere. In a similar way, newly elected county DA Jose Garza said he was “confident police did all they could to protect this family and he was incredibly proud of the officers” for the way they handled the Broderick case. More than one citizen comment in the newspaper questioned how anyone can be proud of a situation resulting in the deaths of 3 human beings? Given the outcome in both cases, and countless others, comments such as these strain credulity and fail to inspire.

On June 12, 2011, Mr. Lake snuck into the Amy’s rented home and staged a despicable murder scene ultimately killing the children he claimed to love while Amy was forced to watch. Ending with her shotgun murder and is own death by suicide – ending the Lake family timeline forever.

In an article on contingencies for bail in cases of domestic violence, attorney Nicole R. Bissonnette writes in the the Maine Law Review about the importance of thoughtful conditions of bail, especially among men who are found to have violated these conditions often by texting, stalking and using social media to intimidate and contact potential victims of extended family members. Her published paper adds that failure to relinquish all firearms must be reported to the federal database. Ms. Bissonnette cited our work over 12 times as it pertained to “red flag” warnings and bail reform. Bissonnette raised questions about protection orders and the need for added tools of enforcement for men who violate the protection from abuse orders (PFA) often called restraining orders.

In Maine, men who violate orders of protection are often released from custody with low bail or no bail. Steven Lake was twice released from jail on two thousand dollars that was paid by his father. We proposed increasing bail by a factor of ten on any violation of the stay away order and that a comprehensive review of possible high risk warning signs and psychological history be undertaken prior to release. Using a firearm in the commission of a domestic violence incident is defacto evidence of dangerousness and no bail shall be permitted until such time as all firearms are collected and a viable safety plan is in place for potential victims including police protection. The judiciary must sign on for this and understand the system of bail cannot be linear by assigning bail on the basis of criminal history alone.

The argument made by defense lawyers is invariably, that the lack of a criminal history defies precedent for holding men on large amounts of bail. This is illogical given the numerous red flags that were present in this case and Lake’s disregard for the law. In truth, Mr. Lake had never been arrested for his history of sexual crimes during the marriage, verbal threatening or anything until his final meltdown began. Tension boiled over on June 14, 2010, at the family home at 9 Brighton Road in Wellington when Steven allegedly brandished a gun in front of his family, threatening Amy and the man he accused her of having a relationship with, as reported in the Bangor Daily News. After that event, he was arrested and charged with criminal threatening for which he was heard to say that “he would never serve a day” in jail and that “the price of divorce is 28 cents – about the cost of one bullet.”  A comment that a court appointed psychologist might have wanted to better understand.

Lake slept with a pistol and holster hanging on his bed post. He posed with a rifle in his high school year book.  Steven was a gun guy and owned over 20 firearms. The criminal threatening occurred one year before he killed them all as the trial for criminal threatening approached and as the countdown to his divorce from Amy began ticking louder in his brain. None of his weapons were inventoried by police. Had he been held on high bail for each of the PFA violations and been properly assessed for his proclivity toward violence, he would have been unable to kill them one year down the road in 2011. Yet he had time to scribble over 10 suicide notes blaming everyone but himself for the deaths including the judge and his father-in-law, whom he promised to “see in hell.”  His father told us for the final report that if the judge had only let Steven see his 2 children for the 8th grade celebration, this could have all been avoided. Like his son, the senior Mr. Lake looked to redirect blame away from his son. Aside from visiting the school where Amy taught, the 2 hours we spent with Steven Lake’s parents were perhaps the most unsettling and sad of the nearly 200 hours and over 60 people who agreed to be interviewed. 

Fast forward 10 years. The setting is north central Texas. On Sunday morning April 18, 2021, in northwest Austin, law enforcement officials say Stephen Broderick shot and killed his step-daughter, Alyssa; her mother and his estranged wife, Amanda Broderick, 35; and Alyssa’s boyfriend, Willie Simmons III, 18. The 9 year old biological child was not harmed. 

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Stephen Broderick booking photo 2021

It is common for former intimate partners troll the social media accounts of family members in an effort to locate estranged spouse and her children who may be in hiding. Both Amy Lake and Amanda Broderick, the Texas mother of 3 expressed an interest in having children remain in contact with extended family, in spite of pending felony charges. Amy was keen to have her children see their grandparents (Steven’s parents) and have supervised visits with Steven.  A continuum of interagency cooperation is needed to effectively measure risk and understand the pre-incident red flags that are common manifestations of abuse and often forecast terminal violence, all of which occurred in the 2 cases in this report. As the totality of these red flags comes into focus it becomes incumbent upon each of us to take action on behalf of those most at risk just as we are mandated to do in cases of child and elder abuse. Amy communicated with her in-laws regularly via social media showing photos and posting life without Steven that he saw while trolling her account. In a similar way, Amanda Broderick wanted her son to maintain contact with his father Stephen.

Meanwhile, Ms. Broderick was said to have been sent over 30 text messages with a variety of intimidating sentiments about the upcoming trial yet she okayed supervised visits with their son, age 9. Any contact like this is a violation of the protective order and should have landed Broderick in jail. And they were sure to open up possible access to the jealous perpetrator to clues about current living arrangements, employment, after school activities, and other potential clues that raised the risk of further domestic violence and ultimately DVH. There were messages of deep felt sorrow and remorse as well, that are common in the cycle of abuse.

