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Common themes connect domestic murders, experts say


Domestic-violence experts Anne Acker and Heather Keller see connections again and again in the roughly 60 domestic homicides they've reviewed as members of the York County Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team.

"There are common themes that run through all the cases," said Acker, director of Safe Home, a domestic-violence program of the YWCA of Hanover.

Perhaps the most common are that domestic killers must exert power and control over their partners, that they're incredibly insecure and that a large percentage of them were either abused or witnessed abuse as children, the women said.

They isolate their partners and, despite that, accuse their partners of cheating, according to Keller, legal advocacy director for Access-York and the Victim Assistance Center.

Domestic killers also be very charming, Acker said, and not all of them physically abuse their partners prior to killing them.

"Just because you're not being beaten up doesn't mean you're not in danger," she said. "Twenty percent of victims killed in domestic murders had no prior known history of physical abuse."

Ultimate loss of control: And a situation can quickly become volatile when a controlling partner is served with court papers, whether those papers are for divorce proceedings, custody matters or protection from abuse orders, the women said.

"It's the ultimate loss of control," Acker said.

Three-quarters of domestic murders happen as the victim is in the process of leaving the controlling partner, according to Acker, which is why she and Keller always urge potential victims to work with agencies such as Access-York and Safe Home to establish individualized safety plans.

"He's going to have to up the ante to keep control over her," Keller said.

Domestic murderers often try to lure their partners to a location by saying, "I have money for our kids" or "Let's talk finances" or "I just want to talk," according to the women. Because victims have little self-esteem and have learned to disregard their instincts — and because they have been isolated from family and friends — they sometimes agree.

"Then it turns fatal," Keller said.

Lethal scenario: And the more controlling the partner is, the more dangerous he is. Acker and Keller use the term "centrality of the victim" to refer to how some partners must control every aspect — every move — of their partners' lives.

"That, to us, is the most lethal (scenario)," Acker said, because killing a mate is the ultimate last act of control.

Dangerously controlling partners who commit suicide over a breakup, but who don't murder their mates, are still exerting domination over the situation, according to the women.

"That's also a last act of control," Keller said.

Acker said one the most surprising realizations she's had is that domestic abuse isn't always about, or necessarily about, physical violence.

"It's truly about power and control," she said.

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com.