It's a headline depressingly familiar enough so that a reader can often predict the turning points of the newspaper story. “Divorce.” “Custody dispute.” “Restraining order.” “Police were called.” “Neighbors say...” Here in Maine, a state that averages 27 homicides a year, we've been rocked this past week with two of these gruesome stories. The first was reported on June 6 by Mark LaFlamme of the Lewiston Sun Journal:
Winslow man kills wife in front neighbor's home, then self after high-speed chase on Interstate
GRAY — A woman was shot and killed by her husband in Winslow on Monday night, and he committed suicide after a chase with police that ended in Gray, Maine State Police said late Monday.
State police identified the couple as 30-year-old Sarah Gordon and 32-year-old Nathaniel Gordon, both of 4 Marie St. She was shot on Marie Street and he fled the scene in his car, police said.
State police say that the husband chased his wife down the street and shot her and killed her in front of a neighbor's house. The shots were witnessed and heard by neighbors, which were reported to police.
Nathaniel Gordon shot himself inside his car after police put down a spike mat, causing him to crash along the Maine Turnpike, roughly 100 yards from Route 26, shortly after 9 p.m.
Sarah and Nathaniel Gordon were the parents of a son and daughter, ages 8 and 9. The children were placed in the custody of a grandparent Monday night, according to police.
...This was the seventh homicide this year in Maine and the third homicide related to domestic violence, according to police.
According to Maine's Attorney General, roughly half the murders in in our state each year are related to domestic violence. In Maine, unless you're living with your killer, you're safer than you are in any other state in the union.
Agencies like the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence have been working aggressively to lower the state's most significant non-drug-related crime problem. They provide law enforcement training, general education, advocacy for victims, and encourage the exchange of information between DV groups, medical responders, and police. The approach works: MPBN reports the rate of domestic violence in Maine was down for the third year in a row, according to the recently-released crime statistics of 2010.
The statistics for 2011 may be quite a bit grimmer. The headline in Monday's Bangor Daily News:
4 dead in Dexter; Police: Man shot wife, 2 children before killing himself
DEXTER, Maine — A Harmony man who was upset that he had not been allowed to attend his son’s eighth-grade graduation later this week shot and killed his estranged wife and their two children Monday before committing suicide, Maine State Police said.
The bodies of Steven Lake, 37, Amy Lake, 38, and their children Coty, 13, and Monica, 12, were found in the living room of the first floor of a house at 173 Shore Road, according to Maj. Gary Wright of the state police. It appeared all had died from shotgun wounds, he said.
“It was clearly a domestic violence homicide,” Wright said.
The Lakes had been feuding for the past year and were in the process of getting a divorce. Steven Lake was scheduled to be tried in Piscataquis County Superior Court in July on four charges, including criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon and domestic violence criminal threatening.
--Diana Bowley, BDN Staff
Maine isn't the only place now seeing an increase in these nightmarish stories. In Portland and Philadelphia, in Salt Lake City and Scotland, domestic violence is sharply up, fueled in part by the economic stresses of the long recession. Couples are strained by financial woes, left hopeless by unemployment and trapped together in unsellable houses.
So what can you and I do about this? There's donating money or supplies to shelters, of course, but what else? The Maine Attorney General's Office has some thoughtful suggestions: establish a domestic violence policy at your workplace, to assure victims they will receive practical help if they come forward. Find unconventional intervention points: the hairdressers, the grocery store, the library. Our local elementary school has domestic violence information posted in the nurses office, and will take reports from parents picking up kids. Become a mentor to boys and girls, helping to break the generational patterns of violence. Be a good neighbor – keep your eyes open for signs of abuse and be the person willing to make a call. A local officer came to the Lake's house because someone on her street was worried that she hadn't seen Amy Lake or the children. In this case, it was tragically too late, but at another time, the “nosy neighbor” could save a life.
Finally, I wonder what I and my fellow crime fiction writers can do in response to stories like the Lakes' and the Gordons'. I believe one of the great strengths of our genre is to report unflinchingly on current social ills. I think the first in-depth information I ever had on the meth epidemic or international sex trafficking or identity theft came from crime fiction. But portraying domestic violence poses a challenge to mystery writers, precisely because it is so unmysterious. There are no red herrings and alibis, only rage and control and violence. I don't have any answers as to how to make a compelling whodunnit out of this all-too-prevalent crime. But I know I'll continue to ask myself the question.