While awaiting adjudication of felony charges there must be no contact between children and violent perpetrator whatsoever. In Austin, the victim expressed a wish to allow her estranged husband to have contact with the little boy – his son, in spite of pending felony rape charges brought forth by the 16-year old step daughter who rightfully feared for her life. Amanda Broderick saw this as being in the “best interest of the child”. This remains a weakness in the overall safety plan and should have been denied by the family court.  It was unjustified given the fear expressed by the victims in this case, which ultimately were quite valid.

Firearms are a major cause of DVH and in every state are required to be taken from men with active protection orders in place. This was the default expectation in the two cases described here but in the case of Stephen Lake his arsenal of 22 firearms were not removed from his possession in spite of court orders. Similarly, the Austin killer was left with at least one firearm used to kill his family. Lake left 9 suicide notes many of which were rambling, angry tirades toward his wife and in laws. The Austin killer did not take his own life and was captured raising the specter of possible psychological analysis of his motives making the two cases very different at this level. To what extent Texas authorities will endeavor to understand the events that preceded the murders remains unclear. However, gaining a comprehensive understanding of the red flag warnings in this case is highly recommended and will add to the body of literature on domestic violence.

A court-sanctioned visitation agreement required them to maintain some contact to allow Broderick time with his son. In the application for a protective order, Amanda wrote that Broderick called her some 30 times after she left home to intimidate. She feared he would come after her and the children, she said, “because these allegations have come out and he may lose his career.” He could be dangerous, she warned. So why was the visitation permitted in the order of protection?

Why would a court order that an abused family be required to allow an accused rapist to have visits with a 9 year old child? It cannot be in anyone’s best interest to have forced visitation with a suspected violent and angry abuser. Did no one grasp these red flags? 

One could argue that the killer in Austin, Steven Broderick shared most commonalities with the Maine case ten years previously, including sexual violence, coercion, threats of death, pathological jealousy, violation of the order of protection, trolling social media and refusal to surrender his firearms. He was a cop. Broderick was a SWAT trained police officer who resigned his position after being arrested for sexual assault on his step daughter. He should not have had a firearm pending the outcome of his case. He was released from jail on partial bail because he did not have the funds for the bail that was set by the court. He should not have been permitted to visit with his biological son. The risk of violence as was easily foreseen given past behavior. In the same manner, Stephen Lake would never stand trial, and had a cheap divorce in mind early on. 

“Domestic violence is not random and unpredictable. There are red flags that trigger an emotional undulation that bears energy like the movement of tectonic plates beneath the sea.” according to Michael Sefton (2016).

  1. Threatens to kill spouse if she leaves him – pathological jealousy
  2. Actual use of firearm or other weapon anytime during domestic violence incident
  3.  Access to firearms even if he never used them – veiled threats
  4. Attempt at strangulation ever during fight
  5. Forced sex anytime during relationship
  6. Unemployment of perpetrator
  7. Stalking via social media
  8. Presence of unrelated “step”child in home
  9. Spouse finds new relationship soon after separating
  10. Low bail release from custody – high bail holds are essential in DVH mitigation

If you or someone you know is facing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence hotline for help at (800) 799-SAFE (7234)

Sefton, M. (2016) Blog post: DVH in MA: 4 year old child begs his father.  https://msefton.wordpress.com/2016/10/02/dvh-in-ma-4-year-old-child-begs-father-not-to-murder-his-mother/. Taken 4-25-2021

Allanach R. et al., (2011). Psychological Autopsy of June 13, 2011, Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicides and Suicide: Final Report 39 (Nov. 28, 2011), http://pinetreewatchdog.org/files/2011/12/Dexter-DVH-Psychological-Autopsy-Final-Report-112811-111.pdf.

Michael Sefton

Harlem domestic violence homicide calls for transparent psychological autopsy

The psychological autopsy is an individually designed case study that elicits a broad range of factual data regarding the behaviors of a decedent in the immediate day or days leading up to domestic violence homicide. The study is especially important when first responders and essential workers are involved all the while a pandemic ravages the city in which they live. Michael Sefton, Ph.D. Direct Decision Institute, Inc.

The recent domestic violence homicide in Harlem raises the specter of an essential city worker who killed his sister-in-law while his wife called for help. The police stopped the attack resulting in the death of Ubaldo Gomez but not before he shot and stabbed a women in the head with a kitchen knife. The fact is that domestic violence has increased during the pandemic as it does at other of life’s stress points. Did the fact that the alleged murderer was an MTA employee considered to be “essential personnel” have an impact on his mental health that may have been foreseen? What role, if any, did his role as an auxiliary police officer for the NYPD have in the terminal event? A psychological autopsy would answers these questions and establish a worst case scenario of frontline exposure to trauma and possibly offer insight into underlying history that may have been anticipated and stopped. Certainly the hierarchy at 1 Police Plaza will have an interest in this case. The Corona virus has added to risk of DV and DHV.

