Investigations

They were killed by people they once trusted. What can Idaho do to prevent more deaths?

‘Don’t cry, don’t cry,’ is what this grandmother thought while protecting her grandchild during a violent attack

Juli Flowers, Kym Larsen's mother, describes the moment she decided to find the strength to drag herself into the room where her grandson waited to have his diaper changed — despite her right knee being slashed open — to protect her daughter's baby.
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Juli Flowers, Kym Larsen's mother, describes the moment she decided to find the strength to drag herself into the room where her grandson waited to have his diaper changed — despite her right knee being slashed open — to protect her daughter's baby.

It’s hard to keep track of the murdered women. There are so many.

There was Kymberlee Larsen. Lora Skeahan. Jaclyn Zabel. Kelly Pease. Annita Harmon. Amparo Godinez Sanchez. And, this month, Heidi De Leon.

They had their own stories. They lived in quiet suburban neighborhoods, in the middle of farmland or in a trailer park. One had a newborn, some had teenagers or stepchildren. Two were stabbed, the others shot.

In all their deaths, a common thread: A man they once trusted took their lives, and the killing didn’t come out of nowhere.

Victims advocates told the Statesman that there’s no magic wand to wave that will reverse the tide of domestic violence in Idaho, where state mortality data show homicide is among the top 10 causes of early death for women. But there are changes we can make, they said.

“This is not something that can be solved just by police, but the entire community,” said Kelly Miller, who leads the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. It will take “hard truth-telling about our culture and how we celebrate violence,” she said, mentioning Gillette’s recent viral video on masculinity.

At least 13 Idaho women have been killed since 2017 by their boyfriends, husbands or exes in cases that had clear risk factors, according to a rolling tally by the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. The real number is higher; that count is based on reports in news outlets that included details about the couple’s history.

One woman told police, years before her partner killed her, that she “felt safer staying hidden from him.”

Another woman told a friend before she died that she’d tried in vain to get legal protection from her ex-husband.

That woman — De Leon, of Meridian — learned last month that her ex-husband, Edward Epps, had threatened to kill her and her new husband, and then kill himself.

The afternoon of Jan. 6, he did just that.

Seeking protection

Epps charged into the Meridian home De Leon shared with her new husband. He had two guns.

Epps fatally shot the adults, then began a standoff with police, holding two children in the house. He eventually let the children go and killed himself.

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Law enforcement and other first responders lined Black Cat Road in response to the shooting of Heidi De Leon and her husband in Meridian. Nicole Blanchard

De Leon had sought help from authorities months earlier. She called Meridian police in March, but the officer “could not substantiate a crime and referred her to seek a protection order and an amended child custody order,” the Statesman previously reported.

Miller said the De Leon tragedy is an example of the justice system’s limited ability to keep a man from killing a woman.

The “first few days” after a major event — the woman leaving, a court hearing over a dispute, filing for divorce — are the most dangerous, Miller said.

“Which is why having emergency shelters and transitional housing, and all the ways we can help protect individuals” are important, she said.

Miller recommends that domestic violence victims reach out to community-based groups like Faces of Hope and the Women’s and Children’s Alliance in Ada County, or Advocates Against Family Violence in Canyon County. They’re trained to help make safety plans, find shelter and provide things a woman may have to leave behind, such as toiletries and clothes and diapers.

But Miller and a Boise lawmaker said this week that changing how women are treated on a day-to-day basis, and teaching children from a young age about healthy relationships, is one of the best paths forward.

Jaclyn, age 29, killed May 28 in Canyon County

Jaclyn Zabel talked to police at a North Idaho hospital in 2014. She told them how her husband, Ian Stone, had beaten her in front of their children.

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Jaclyn Zabel with one of her children. Zabel was shot to death in late May by her boyfriend, who then killed himself, authorities say. Provided by Dawn Jantzen

It wasn’t the first time Stone was accused of abusing a romantic partner, Statesman reporter Ruth Brown found in court records. His ex-wife told police in 2007 that he attacked her during an argument — slapping her, grabbing her arm and dragging her, pinning her and putting his hands on her throat. Stone was arrested on felony domestic battery charges but pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic battery.

