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Which domestic abusers will go on to commit murder? This one act offers a clue.
Meredith Cooper, of San Antonio, Texas, and her 8-year-old daughter, Heather, visit a memorial of 26 metal crosses near First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Monday Nov. 6, 2017. The gunman of a deadly shooting at the small-town Texas church had a history of domestic violence. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)
By Rachel Louise Snyder
Rachel Louise Snyder is an associate professor at American University and author of the forthcoming book “No Visible Bruises: How What We Don’t Know About Violence Can Kill Us.”
November 16, 2017
In 2012, while stationed at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, Devin Patrick Kelley assaulted his wife and stepson. Kelley was subsequently convicted of domestic violence and released early from the Air Force.
One important detail of the attack: In addition to fracturing the child’s skull and hitting and kicking his wife, Kelley strangled her. If the particular severity of his violence had been better understood and recognized in New Mexico, 26 people, including a 17-month-old baby named Noah, might not have been killed in Sutherland Springs, Tex., this month.
Strangulation inhabits a category all its own in domestic violence as a marker of lethality. A kick, a punch, a slap, a bite — none of these, though terrible, portend homicide like strangulation does. And while the link between mass shooters and domestic violence is increasingly recognized in the public arena, articles and op-eds, strangulation as a specific sign of lethality in the context of domestic violence remains largely unknown.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission recognized strangulation as a marker of dangerousness in a 2014 report and recommended increased prison time — up to 10 years — for those convicted of it. Indeed, 45 states now recognize strangulation as a felony. New Mexico, where Kelley was convicted, is not one of them.
Kelley, as we know now, served just one year for the assault on his wife and stepchild, after which he was discharged from the Air Force for “bad conduct.”
Bad conduct is going 80 in a 55 mph zone. Bad conduct is cutting down your neighbor’s azaleas or flirting with your colleague’s wife. Bad conduct is not engaging in an act so violent that it could take the life of another human being.
Omar Mateen , the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooter, had also choked both his wives and was never charged, let alone prosecuted. He and Kelley should not have had access to guns, true enough, but more to the point, they should have been behind bars
The list goes on. Take Cedric Ford , who in 2016 fatally shot three of his co-workers and injured 14 others in Kansas, but prior to that was charged only with misdemeanor domestic violence for choking his ex. Then there’s Esteban Santiago. He killed five and injured six in a shooting at the Fort Lauderdale Airport early this year. He, too, had been charged with a misdemeanor after strangling his ex. (Kevin Neal, who killed his wife and four other people in Northern California this past week, had a history of domestic violence, though it’s not clear if that included strangulation.)
Gael Strack, chief executive of the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention in San Diego, says the mere presence of strangulation in a situation of domestic abuse increases the chances of homicide sevenfold. It is a clear trajectory from escalating violence to homicide, of which strangulation is the penultimate act. “Statistically, we know that once the hands are on the neck, the very next step is homicide,” Strack said. “They don’t go backwards.”
Casey Gwinn, president of the Alliance for Hope International and a co-founder of the Training Institute for Strangulation Prevention along with Strack, wrote in an email to me that Kelley “was a rage-filled domestic violence strangler and child abuser who had left every possible lethality marker for a mass shooter we know of in plain sight.”
Yet strangulation, as a signal of dangerousness, is not only overlooked by most law enforcement officers and prosecutors, it’s not always recognized by health-care workers. Symptoms can appear days or months afterward. Victims are regularly released from emergency rooms without undergoing CT scans or MRIs. Most strangulation injuries are not visible enough to photograph, and police often don’t know to look for other signs — including urination, slurred speech, redness around the eyes or scalp, a hoarse voice or trouble swallowing . As a result, injuries are played down in police reports and commonly noted as mere scratches or redness around the neck, according to a study by Strack of 300 nonfatal strangulation cases. Many victims have poor recall of events — often a result of loss of consciousness from the strangulation. In fact, a person can be strangled in less than 12 seconds and never stop breathing.
What do mass shooters and terrorists often have in common? Global Opinions editor Karen Attiah explains. (Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome, Karen Attiah/The Washington Post)
It wasn’t that Kelley operated under the radar; it was that authorities failed to see and then act on the clues he was leaving.
So, while we’re offering up theories as to Kelley’s motives — he was an atheist, he was a liberal, he was mentally ill, he was a loner, he was a weirdo — we can also consider this single fact: He was a strangler.