For too many women who are abused repeatedly during times of crisis there is no place to run and no one to keep them safe. Orders of protection are ineffective and without GPS monitoring and they are nearly impossible to enforce. In a 2011 domestic violence homicide in Maine, the protective order was violated 4 times by Steven Lake who killed his wife and children in Dexter before killing himself in June 2011. That alone was grounds to hold Lake without bail. No police agency removed access to his collection of over twenty firearms. The scene diagrams illustrate how Lake was armed with two firearms and a hunting knife. He murdered his children while forcing his estranged intimate partner to watch. It was thought that he planned a murder spree and he left 9 suicide notes. The final despicable act, as police arrived, was to attempt to light the bodies on fire.

In general, there is little interest in such a comprehensive post hoc psychological examination because there is no pending prosecution. Nevertheless, a psychological autopsy conducted on Lake in the Fall of 2011 revealed a clear timeline littered with red flag warnings that were missed or ignored. The research conducted in 2011 was done pro bono. It undertook over 200 hours of interviews and presented the Domestic Violence Review Board with over 50 recommendations for reducing high rates of domestic violence homicide in Maine (Allanach et al. 2011). The medical autopsy editorialized the case in its final report:

“Despite receiving some mental health counseling it is apparent, in retrospect that the degree of violence and anger possessed by the abuser was not realized.”                                                            Chief, Maine State Medical Examiner

This latest case in point involved an estranged wife, her sister, and the building manager in Harlem. The three were having dinner when someone armed with a firearm broke into the apartment. It was the estranged husband of one of the women. He was wearing his Metropolitan Transportation Authority uniform, and he had a gun according to the NY Post reports. In the meantime we have been told that the perpetrator was an auxiliary police officer and was licensed to carry a firearm. What triggered this paroxysmal violence? If it was foreseeable, then Mr Gomez should not have had access to his firearm.The psychological autopsy will address prior history of intimate partner violence, protection orders in place, work-related stress, recent health concerns related to the corona virus and Mr Gomez trauma exposure history, and his mental health in the days before the murder. 

Police officials said the transit worker, Ubaldo Gomez, shot his sister-in-law and stabbed her in the head with a knife, while his wife reached out for help. When Gomez refused to drop a 12-inch kitchen knife and tried again to stab the man, a police sergeant opened fire, killing him. In the end, there is always at least a single person who knows what is about to happen and often does nothing to stop it. A family member of Gomez suggested “he had some mental issue, something happened. He was always working day and night. He barely slept. He worked.” as quoted in the NY Post. Whether this duplicity and denial stems from cultural beliefs about the supposed “privacy” of DV, society must change the way in which law enforcement manages these cases. The buy-in from police, legislators, judges, probation, and the public-at large needs to be fully endorsed for real change to happen and for safety plans to work. Many states across America are planning to enact “red flag” rules that will remove weapons from individuals with a known history of domestic violence e.g. choking spouse during fight (Sefton, 2019).

Family members who may be in the crosshairs of these insidious events often see but lack the knowledge to stop the emotional and behavioral kinetics once they start. The fear of being murdered by an intimate partner creates emotional paralysis. In a large percentage of DV occurrences, financial and self-image influences as well as outright fear of the abuser by the victim limit moves toward safety. Therefore, a continuum of interagency cooperation is needed to effectively measure risk and understand the pre-incident red flags that are common manifestations of abuse and often forecast terminal violence, all of which occurred in this case. As the totality of these red flags comes into focus it becomes incumbent upon each of us to take action to prevent domestic violence threats from becoming reality (Allanach, et al. 2011).

It would seem to be vitally important that a transparent psychological autopsy be initiated to gain an understanding of the factual behavior that was observable and measurable in the days leading up to the murder especially given the likely unintended victim. Preliminary reports described Gomez as having a pattern of pathological jealousy and victim stalking. For her part, Gomez’ wife Glorys Dominguez called for help in the weeks prior to the terminal event seeking help.

Allanach, RA, Gagan, BF, Loughlin, J, Sefton, MS, (2011). The Psychological Autopsy of the Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicide and Suicide. Presented to the Domestic Violence Review Board, November 11, 2011

Sefton, M (2019) Violence prediction: Keeping the radar sites on those who would do us harm. Blog post https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/msefton.wordpress.com/5012 taken May 23, 2020.

Sheehan, K, Moore, T. Woods, A. NY Post May 21, 2020 https://nypost.com/2020/05/21/man-killed-in-nyc-police-involved-shooting-was-auxiliary-cop/?

Gender in peril

There are places in the world where intimate partner violence is pervasive. so pervasive that it Places the opposite gender in peril for 50% of the poor Places like Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Egypt, and the United States have excessive rates of domestic violence and domestic violence homicide. This week in Russia, three sisters await trial for the murder of their physically and sexually abusive father. He was murdered while he slept. In spite of having first-hand audio of his abuse the three young women face over 10 years in prison for the crime

While France has a progressive reputation and pushes for women’s rights around the world, it has among the highest rates in Europe of domestic violence, in part because of poor police response to reports of abuse. Many of the women killed this year had previously sought help from police.

