Family killings frustrate domestic violence groups

Flowers at the Short family's house
The Short family case debunks a myth that domestic abuse only happens in impoverished communities, advocates say. The family lived in a $2 million mansion and Brian Short was the CEO of a company.
Jim Gehrz | The Star Tribune via AP

The killings of a Lake Minnetonka family apparently by their husband-father led Becky Smith to a sad, familiar duty — updating the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women's count of domestic violence deaths.

On its Facebook page, her group posted smiling images of Karen Short and her children Cole, Madison and Brooklyn under its "Live Free without Violence" banner, part of a year-old public awareness campaign to recognize the lives of victims.

For family advocates and law enforcement, it was a grim reminder of how consistent the numbers are in Minnesota — and how hard it is to change them.

The battered women's coalition counts between 20 and 40 domestic violence killings each year. The Shorts' deaths pushed the number of "intimate partner" family killings to 20 in Minnesota so far this year. Last year, 23 people died in intimate partner homicides. In 2013, the number was 38.

"There was a moment in August where we had to raise the 'Live Free Without Violence' flag four weeks in a row," said Smith, the battered women coalition's program manager. "We ask people to put these materials in the public eye so they can then generate conversations."

Public awareness campaign
Karen Short and her children Cole, Madison and Brooklyn are being honored as part of a year-old public awareness campaign to recognize the lives of victims of domestic violence.
courtesy of Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women

The "Live Free Without Violence" suggests public agencies, businesses and individuals place flags, banners, window decals or social media photos in the public eye for one full week after a death is reported. Membership grew from about 80 participants to 500 this year.

Of the 20 victims, five women died by murder-suicide. In addition to Karen Short, the campaign has honored Lanaea Harrison, Esther Muchina-Dobie, Carol Alexander-Pickart and Shelley Walley.

Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women Executive Director Liz Richards said she's often surprised and disturbed by the public's astonishment with domestic violence homicides when they happen in their own communities. More than 62,000 victims of domestic violence seek help each year in Minnesota, she said.

"It says to me to me that there is a disconnect," Richards said, "that people know about domestic violence but they think that it's happening somewhere else."

The Short family case debunks a myth that domestic abuse only happens in impoverished communities, advocates say. The family lived in a $2 million mansion and Brian Short, a former nurse, was the CEO of a company.

Each domestic violence homicide case presents unique circumstances, but many share a common theme: male perpetrator, intimate partner, female victim and a firearm.

But advocates haven't been able to point to one indicator that explains why domestic abuse turns deadly. It's a complex issue, which Richards said, makes it "very difficult to look at how you make this stop."

Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell has seen three domestic violence homicides in his St. Paul suburb this year. He said some of the cases are simply not on the radar because police haven't had prior contact with the family.

Schnell and the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, along with other groups, are studying a proposal similar to a California law passed last year that allows family members or law enforcement to petition the court to take guns away from individuals who may be at risk of harming themselves or others.

The restraining order against gun possession is not a "magic solution" but a mechanism that may reduce the number of domestic homicides, Schnell said.

"We begin to ask the question if that gun had not been present in the home, would we have had the same outcome?" Schnell said. "Certainly there are other instruments of lethality, knives, etc., but the gun becomes something that is a game changer."

The proposal is one of a number of items on the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women's public policy legislative agenda. While optimistic about its potential, Richards has concerns about how well the law would be enforced to ensure the abuser never has access to firearms.

It's a similar challenge to tweak order for protection laws to keep victims safe. Under the law, abusers cannot legally obtain firearms, which Richards says sometimes discourages victims from filing the orders.

"One of the things we will sometimes hear from some victims is 'I would get an order for protection but if it's going to implicate his ability to go hunting, I think it's going to inflame things and I don't want to go in and get relief then,'" Richards said.

Although 25 percent of the reported domestic violence homicide cases so far in 2015 in Minnesota have been murder-suicide, it's rare when compared to all homicides and all suicides nationwide, according to Metropolitan State University Criminal Justice Professor James Densley.

Murder-suicides account for less than 0.1 of every 100,000 people, according to Densley's research. That number compares to four homicides out of 100,000 and 12 suicides out of 100,000 people.

"If you look at it just as a subsection of intimate partner homicide, perhaps it's not as surprising ... that so many murder-suicides occur in those domestic situations," he said.

Murder-suicide trends have consistently shown that the perpetrator is male, Densely said. But they often don't show a history of domestic violence, drug abuse, alcoholism or unemployment like other suicide cases.

"What you see with murder-suicide is maybe some degree of feeling a sense of helplessness and that the suicide is the route out," he added. "But also you don't want to leave those troubles with the family and so it is the murder of the family which lifts the burden from the perspective of the murderer and they take their own life to do the same thing."

A spokesperson for the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office says police are still investigating the Short case. The funeral for the family is set for Sunday with visitation at 2 p.m. and service at 4 p.m. at Grace Church in Eden Prairie.

Clarification: An earlier version of the story said the rate of murder-suicides was 0.1 of every 100,000 deaths and 12 suicides out of 100,000 fatalities. The story above clarifies that the measure is out of 100,000 people, not deaths.

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