He again was charged in 2015, after Zabel’s report to police. Back then, one of Zabel’s friends told police that she was “afraid Stone would get his gun,” and police noted that Zabel was “genuinely afraid for her safety ...”

Stone pleaded guilty in that case to misdemeanor disturbing the peace and destruction of a telecommunications line. A judge ordered him to take domestic violence classes.

Stone, 37, fatally shot Zabel on May 28, and then turned the gun on himself.

Idahoan Jaclyn Zabel was killed by her boyfriend of 9 years. Her mother, Dawn Jantzen, spent years in an abusive relationship. Jantzen now worries about her grandchildren.

Abusers can get away with it

Stone’s misdemeanor pleas illustrate how abusers often aren’t convicted of serious crimes in Idaho.

An Idaho State Police report on domestic violence between 2009 and 2015 found, based on court records, that more than one-third of domestic violence charges were amended or pleaded down — mostly to disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct charges, which are misdemeanors.

In its report, ISP suggested “additional research examining prosecutorial decision-making in domestic violence related cases ... to help explain this consistent trend.”

One often-cited complication is that victims may be too afraid to cooperate in a criminal case, or they may not be ready to leave the relationship.

Of the attempted strangulation charges that weren’t pleaded down or amended, most were dismissed, the ISP report says. Ada County dismissed about 99 of 268 attempted strangulation charges. Canyon County dismissed about 88 of 182 during those years.

Why does that matter? Attempted strangulation is one of the clearest warning signs that the victim is in mortal danger. When a woman has been choked by her partner, she is seven times more likely to be killed than if she’d suffered another kind of physical abuse, a 2008 study of hundreds of cases concluded.

The state does offer special “coordinated family services” courts in some counties, where families in domestic violence cases are assigned to one judge and court coordinator to oversee their progress. Those courts helped or gave referrals to 1,500 victims in fiscal year 2017.

Lora, age 48, killed July 5 in Kimberly

Lora Skeahan’s boyfriend had beaten her before. Police went to her home on May 30, after a neighbor called to report “yelling and thumping sounds coming from the house,” according to the Magic Valley’s Times-News.

Skeahan told police she had been arguing with her boyfriend, 65-year-old Paul Mueller. She said he pushed her down the stairs, breaking her wrists, according to the Times-News.

“She said that Mueller got angry and physically aggressive with her about once a month,” the newspaper reported.

Mueller was arrested and charged with felony domestic battery. Two weeks later, he was charged again with violating a no-contact order by calling and visiting her.

Five weeks later, Mueller shot Skeahan to death in a home in Kimberly. Mueller then turned the gun on himself. The coroner ruled the case a murder-suicide.

Would it help to change one law?

Closing a loophole in state law may have saved one Idaho woman’s life.

Amparo Godinez Sanchez was attacked by her husband, Erasmo Diaz, in July 2008. He was angry that dinner wasn’t waiting when he got home from work. The couple’s daughters tried to intervene, but he punched one of them, grabbed a bag holding three handguns and threatened to shoot the women, the Statesman reported.

Amparo Godinez
Amparo Godinez Sanchez Provided by Judy Diaz

Diaz was charged with three felony assaults but pleaded them down to misdemeanors. Authorities took his guns. But after he completed probation, he got them back.

Federal law bans people with domestic violence convictions from owning guns. But the state can’t enforce federal law, and Idaho doesn’t have a corresponding law. So there was nothing to stand between Diaz and his guns.

While the Statesman was not able to determine whether Diaz used one of those guns to kill Amparo Sanchez, he shot her to death at their home in Wilder in June 2015. Diaz fled and remains at large.

“We’re not going to just be another family with a victim’s story,” Amparo’s daughter, Laura, told the Statesman in March 2016. “We’re going to pursue and see where we can shake some trees and get people really thinking there really is a problem out here.”

One person willing to help with that was Idaho Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise.