Violence against women is a costly and pervasive public health problem and a violation of human rights according to a 2010 paper by the Population Research Bureau. “In Egypt, a third of women are physically abused by their husbands,” according to the 2005 Egypt Demographic and Health Survey (DHS). “Most victims suffer silently and don’t seek help to prevent or stop the violence because they think it is part of life or they are embarrassed by the abuse.” 

It is like that here in the U.S. as well. Victims undergo unbearable pressure to anticipate what triggers the violence they experience. Substance abuse adds to the unpredictable nature of the perpetrators. In some rural communities in Egypt and elsewhere, honor killings remain taboo and are often minimized as a “family matter”. When a woman falls in love with a man of a different religion she may face honor killing by her father or oldest brother who feels duty bound to revenge the dishonor brought by such behaviors. This is a significant problem here in the United Stages as well. In a recent article, a man in his taxi cab ran over his wife because he had a dream she was being unfaithful to him. There are over 25 honor killings estimated annually here in the U.S.

These are not isolated incident from third world countries. While I was working in law enforcement, one victim said to me that “she was beaten by her jealous husband for taking too long in the voting booth.” It was unacceptable to him that she visit with friends and neighbors she encountered while in line to cast her vote. He called her on the cell phone three times in 30 minutes which illustrates the coercive behavior and control seeking put upon victims of intimate partner abuse.

In the French Republic, French film and TV stars joined abuse victims and activists calling for an end to “femicide.” Many held banners reading “Sick of Rape.” Like many developed countries there is an engrained denial and secrecy about spousal abuse including rape. In parts of Africa, including Kenya, Tazania, and South Africa, domestic violence may reach 50 percent of girls over age 15. These figure illustrate the problem of gender inequality in the developing countries alike.

The protest in the French capital came on the U.N.’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and is aimed at pressuring the French government before it unveils new measures Monday to tackle the problem. A shift in egalitarian gender roles will take generations to take hold. Meanwhile, protection of girls and women should include safety planning, early intervention in public education, greater police response to physical violence, and a zero tolerance policy for violating an order of protection.

Domestic violence is a major cause of disability and death among women worldwide, and puts women at a higher risk for unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS. An undeniable double standard exists across the world when it comes to sexual violence and male infidelity. The incidence of honor killing remains a despicable happenstance in India, Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt and 5000 innocent girls annually.

The proposed intervention measures are expected to include seizing firearms from people suspected of domestic violence and prioritizing police training so they won’t brush off women’s complaints as a private affair. In late November, Time Magazine’s Angela Charleton featured a profile of intimate partner violence that is worth the read . However, countries like France, Saudia Arabia, and Egypt have a low rate of gun ownership so further study must but undertaken to understand the secret narrative that threatens an entire gender.

“…Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world,” said Eleanor Roosevelt.

More than ever women around the globe are now shouting out in private and public spaces, regardless of the possible backlash, “I am equal!”

“The term femicide was first coined in the 1970s to refer to gender-related killings. Femicide is not recognized in the French criminal code, but Marlène Schiappa, the junior minister for gender equality, said the recognition would be discussed in the coming weeks” described Laura Fourquet in a September 2019 NY Times article on the topic

PRB. (2010). Domestic Violence High in Egypt, Affecting Women’s Reproductive Health taken November 25,2019.

Investigating domestic violence, predicting danger, and containing the anger

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Domestic violence homicide results when victims decide to move on with their lives and inform a jealous, insecure spouse that they no longer want a relationship. October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. The risk is greatest when victims decide to leave. At first glance one might say “Lots of people break up and do not murder their spouse and family” according to Michael Sefton shown in the photo on the left. That is a fair statement but it happens enough in the United States and elsewhere that it must be considered. Last week in Massachusetts a family was murdered because one spouse asked to be let go and people were stunned that they saw nothing to warn them of what was brewing.

“Domestic violence is not random and unpredictable. There are red flags that trigger an emotional undulation that bears energy like the movement of tectonic plates beneath the sea.” according to Michael Sefton (2016).

At what point does a potential begin to wonder whether she and her children are safe? We are lead to believe that abusive intimate partners cannot be held in jail unless they are in violation of an order of protection, AKA: restraining order. Time and again, violent and abusive partners stalk and ignore orders of protection – especially using social media tracking software and trolling social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and What’sAp. It is all about control and instilling fear.

Restraining order’s are authorized by a district court judge who is on call night and day. They are not authorized unless substantial threat to the victim exists.  These orders are carefully crafted by investigating police officers whose reports highlight the exact nature of the violence and the reason the victim needs protection. “Protection orders are offered to the victim after the first sign of physical violence. It has been espoused that the police are not called until after the 6th or 7th episode of domestic violence” according to Sefton, 2016.  DV is a secret affair between members of a family who are often ashamed or embarrassed to come forward for help often until things gradually get worse – sometimes years into a pattern of violent dysfunction.