He was a strangler whose violent act was described as “choking” in the report on his 2012 assault. Law enforcement officers may not have known about strangulation as a marker of dangerousness the night they were called to his home. Or they may not have known how to look for the signs of strangulation. Perhaps they had never been trained. Perhaps they dismissed the call as just another “domestic” in a long string of frustrating domestics. Whatever happened that night, because Kelley was not charged with nonfatal strangulation as a felony, he was not prosecuted accordingly. And because he was not prosecuted accordingly, he was not sentenced to the 10 years he could and should have gotten in prison, where he would remain today. And because he was not in prison, he was out in the world with the rest of us: a dangerous man, legally free and simmering.
“You can hear her screaming,” the woman told the 911 operator. “He over there jumping on her. You can hear it through the walls about cheatin’ and I just need somebody to come check on her.”
The woman continued: “You can hear her through the wall. He over there beatin’ the hell out of this girl.”
The 911 operator, Christin Saint Pierre, typed into the Milwaukee Police Department’s dispatching system.
She left out key information, an internal investigation later found.
Because of that, officers were slow to arrive and unclear on where the screaming was coming from. They drove through the complex with their windows rolled down and then parked for 10 minutes to watch for any suspicious activity.
They never left their squad car.
A day later, concerned family members contacted police. Their loved ones, 26-year-old Amarah “Jerica” Banks and her two young daughters, Zaniya and Camaria, were missing.
They were found a week later after their killer fled to Memphis, Tennessee, and confessed to his father. Arzel Ivery, the ex-boyfriend of Banks and father of Zaniya, had strangled them at their home before burning their bodies at his apartment garage about four miles away.
Ivery, 27, was sentenced to life in prison this month, with a judge calling his crimes “horrendous.”
Banks’ family had concerns with how police handled the case right from the start when they filed the missing person report.
“I was pretty disgusted,” said David Fields Jr., Banks’ brother. “I don’t think the police followed through at all. I blame some of this on them.”
He believes police could have made it there in time to save Banks or her daughters. He did not know about the internal investigation into the actions of the 911 operator and officers until a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter told him about it.
“I still think they need to be held accountable,” he said.
Homicide detectives looked into earlier child’s death
The murder of Banks and her daughters began with another death.
Arzel Ivery Jr. died Jan. 24, 2020.
He was 21 months old.
The toddler, Banks’ only son, had a history of asthma, which his mother meticulously monitored. Police and medical examiner’s reports described what happened the last day of his life.
On Jan. 23, 2020, she was home with her three children. Ivery had been staying with them after a fire at his apartment.
Banks noticed her son displaying some symptoms. She had plans with her sister that night. As she left, she told Ivery to watch their son closely to see if his condition worsened.
Banks stayed overnight at her sister’s and went right to work the next morning.
Back at the apartment, Ivery got the children ready for school. When he tried to drop off his son for day care, a staff member stopped him and said the toddler was too sick to attend. The girls went to school as usual.
Ivery called off work and spent the day with his son, later telling detectives the child had some trouble breathing, but “it was not anything unusual,” according to a police report.
Around 3 p.m., Ivery put his son, who was making slow gasping sounds, in the car and drove to pick up the girls. By the time he arrived, the boy was slumped against the door.
At the day care, an employee told Ivery to take the child to a hospital. Instead, Ivery drove around for an hour and stopped to buy snacks before finally heading to Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital.
By then, the toddler had stopped breathing. A nurse could not find a pulse.
Medical staff notified Milwaukee police of the boy’s sudden death and homicide detectives interviewed Ivery and Banks, who had left work after Ivery called to tell her he was at the hospital.
Detectives asked Banks about any violence at home or if her son had been injured recently.
No, she replied.
There had been violence before, she told the detectives, but that was years ago.
In 2018, Ivery was arrested in a domestic violence case involving Banks.
Prosecutors did not file charges against him.
A neighbor sees a desperate run while another calls 911 for help
Arzel Jr.’s funeral was Feb. 7, 2020.
After the service and a family gathering, a relative drove Banks and her daughters home after midnight.
The relative saw Banks and the girls entering their apartment building before driving away.
Ivery had been working that night and returned around 1:30 a.m. when he and Banks got into an argument. Banks blamed him for their son’s death.
Shortly before 2 a.m., a neighbor woke to the sound of three or four thumping sounds from the wall she shared with Banks.
