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This column is one in a series of commentaries this year in The Blade on violence in the Toledo area, and possible solutions.
In the wee hours of last Christmas morning, as dozens of friends and relatives packed a lobby of Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center, Wendabi Triplett lay dying. Five bullets had ripped into her neck, arms, and abdomen. In a nearby waiting room, her mother, numb and dazed, felt as though she were dreaming.
At 1:40 a.m., Ms. Triplett, 41, became Toledo’s 35th homicide victim of 2012 — and the 14th caused by domestic violence.
“Wendabi did all the right things — all the things we tell victims to do,’’ said Denise Boyer, coordinator of Lucas County’s Domestic Violence Resource Center.
But as with many other victims of domestic violence, Wendabi Triplett was killed by a man consumed by jealousy and fury, and an inept system that failed to protect her.
In the nine hours before she was shot, Ms. Triplett was watching her back.
At about 2:15 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Robert F. Carter dialed the medical records department at Northwest Ohio Psychiatric Hospital. Ms. Triplett, a health information technician at the hospital, was finishing her shift when she heard the phone ring.
The Caller ID read “unknown.” She hesitated, fearing it was her estranged husband, who had stalked her for months. Then she picked up the receiver and heard Carter’s voice.
Carter was furious. Months ago, Ms. Triplett had moved her family to a location unknown to him. And that morning, she had changed her phone number to elude Carter’s endless calls and texts. The family Carter had wanted to build with her and her three children had slipped away.
“This is it,” Carter said, and Ms. Triplett hung up.
Carter’s words echoed in her head for hours. At a holiday party at her mother’s house that evening, she tried to relax, nibbling on meatballs and crackers with cheese dip.
“She was pretty shaken,’’ her mother, Leslie Hayes, told me last week. “She didn’t know how to take what he said. She said no one was helping her. She was just going to have to watch her back.”
Ms. Triplett left her mother’s house in West Toledo at about 11:30 p.m. to drive to another nearby get-together at a close friend’s house. She took her two youngest children, Keisha, 17, and Walter, 15; and her brother, Marvin.
She felt anxious, but she didn’t want to worry her children. Riding in the car, she kept the conversation light. They talked about Keisha’s new tattoo.
Nearing her friend’s house, she circled up and back before parking. It was a routine she had practiced for months to make sure no one was following her.
Cars filled the driveway, so Ms. Triplett parked on the street. She and Keisha got out on the driver’s side, while Walter and Marvin exited on the other side.
Then a car pulled up, and a man Walter recognized as Carter got out on the passenger’s side. There were two, maybe three, others inside the vehicle.
Shots rang out and Ms. Triplett collapsed next to the car as her daughter screamed.
Carter, 43, of Toledo turned himself in on Christmas Day at the Public Safety Building. Charged with aggravated murder, he’s set to go to trial July 22, said Sgt. Joseph Heffernan of the Toledo Police Department. Now in Lucas County jail, Carter declined my request for an interview.
City homicide data
If you asked people in Toledo what’s driving homicides and violence in their city, most would say drugs or gangs. That’s true in Chicago, where police estimate that 80 percent of the city’s 532 murders last year were gang-related. But it’s not true in Toledo.
The Toledo Police Department has only one detective assigned to domestic violence, compared to 18 officers in the gang unit. Yet, for all the police resources and media hype heaped on gangs, they accounted for only seven of the 36 homicides reported by Toledo police last year. Meantime, domestic violence caused 14 homicides, or more than a third of the total.
Maybe domestic violence is still a dirty little secret that forces us to look inside the supposed sanctity of our homes — and in the mirror — instead of at some other group of people that society already demonizes, like young men of color.
Toledo police received 2,860 reports of domestic violence last year. They issued more than 1,700 charges — nearly 300 felony warrants and more than 1,400 misdemeanor arrests. Police also reported more than 350 violations of protective orders.
No doubt, the way communities and police departments view domestic violence has changed a lot — but not enough.
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Thirty years ago, police officers typically responded to domestic calls by separating the couple for the night; police usually didn’t make a report.
“We put a Band-Aid on it,’’ former Toledo police Chief Michael Navarre, who now heads the Oregon Police Department, told me. He joined the Toledo police force as a rookie in 1977.
“The boyfriend or husband would take a walk or find another place to stay for the night,” Chief Navarre said.
That changed in the 1980s with mandatory reporting. Arrests are now mandatory with violence, or the threat of violence.
But police officers still lack adequate training in domestic violence. Victims still struggle through a tangled and sometimes unresponsive legal and social service system, where they risk further violence and the loss of their children.
People still ask why a woman remains in an abusive relationship. They don’t know that her greatest risk of harm, or even death, comes after she decides to leave.
Ask victims like Sheila, 50, who just moved out of Bethany House in Toledo, a long-term 16-unit shelter for battered women and their children. Sheila stayed with her boyfriend for nearly six months after he started beating her — twice putting her in the hospital for broken ribs and rape.
“He said, ‘I’ll kill you before I let you go,’” Sheila told me.
When she decided to leave, he locked her in the house. To escape, she jumped out of a window. Sheila stayed at Bethany House for 10 months, while she enrolled in GED classes, got a car, and found a job.
In a high-profile case this year, Kaitlin Gerber, 20, of South Toledo maintained a relationship with her former boyfriend, Jashua Perz, during the weeks before her murder. Perz, 29, of Maumee gunned down Ms. Gerber in the parking lot at Southland Shopping Center on March 24 after he chased her car down. Later that day, he killed himself with a shot to the head.
It’s almost certain that Ms. Gerber, fearing for her life, was playing for time, looking for a safe way out.
Ms. Gerber’s murder generated big-time media play, triggered criticism of a legal system that failed to protect her, and prompted a move to establish a designated domestic violence docket in Toledo Municipal Court.