Research is clear that separating spouses for the night does not positively impact the level aggression and risk in the household as much as the formal arrest of the aggressor.  What usually happens is the police break up the fighting couple by sending the aggressor off to the home of a friend or family member – less often to jail unless there are obvious signs of abuse. Arrest is mandated by law when physical signs of abuse are apparent. It has become all too often the case that hindsight – taken seriously – may have saved a life. It is when they are attempting to leave that abuse victims are at greatest risk of death due to domestic violence as in the case of Amy Lake, a victim of domestic violence homicide whose case was carefully studied in the Psychological Autopsy of the Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicide (Allanach, et. al. 2011) that occurred in June 2011. Lake’s husband and murderer was heard to state that “if you ever try to leave me I will kill you”. 

In research conducted by this author and colleagues we learned that as soon as police leave the scene the risk for violence is increased. We interviewed a man who served 18 years for the murder of his wife and he described in vivid detail how he used nonverbal coercion to manipulate his wife while being interviewed by sheriff’s deputies in Maine. He admitted that as soon as the police were out of the driveway he strangled and drowned his wife for calling them.

In the end, there is always at least a single person who knows what is about to happen and often does nothing to stop it. Whether this unwitting duplicity stems from the cultural belief that what happens behind closed doors is “nobody’s business” or the conscious result of intimidation should not change the law enforcement intervention in these cases. Early incarceration provides access to a viable safety plan for potential victims and in some cases, will instill a desire for change in the violent partner. In the meantime, substantive buy-in from police, legislators, judges, probation, and society needs to be fully endorsed for real change to happen and for safety plans to work and violent partners to be contained. 


Allanach, RA, Gagan, BF, Loughlin, J, Sefton, MS, (2011). The Psychological Autopsy of the Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicide and Suicide. Presented to the Domestic Violence Review Board, November 11, 2011
Sefton, M (2016). https://msefton.wordpress.com/2016/07/20/the-psychology-of-bail-and-alternatives-to-incarceration/ Blog post: Taken October 9, 2019

Domestic Violence Awareness October 2019

Today, as we read about another family destroyed in domestic conflict here in the Boston area, I can imagine the images seared into the eyes of those who responded to the call finding 3 children dead along with their parents.  The Abington, MA police chief described the death scene in the Boston Globe as “something unimaginable”.  Some people are better equipped to handle horrific cases where death is on public display – perhaps even today’s horrific domestic terror attack here in Massachusetts. Others become impacted by the recurring images and how they are all the same after a while. Too many calls resonate with the officer’s personal well-being and safety leaving him or her constantly on guard. But over time – even the neurosurgeon – will become harmed by embitterment when his learned craft can do nothing to fix a leaking brain and his patient dies. Perhaps he feels that with updated equipment and training he may have been able to save the life?

This is what LEO’s face.  A loss of purpose in life and the unmitigated stench of a decomposing society over which they have no control and, too often, a internal command structure who does not know what it is like to be in a lonely barn at 2 AM and see the hanged remains of someone who, after 5 hours, would leave even the most hardened of us on our knees and wanting out.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. Cases such as today’s Abington murders often leave emotional tracers that can grow a database which LEO’s can utilize when investigating calls for service. Lives will be saved when society takes a closer look at red flag violence – these are the pre-incident indicators that violence and domestic violence homicide are at highest risk (Sefton 2018). Some behaviors are secretly guarded among intimate partners – as “nobody’s business”. Police officers must inquire and listen carefully to the victim who firmly believes her spouse intends to kill her. The underpinnings of her fear are generally spot on as in the case I that investigated in Maine using the psychological autopsy in 2012. For the cases with high likelihood of domestic violence homicide, greater care for victims must be initiated from the beginning before it is too late. It can be a hard sell, I know, but the reports we write must also be “spot on” when it comes to dangerousness, risk, and containment.

Sefton, M (2018) Violence prediction: Keeping the radar sites on those who would do us harm. Blog post: https://msefton.wordpress.com/2018/05/20/violence-prediction-keeping-the-radar-sites-on-those-who-would-do-us-harm/ Taken October 8, 2019

What is driving the killing: Update on the Myth of Mental Illness

After a spate of bomb threats and mass shootings there are still many myths about the attribution of these events and the underpinnings of violence.  The knee jerk reaction is to attribute the recent Thousand Oaks, CA nightclub shooting to a “crazed gunman” but that would unfairly place the blame on the mentally ill.  12 people were left dead in a despicable sequence of events during which the shooter Ian David Long posted that he had no reason for doing it except boredom.  In truth, most people with mental illness are not dangerous, and most dangerous people are not mentally ill.” Liza Gold, 2013. But Long had a history of violence and aggressive behavior that may have been linked to his service as a decorated US Marine. Published information suggests Long’s mother was terrified of making him angry out of fear that he would harm or kill her. Was Long’s terminal behavior attributable to mental illness or the result of traumatic events he experienced in the service of his country?
“Fact is I had no reason to do it, and I just thought….(expletive), life is boring so why not?”  Ian David Long via social media post (now removed)
Psychological experts believe mentally ill persons lack the higher order planning to execute the complex steps necessary for anything more than petty crime – more often associated with co-morbid substance abuse.  It is the co-occuring illness of drug or alcohol addiction that is a confounding variable in all police-mental health encounters.  “Doctors and scientists know that the perpetrators of such violent behavior including incidence mass shooting events are frequently angry young men, who feel they have been mistreated by society and therefore seek to exact revenge” described in a BBC the report Criminal Myths published in November.
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“Confounding variables such as a history of childhood abuse or use of alcohol or drugs can increase the odds of violence.” according to a BBC report debunking the belief that people who commit mass murder are mentally ill  by Rachel Newer in November, 2018.  The vast majority of cases are committed by a person or persons without mental illness.  In fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of crime and are not prone to violent behavior. The Thousand Oaks killer refused any mental health support and was not driven by demons
The interaction of substance abuse and mental illness is complex.  Persons with drug and alcohol addiction must be expected to become sober with the help of substance abuse treatment and family support. The risk of violence and suicide declines when sobriety can be maintained.  This is essential and will help to reduce officer involved use of force against the mentally ill substantially.  What to do?

