Mara H. Gottfried, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published January 25 2014
Minnesota domestic violence homicides spike in 2013
Matula’s family never thought she would be on a list of people killed by domestic violence.
Even when the young Eden Prairie woman was missing, her mother believed she might be hurt somewhere and unable to get help.
“There were no signs. I didn’t think he could do that,” Lisa Matula said of her daughter’s ex-boyfriend, the last person Mandy Matula was seen with. “I never gave up hope for Mandy, though — never.”
Mandy Matula’s body was discovered nearly six months after she’d disappeared — she’d been shot and buried in a shallow grave.
Matula, who would have turned 25 on Jan. 14, is one of the people listed in the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women’s 25th annual femicide report. The report, to be released Tuesday, includes the names of 37 Minnesotans killed last year in domestic violence situations.
Of last year’s victims, 24 were women in which the suspected or convicted perpetrator was a current or former partner. The other 13 were men who were believed to have been killed by a current or former partner, or while they were trying to help someone in a domestic violence situation.
Between 2003 and 2012, an average of 18 women a year were killed in domestic violence cases, according to the coalition’s past femicide reports. During that same period, there was an average of 102 total murders a year in the state.
‘Really horrific homicides’
In 2012, there had been 14 women killed by domestic violence. Last year, there were not only more homicides, but “really horrific homicides” that got intense media attention, said Susan Neis, executive director of Cornerstone, a violence-prevention agency that serves suburban Hennepin County.
Liz Richards, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, said she couldn’t recall a year with as many homicides in which the bodies had been missing before being found, including the Matula, Kira Steger, Danielle Jelinek and Anarae Schunk cases.
“We have a tendency to want to think domestic violence happens to certain people … and if there was anything that came out of this horrific parade of horrible homicides, it really opened a lot of people’s eyes that this could be your family member or someone you know,” Neis said. “I think we relate to people who maybe come from similar backgrounds — you look at the person and say, ‘That could be my neighbor’ or ‘That could be my sister.’ ”
Cornerstone’s Day One program facilitates the Minnesota Domestic Violence Crisis Line, a statewide program, and in May noticed an increase of calls to the phone line, Neis said. There were 12,000 calls last year, an increase of about 550 from 2012.
“Without a doubt, when these things happened, calls to crisis lines peaked; people were seeking much more information,” she said. “I think people were much more vigilant, and people were interested in how they could help.”
Fathers in tears
When someone is killed, people can’t do much but mourn. But when a body is missing, that can galvanize people to search.
Large groups of people, including strangers, turned out last year to search for the missing women. Steger, a 30-year-old St. Paul woman, was last seen Feb. 21, and her husband was quickly charged with murder, but her body remained missing.
Jodie Leko never knew Steger but felt compelled to search for her and ended up being the key planner in 38 organized searches for her.
“I thought, ‘You don’t do that to somebody and then throw them away somewhere,’ ” said Leko, of St. Paul. “It enraged a lot of people that someone would do that to another person.”
Leko said she’s lost friendships when she’s tried to help close friends leave domestic violence situations; what happened to Steger “sparked something in me that I could do something.”
At the searches for Steger, many of the most passionate people were fathers. Leko said she thinks they thought to themselves, “That could have been my daughter.”
“They were there in their hunting gear and their warmest clothes, crying as they’re talking to me,” Leko said of the searchers who also hadn’t known Steger.
A barge worker spotted Steger’s body May 8 in the Mississippi River in St. Paul. Jeffery Trevino was convicted of his wife’s murder and sentenced to 27½ years in prison.
If concerned, speak up
Leko thinks Steger’s homicide and other killings last year created a heightened awareness about domestic violence and “a comfort level to talk about it, that it isn’t so much a taboo.”
Steger’s was one of seven domestic-violence-related homicides in St. Paul last year, half the total of 14 in the city. The share in St. Paul has been lower in past years — two domestic-violence-related homicides of 14 in 2012 and three of eight in 2011.
“Any number is too high, but I think 2013 was an anomaly for us,” said Assistant St. Paul Police Chief Bill Martinez. “In some of the cases, we had little or no previous contact with the victim or the suspect. There’s a myth out there on domestic-related homicides that there’s always a track record, that police have been called many, many times, but that’s not always the case.”
Police know that a critical time is when someone is leaving an abusive relationship, Martinez said. Research has shown that people are at increased risk of being severely harmed or killed during that time.
Steger had told family members she planned to leave. Trevino wanted to patch things up.
Martinez, who previously headed the homicide unit, said he recalled times when police notified families about a homicide, and relatives would say, “I wish I would have said something,” or “There was something about him I didn’t like, but I didn’t want to be disrespectful.”
Martinez continued: “If there’s verbal, physical or emotional abuse, we tell people that they’ll never regret saying something, but what they will regret is if they don’t say something and there is a homicide.”
‘Are you safe?’
Cornerstone, the violence-prevention organization in Bloomington, rolled out an initiative last February called “Ask To Help.”