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“We’re not going to just be another family with a victim’s story,” said Laura Diaz, right. At left is sister Judy. Katherine Jones kjones@idahostatesman.com

Wintrow drafted legislation to close the loophole, somewhat. Her bill would place a temporary ban on gun ownership for people convicted of any type of domestic violence. The federal ban is permanent.

Despite an opinion from the Idaho attorney general that the legislation did not violate the Second Amendment, the bill failed last year by a 39-31 vote, with 20 Republicans joining the 11 House Democrats in support of the measure.

“I’m continuing to work, trying to draw allies and support” for renewed legislation this year, she told the Statesman on Thursday.

“You’re not going to lose your firearm forever,” she said. Just long enough to “provide an opportunity for someone to leave.”

Miller said the measure is one of the “real solutions” to keep women from being murdered by their current or former partners.

“Guns have been involved in almost all the intimate partner fatalities in our state,” she said.

Melissa Wintrow
Melissa Wintrow

Another solution is to invest in education and victim support, Wintrow said.

“At the policy level, we should be directing resources and funds to the community,” she said. “As a state, we do nothing to fund those programs. Nothing.”

She added, “We need to be working in public schools on what a healthy relationship looks like, (such as) not crossing over physical boundaries. ... We certainly can do some programs to start elevating this issue early on.”

Kym, age 22, killed March 27 in Nampa

Kymberlee “Kym” Larsen had been with her boyfriend, Evan Bashir, for about a year. They had a 3-month-old son, Donovan. Her family knew Bashir and watched him support her through pregnancy and the birth. The couple seemed simpatico.

But something changed in early 2018. He became verbally and physically abusive, her family told the Statesman last year. Then he put his hands on Larsen’s throat one morning.

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Kymberlee Larsen Provided by Canyon County Sheriff’s Office

“That was the day we took her out,” her mother, Juli Flowers, said last year.

Larsen took the baby and moved into her sister’s home in Nampa. That’s where Bashir showed up unexpectedly on a Tuesday morning in March. He attacked Larsen, her mother and her sister with a machete and a knife. Larsen’s mother and sister survived, with serious injuries. Larsen died there, after she asked whether Donovan was safe.

Police who responded to the scene killed Bashir.

Baby Donovan now lives with Larsen’s older sister.

The family, like Sanchez’s, told the Statesman last year that they hope their tragedy can bring about change in Idaho and help prevent another death.

“We would like our situation to bring an awareness of (domestic violence) and take it seriously, and help anybody you know of to get out of a situation,” Flowers said.

Statesman reporters Ruth Brown and Katy Moeller contributed.

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Need help?

The local Domestic Violence Hotline is available at 208-343-7025 through the Boise Women’s and Children’s Alliance.

Faces of Hope in Boise also provides services and advice for domestic violence victims and their families. Call 208-577-4400 or go to facesofhopevictimcenter.org.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-7233.

Are you in danger? Here are the signs

While there is no way to predict behavior, these are warning signs of heightened danger in a relationship. Bold type indicates an increased risk of death.

1. History of domestic violence including forced sex, attempted strangulation or physical abuse during pregnancy.

2. Threats to kill you or any children or others such as parents and friends.

3. Threats of suicide by the abuser.

4. Recent separation from the relationship or separation from employment.

5. Obsessive, controlling or coercive behavior — monitoring everything you do and everywhere you go. Extreme possessiveness and stalking.

6. Prior police contact, for domestic violence or other criminal behavior.

7. Alcohol or drug use by the abuser

If any of those factors are present, immediately talk to an advocate about your safety. A combination of these factors increases the likelihood of death. However, even if none of these factors are present, it does not mean you are safe. If you are worried about your safety, do not hesitate to get assistance.

Source: Idaho Risk Assessment of Dangerousness – Lethality or Future Harm

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Watchdog reporter Audrey Dutton joined the Statesman in 2011. Before that, she covered finance policy in Washington, D.C., during the financial crisis. She also worked as a reporter in Maryland, Minneapolis and New York. Audrey hails from Twin Falls.
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