Red flag indicators are often demonstrated in behaviors that are observable and measurable sometimes for weeks and months before the terminal event according to Michael Sefton, 2015.

The incidence of mental illness leading to mass shooting may be illustrated in the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings.  The Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho had been treated for depression and was hospitalized on an involuntary basis prior to the rampage in 2007. Cho exhibited a life-long pattern of withdrawal from interpersonal relationships. He was often nonverbal and did not respond to people who reached out to him including direct family members.  His mother prayed for God to transform her son.

I strongly believe that mental illness does not mitigate citizens from responsibility for crimes they commit. I agree that alternative sentencing may be a powerful tool to bring these individuals into treatment. The substantive goal of streamlining encounters between police officers and citizens who suffer with untreated emotional problems belies the mission of these gifted officers and can teach others the role of discretion in mental health encounters.

Ostensibly, building relationships with network psychotherapists, physicians, addiction specialists, court judges, and other support service like Child and Family Services is essential. This is the area of most vulnerability.  When LEO’s fully buy-in to the mental health – police intervention model including the use of de-escalation techniques there must be receiving facilities available to initiate treatment and keep patients and citizens safe. The development of a fully integrated infrastructure for jail diversion, intake, and providing for the needs of the mentally ill is certainly a work in progress.

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Washington POST photo

“And when it comes to mass shootings, those with mental illness account for “less than 1 % of all yearly gun-related homicides” a 2016 study found. Other studies indicate that people with mental disorders account for just 3-5 % of overall violence in the US”  – Paul Appelbaum, M.D. taken from BBC by Rachel Newer 11-1-2018


Nuwer, Rachel (2018) http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180509-is-there-a-link-between-mass-shooting-and-mental-illness taken 11-10-2018
Sefton, M. (2017) https://wordpress.com/post/msefton.wordpress.com/4561
Mentally ill American’s and their proclivity to act out against authority.
Washington Post (2007) Rescue and Recovery: A story of resilience that began with the scene in this photograph, Blog post: taken on April 16, 2007. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/local/virginia-tech-five-years-later/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.cd170ba2ac09 taken 11-10-2018
Sefton, M (2017) Police as crisis interventionist: CIT as it is meant to be. Blog post: https://wordpress.com/post/msefton.wordpress.com/3653 Taken 11-10-2018
Sefton, M. (2015) Unappreciated Rage: The Dissembling Impact of those living in the Margins. Blog post: https://msefton.wordpress.com/2015/08/27/unappreciated-rage-the-dissembling-impact-of-those-living-in-the-margins/ Taken 11-10-2018

Protecting the Victim’s of Intimate Partner Abuse: The aftermath of domestic violence homicide

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Victim passed this note to Veterinarian staff – Photo VCSD

“You can’t say that nothing can be done, because nothing will be done,” said Michael Sefton, a former Westbrook, Maine  police officer who is a psychologist and former police sergeant in Massachusetts at the New Braintree Police Department.