It also left the friends and family of Wendabi Triplett, who was African-American, wondering why her murder, similar in many ways to Ms. Gerber’s, was virtually ignored by the public and media. The differences touched a nerve with many in the African-American community. Some wondered why Ms. Triplett’s life was considered any less important, or the suffering of her family and friends any less real.
Did race, class, age, or whatever, have anything to do with it? Probably. As a journalist, I’ve seen double standards in public response, media coverage, and community concern for white and black, city and suburban, rich and poor, throughout my career. Either way, though, both cases show how hard it is for any woman to leave a dangerous relationship, and how little the criminal justice system protects her.
Ms. Triplett, known as “Dabi” to her friends, and Carter were married less than two years. She quickly tired of Carter’s street life and gambling habit.
They were an odd couple. She was outgoing, bubbly, vivacious, friendly, a “social butterfly.” Carter was quiet, uncommunicative, and “different.”
Ms. Triplett considered Carter a poor example for her children, though he was good to them. He bought them gifts, took them to school, and attended Walter’s Mid City League football games.
“He spoiled us,” Walter told me. “Anything we wanted or needed, if my mom couldn’t get it, he got it.”
Ms. Triplett’s friends and family are certain Carter never physically abused her while they were together. She wouldn’t have tolerated it. Dabi, they said, didn’t take stuff from anyone.
Last summer, she put Carter out of the rented house they shared in West Toledo, though she would still give him a plate if he stopped by.
“She actually cared about Rob and what was going to happen to him,” said close friend Yolanda Brown of Toledo. “She had tried everything, but he didn’t want to change his lifestyle.”
Carter wanted more. In daily text messages and calls, he continued to harass, and sometimes threaten, her.
In October, Ms. Triplett tried to get a restraining order but couldn’t, family members say, because Carter had not exhibited dangerous behavior.
At the end of October, during the middle of the night, Ms. Triplett moved her family to a rental house in South Toledo to keep Carter from seeing her and her children.
But the texts and calls continued.
On Nov. 5, Carter drove to the parking lot of the hospital where Ms. Triplett worked, allegedly pulled a gun, and threatened her three children, who were inside her car waiting for their mother. Carter demanded to know where she was.
Walter called his mother from the car. Ms. Triplett’s oldest son, Leonard, 21, got out and exchanged words with Carter. Someone in the parking lot yelled. Carter bounced. Toledo police and hospital security arrived minutes later.
That day, Ms. Triplett filed a police report. Carter was charged with aggravated menacing and domestic violence.
That’s when she learned that Carter has a lengthy police record, including felonious assault, petty theft, carrying concealed weapons, disorderly conduct, and receiving stolen property. From 1989 to 1996, he served almost seven years in Ohio state prisons for felonious assault, state officials say.
Ms. Triplett got a protection order from the court. Carter was moving around the city. Relatives say Ms. Triplett gave police as much information as she could: The license plate number of the Mercury Grand Marquis he drove, the casinos he hung out at, addresses of friends. Still, police did not locate Carter until nine hours after she died.
With only misdemeanor — not felony — warrants out on him, Carter was probably not a high priority for police, even in a smaller city like Toledo. Still, he did pull a gun on Ms. Triplett's kids and demanded they tell him where she was. That should have tipped police off that Ms. Triplett was in serious danger.
Her children continue to struggle with their mother’s death. Walter, a freshman at Rogers High School who lives with his mother’s mother, is doing better in school. He wants to earn a master’s degree. Walter told me he tries not to think about his mother’s death, but his somber eyes say more than his words.
On Jan. 2, hundreds of people attended Ms. Triplett’s funeral at Indiana Avenue Missionary Baptist Church. Northwest Ohio Psychiatric Hospital plans to erect an engraved bench near an entrance in her memory.
“She loved life and she loved people,” her friend Yolanda Brown said. “She would always be there for you. No one had anything bad to say about Dabi.”
Steps to take
Toledo will never eliminate domestic violence, but the community can alleviate it.
A proposed designated domestic violence docket for Toledo Municipal Court would help law enforcement, the courts, and social service agencies better coordinate their efforts. One judge with special expertise — ideally working with a designated victim advocate, prosecutor, public defender, and probation officer — would handle a case from start to finish.
Nearly 60 percent of the roughly 1,500 domestic violence cases resolved last year in the Toledo court were dismissed, often because a victim failed to appear. A victim may fear for her safety, or she may genuinely care about the man and not want to cause him trouble.
All police departments should do what Oregon police do: Assume that the victim will not cooperate after the initial call and gather evidence thoroughly at the scene.
In Oregon, officers trained in domestic violence photograph the crime scene to document any signs of a struggle, such as a knocked-over lamp or fallen picture. They record statements from victims and witnesses, and also get photos of the victim the day after the beating, when injuries are often most apparent.
Equally important, Toledo must maintain enough shelter space for battered women. The city has only one long-term shelter, Bethany House, which always has waiting lists, Executive Director Kathy Griffin said. Still, Bethany is losing thousands of dollars in federal grants, partly because the city is focusing those resources on short-term shelters.
City officials must show more flexibility in awarding shelter grants. Helping the victims of domestic abuse become independent takes time, but it’s an investment the community must make to protect battered women.
Finally, men must change the culture, recognizing violence against women as the cowardly and despicable act it is.
Domestic violence — much of it hidden behind locked doors and our own refusal to acknowledge and confront it — won’t go away. Whether it will continue to account for a larger share of the city’s violence and homicides than drugs or gangs depends on us. The memories of Wendabi Triplett and Kaitlin Gerber demand that we do better.
Jeff Gerritt is deputy editorial page editor of The Blade. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6467. Follow him on Twitter @jeffgerritt