The campaign “suggests that the answer to breaking the cycle of domestic violence is really a question,” according to a description on the Cornerstone website. “A question asked with sincerity. ‘Really, how are you?’ ‘Are you safe?’ ‘Do you need to talk?’ ‘Can I offer you some resources?’ ”
The initiative was not motivated by last year’s homicides, but Neis said, “I think that sadly the circumstances of the many, many homicides made the campaign very timely. … Last year, you heard friends and family saying, ‘Why didn’t I know?’ … Sometimes knowing is a matter of simply asking the question.”
After a large number of homicides in the first part of 2013, the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women convened a group of more than 80 people, including law enforcement officers, prosecutors, legislators, and advocates for domestic-violence victims, said Richards.
“We felt like we needed to do something and we asked, ‘Are there things we can do to make it better?’ ” said Richards, who added that they came up with more than 20 potential initiatives.
Though most ideas did not require changes to state laws, two bills have been filed for this legislative session, Richards said.
One bill would give domestic violence victims the right to be notified about what ZIP code the offender is living in when he or she is released from incarceration. The other would give law enforcement more time to arrest domestic violence perpetrators when he or she has left the scene before officers arrive; it would remove the 24-hour time limit to arrest people who don’t have warrants in misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor domestic abuse cases.
Family: Mandy resisted ex-boyfriend’s control
Lisa Matula wears a necklace that holds her daughter’s Eden Prairie High School class ring, which was found with Mandy’s body. On the necklace is a heart pendant with a purple stone.
Purple was Mandy Matula’s favorite color, but it’s become significant for another reason. “We realized later that it also stood for domestic abuse,” Lisa Matula said.
Matula’s family is sure there hadn’t been physical violence between her and David Marshall Roe, 24, her former boyfriend, before she was killed. But it became apparent when she was missing that something hadn’t been right, Lisa Matula said.
“A lot of that possessiveness I didn’t realize until afterward, until I got her phone and started reading her text messages,” she said.
Matula and Roe had broken up but were still friends — they talked with each other constantly, Lisa Matula said. But Roe was jealous, according to Mandy’s mother and brother, Steven.
“Mandy wouldn’t allow Dave to control her,” Lisa Matula said. “More and more, he was saying, ‘What are you doing? Who are you talking to?’ ”
Mandy Matula — who’d played softball at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, loved life, and was outspoken and independent — wouldn’t stand for a guy giving her a hard time, Steven and Lisa Matula said.
They think she was going to tell Roe they couldn’t be friends anymore and that she was going out with another man that coming weekend.
“She’s always been honest with him, and I think she told him and he flipped,” Lisa Matula said.
Ex-boyfriend kills self
On the night of May 1, Mandy Matula’s father heard her arguing on the phone with Roe, and Roe picked her up about 11 p.m., Lisa Matula said. Her daughter left without her cellphone, keys or wallet. Lisa Matula thinks Mandy didn’t intend to leave the driveway, but ended up getting into Roe’s vehicle and going to nearby Miller Park to talk.
Roe told Lisa Matula that Mandy got mad and started walking home. The family’s theory is that Roe intercepted her in the parking lot of a nearby church and shot her. During searches for Matula, a unfired bullet that came from Roe’s gun was found in the lot.
When Matula wasn’t home the next morning and didn’t report to work at Eden Prairie Parks and Recreation — she was never late to anything, her mother said — her father reported her missing to police.
Lisa Matula said she called Roe, and they talked on the phone and exchanged text messages. That afternoon, when police summoned Roe to the station for questioning in Matula’s disappearance, he fatally shot himself in the parking lot.
Roe had bought a gun the week before, Matula’s family said police told them. “I still don’t want to believe that this was planned,” Lisa Matula said recently.
Advice: If the person is possessive, get out
Searches for Mandy Matula went on until her body was found in October. Steven Matula, who Lisa Matula said had always been the quieter of her two children, became his family’s public face — talking to the media to keep his sister’s story in the forefront. He started a Facebook page, Minnesota United, to coordinate searches for his sister and other women missing at the time.
The page remains active and Steven Matula posts about other missing person cases, including Anarae Schunk, 20, who was last seen in Burnsville on Sept. 22. Her body was found with stab wounds by the side of a rural Rice County road Sept. 30. Schunk’s ex-boyfriend and his girlfriend, the last people Schunk was seen with, have been charged in another homicide; the Schunk case remains under investigation.
When Mandy was missing, Lisa Matula shut down her business of 26 years, a day care. She’d previously worked as a waitress and got a waitressing job in September.
“I miss Mandy like crazy, and I work a lot because it’s the only time I don’t think about her because I’m busy doing other things,” Lisa Matula said.
Attending a vigil for victims of domestic violence in October made Lisa Matula realize “how much violence is out there,” she said.
If Lisa Matula could give people advice, it would be this: “If the person is very, very possessive of you, get out. There’s help out there for people. With Mandy, we would have never thought we needed anything like that because there were no signs before.”
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.