Bangor Daily News

Orders of Protection – Underpinning the Good Safety Plan

Many cases of domestic violence (DV) result in an order of protection being issued.  The protection order is based upon the personal report of the victim which is substantiated by police report and perceived risk and may be implemented 24 hours a day. The approval of a court judge or magistrate  is generally required for its issuance. This order requires that the abuser “stay away” from the victim and is based on the totality of circumstances presented to a district or family court judge at the time of arrest.  Police officers use report narratives to construct the details of the protection from abuse (PFA) or restraining order (RO).  Different states utilize differing nomenclature to define what is the substantive court directive that provides the underpinning of a victim safety plan. They are granted on an emergency basis for 24-48 hours and are sustained for up to 6-12 months following a review by the court.
What happens between the time the initial PFA is granted and when the victim is expected in court to chronicle his or her intimate partner violence is often a mystery.  Victims often fail to show for the initial hearing that allows the initial PFO to go away.  Why? In some cases they become intimidated by their violent spouse who has made promises to straighten up and fly right. This is the core dynamic of intimate partner violence and it is well-described in these pages and elsewhere.
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“Domestic violence is not random and unpredictable. There are red flags that trigger an emotional undulation that bears energy like the movement of tectonic plates beneath the sea.” according to Michael Sefton (2016).
In all states a protection order requires that no contact be made via telephone, through acquaintances, text messaging, or in person.  By violating a PFO requires that law enforcement make an arrest of the person in violation. This information becomes the grist of the underlying risk to the victim.  The marginalized abuser sometimes becomes obsessed with his loss of control and may take to cyber stalking in order to keep tabs on his partner.  As just mentioned any violation of the protection order renders the abuser subject to arrest and should require a high amount of bail before he is released from jail.  This is rarely the circumstance as violators easily make bail ironically blaming the victim as the root cause of the marital strain. These are the hubristic remarks of building tension and frustration described in the cycle of violence.
It is important to note that social media has given abusers extra means to “creep” into the privacy of estranged spouses without detection.  It played a significant role in the domestic violence homicide according to the psychological autopsy report of the Dexter, Maine homicide/suicide in 2011 (Allanach, R. et al., 2011).  Social media may also be used to intimidate and unfairly influence friends and family.
Bail amounts differ from state to state and sometimes even from county to county within a single state. The amount of bail should be high enough to inconvenience and deter the abuser from being tempted to coerce and manipulate his victim and family.  Most often the bail amount is low and inconsequential to the abuser who often has no criminal record.  However, changes in bail conditions and risk assessment must be integrated into orders of protection – especially when a single abuser has had more than one PFO filed against him. This sets the stage for measuring the degree of violence one might expect as the abuser becomes further marginalized and feels his control over the victim begin to collapse.  “Someone with a history, particularly a continuing history of violence, can be presumed to be dangerous.” according to Frederick Neuman, MD.
The order of protection belies the fundamental safety plan that is crafted by police and domestic violence experts and is designed to prevent further victim injury or death.

Sefton, M. (2016) Blog post: DVH in MA: 4 year old child begs his father.  https://msefton.wordpress.com/2016/10/02/dvh-in-ma-4-year-old-child-begs-father-not-to-murder-his-mother/. Taken 8-20-2018

Allanach R. et al., (2011). Psychological Autopsy of June 13, 2011, Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicides and Suicide: Final Report 39 (Nov. 28, 2011), http://pinetreewatchdog.org/files/2011/12/Dexter-DVH-Psychological-Autopsy-Final-Report-112811-111.pdf.

Neuman, F. (2012) Is it possible to predict violent behavior? https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/fighting-fear/201212/is-it-possible-predict-violent-behavior?collection=113345

The Agony of Releasing a Murderer

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Albert Flick is led out of the courtroom following his initial appearance in the Androscoggin County Court house in Auburn Wednesday morning. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)
 
There is no pleasure when a parole board must decide on whether to release or not a man who violently murdered his wife. Especially the case of Albert Flick – arrested in Westbrook, Maine in 1979 and convicted of the brutal murder of his wife. Mr. Flick asked not to be released perhaps out of some inner sense of foreboding and primal instinct of things to come – if such a thing exists among killers. He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing -underneath he is ravenous.
Fast forward to Sunday July 15, 2018 Albert Flick who had been released from jail for committing the violent murder of his wife again killed a woman with whom he had an infatuation. He had been stalking her for weeks prior to her murder.  He followed she and her two little boys from place to place in Lewiston, Maine.  She had an inner sense that he was dangerous but was fearful of going to the police at the time of her death. Yet she had spoken to friends about her worries. What may have prevented the victim from calling police when she first noticed Mr. Flick was stalking her? Why was she fearful of the very people charged with preventing violence? What may have happened if she had notified the officer on her beat? Or a police officer walking in her neighborhood?
The answer is that Mr. Flick would have had a visitor that in all likelihood would derail his infatuating behavior. If not, he would have had is parole revoked as it should have rightfully been done.  I was a police officer in Westbrook, Maine when Flick murdered his wife in 1979. I was on duty when the call came in to the station but as a junior officer was not dispatched to the scene. The scene was horrific even by todays standards of violence. Nevertheless, the case is well know to me as I later worked closely with the arresting investigator Ron Allanach and his partner Wayne Syphers – both exemplary career law enforcement officers.  Ron went on to earn his doctorate in counseling and was Chief of Police for 8 years at the end of his career in Westbrook. Both men were instrumental at convicting Albert Flick.  Flick is shown in the 1979 photograph below being taken to court in Portland by Detective Syphers who made a heroic effort to save the life of the victim. The female victim ultimately died in his arms in 1979.  Albert Flick should have remained in jail for life and many in law enforcement who remember the case are agonizing over  his release after serving 20 years.
“Clearly, probation is not working. … At this point, I just don’t know what else to do. I think there’s a huge safety risk to women and society when it comes to Mr. Flick.” Prosecutor Katherine Tierney, 2010
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Albert Flick with Det. Wayne Syphers (right) at Cumberland County, Maine trial in 1979
Flick was known for a proclivity for violence against women. After being released from his murder conviction Flick was arrested for chasing an intimate partner with a screw driver with intent to due harm. There would be other charges and other arrests that were red flags for the underlying anger he felt toward woman.  A group of us will reach out to Mr. Flick in the coming months for a sit down.
The female victim, Kimberly Dobbie, in this 2018 Lewiston, Maine case had felt threatened by Flick. Her instincts were keen as it related to his potential for violence against her. But she told only her friend and no one else.  She was 30 years his junior and had spurned his love interest. She had twin children who were present during the despicable killing and are traumatized having witnessed their mother’s death. In his book “The Gift of Fear“, Gavin deBecker espoused the value of trusting our primal instincts as they pertain to our personal safety.
Flick had been in and out of prison for crimes involving intimate partner violence and intimidating female witness who were courageous in coming forward against Flick. At some point he himself reported asked to be kept in custody.
“You can’t say that nothing can be done, because nothing will be done,” said Michael Sefton, a former Westbrook police officer who now works in Massachusetts for the New Braintree Police Department.
Keep Me Current, 2011
The judge who authorized Flick’s release is retired from the bench but his stated opinion for releasing Flick was that “he had aged-out and was no longer criminally inclined” yet he himself asked to remain behind bars.  Why?
Technically this was true, Flick no longer fit the stereotypic picture of a repeat murderer.  He was older and physically growing infirm.  Most men who commit domestic violence homicide do not recidivate once released from prison especially those over the age of 70.  While researching a case of family murder-suicide, I have spoken to a man who served 18 years for strangling his wife who was released and became a model citizen and amateur photographer. He published a book of his photographs that were quite good – even sensitive.  This man was not a risk and was somewhat younger than Flick.  So by all reasonable judicial standards Flick was considered a low-risk release. Probation would keep him in line.  Not so fast, information was available from his first release that included repeated violence against women raising a red flag of potential violence in the future.  Plus the horrific nature of the stabbing murder in 1979 was not a factor in the release conditions once he had served his time. Finally, there is also information that suggested that Mr. Flick did not seek his own release as reported above. He may have been institutionalized with the simmering anger he himself expected would again leach from his despicable soul.

Desperate Victim’s plea for help

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Victim passed this note to Veterinarian staff – Photo VCSD

WESTBOROUGH, MA  June 6, 2018 A case of domestic violence unfolded on Memorial Day weekend in Volusia County, Florida when a female victim was being held by her live-in boyfriend. The note implores staff members of the DeLand Animal Hospital to call police because her partner was threatening her and had a gun.  These kinds of desperate measures occur occasionally and are dramatic and newsworthy. The staff at the DeLand Animal Hospital are to be commended.  But there are intimate partners everywhere who live in fear just as the indomitable victim who passed this note had been living.

“From coast to coast LEO’s are caught in this moth eaten, patchwork system that lacks resources for both the mentally ill and those addicted to alcohol and drugs.” Michael Sefton, Ph.D. 2018

As the story goes, her boyfriend had beaten her and was refusing to allow her to leave the couple’s home.  To her credit (perhaps life saving) she convinced the man that she needed to bring the dog to the veterinarian.  He agreed but would not allow her to go without him. Upon arrival this note was passed to a member of the hospital staff who knew just what to do.  The man is now behind bars being held without bail – manning his defense.

There is a consensus among experts in domestic violence that victims are abused multiple times – often threatened with death – before they call police for help.

As a society, more needs to be done to fill-in the holes in the system designed to keep families safe.  Safety plans and orders of protection are not enough.  From coast to coast LEO’s are caught in this moth eaten, patchwork system that lacks resources for both the mentally ill and those addicted to alcohol and drugs. The holes in the system allow for violence prone individuals to allude police and coerce victims into silence.  But every once in a while, a silent victim writes a life saving note and gives it to the right person.

Domestic violence happens in family systems that are secretive, chaotic, and dysfunctional.  This lifestyle pushes them into the margins of society – often detached from the communities in which they live.

The abusive spouse makes his efforts known within the system by his barbaric authoritarian demands.  He keeps his spouse isolated as a way of controlling and manipulating whatever truth exists among these disparate family members.  The consequence of this isolation leaves women without a sense of “self” – alone an emotional orphan vulnerable to his threat of abandonment and annihilation.

Successful intervention for these families must slowly bring them back from the margins into the social milieu. Arguably, the resistance to this is so intense that the violent spouse will pull up stakes and move his family at the first sign of public scrutiny.

Police officers are regarded as the front line first responders to family conflict and DV.  For better or worse, the police have an opportunity to effect change whenever they enter into the domestic foray.  This affords them a window into the chaos and the opportunity to bring calm to crisis.  In many cases, the correct response to intimate partner violence should include aftermath intervention when the dust has settled from the crisis that brought police to this threshold.  When this is done it establishes a baseline of trust, empathy, and resilience.

Community policing has long espoused the partnership between police and citizens.  The positive benefits to this create bridges between the two that may benefit officers at times of need – including the de facto extra set of eyes when serious crimes are reported.  But the model goes two ways and requires that police return to their calls and establish protocols for defusing future events meanwhile processing and understanding the current actions of recent police encounters. When done effectively the most difficult families may be kept off the police radar screens for longer periods of time that can be a good thing when it comes to manpower deployment and officer safety.