The neighbor went closer to the wall to listen and heard a woman scream: “No, no, I didn’t even do anything.”
Then she heard a man yelling and accusing the woman of cheating. She called 911 and walked into the living room where another woman was sitting.
The man next door was “beatin’ the hell out of this girl,” she said, while on the phone with 911.
The other woman in the living room heard a noise and looked out the window. She saw Banks running through the parking lot without shoes and wearing a white memorial T-shirt for her son. Banks was bleeding from her mouth, the woman later told detectives.
The woman watched as a man grabbed Banks and dragged her back to the apartment.
Both the woman on the phone with 911 and the one watching from the window later told police they heard Banks screaming the same thing.
“Don’t kill me.”
Call coded as lower priority, no mention of a beating
The 911 call came in at 1:51 a.m. Feb. 8.
The operator, Saint Pierre, classified it as a Priority 2 call that did not require an immediate response — a decision multiple department officials later said was wrong in an internal investigation into the police response.
She described it as a general “call for police,” not a battery that was in progress.
She did not pass on that the caller shared a wall with the neighbor.
Instead, she wrote the sound came from a building to the south of the caller, even though the caller said it came from the north. Saint Pierre later said she made that decision after questioning the caller about nearby streets to determine a more precise location.
The computer dispatching system included the neighbor’s address of 5908 N. Sherman Blvd. and a description that the 911 caller woke up to sounds of her female neighbor screaming that a man was jumping on her.
At the nearest district station, officers Shahriar Solati and Nicholas Kuchta had just returned from investigating a domestic violence call and were writing up their reports. Other officers had just been sent to a shooting and they were one of the few squads available.
A dispatcher’s voice came over their radio at 1:53 a.m. and broadcast the pending call for police service. Their supervisor, a sergeant, asked what they were doing.
Solati replied they were filing a domestic violence report and arrest warrant. The sergeant told them to finish the warrant and then respond to incoming calls.
Solati and Kuchta were dispatched at 2 a.m. and before leaving the station, they checked with the sergeant to make sure the warrant was entered properly.
Then they went to pick up their body-worn cameras, which had been downloading footage from the prior call. The download was almost done, the acting desk sergeant said. Could they wait a few more minutes?
The officers finally left at 2:15 a.m. — 24 minutes after the neighbor called 911.
The information in their squad computer initially noted the 911 caller could be reached by phone or in person, but then they saw an update.
Saint Pierre had asked the female caller if she wanted to remain anonymous. She did.
A minute after reading the caller could be contacted, the officers noticed the entry had been changed to “Anonymous.”
A missing person report filed, then days later an Amber Alert
Officers got to the apartment complex in five minutes.
They looked for an apartment building to the south of 5908 N. Sherman Blvd., the location listed in their squad computer.
There was none.
They waited for several minutes in front of the 5908 building with their windows down. They did not see any lights on, nor did they hear anything.
The officers told internal investigators they did not call back the 911 caller since that person wanted to remain anonymous, even though the Police Department also has a “do not call” classification that means no contact. “Anonymous” means the caller does not wish to be identified in any reports, officials later said.
The officers slowly drove around the complex and parked near the north entrance. They waited for 10 minutes. No other updates had come into their computer. They didn’t ask the dispatcher for more information.
They left at 2:35 a.m.
It’s unknown exactly what time Ivery killed Banks and her daughters, 5-year-old Zaniya and 4-year-old Camaria.
But Ivery did confess to strangling Banks during their fight the night of their son’s funeral — the altercation the neighbor reported at 1:51 a.m.
Ivery told detectives he did not want the girls to live in a world without their mother.
So after killing her, he strangled them, too.
The next day, Banks’ family filed a missing person report.
Four days later, the Milwaukee Police Department notified local media about the case.
Another two days passed before the department issued an Amber Alert after receiving information from police in Memphis, where Ivery had gone to his father’s house.
By that time, Milwaukee police already had spoken to Ivery by phone during the missing person case. He said he and Banks had fought after the funeral and told investigators he would meet with them when he was back in Milwaukee in a week.
Within a day, the Amber Alert was canceled; Ivery had told police where they could find the bodies of Banks and her daughters.
After killing all three, Ivery had wrapped them in an air mattress and took their bodies to his old apartment building on Burleigh Street. He hid them in the back corner of a garage, doused them with gasoline and set a fire.
When detectives searched the garage, they found remains with bits of white T-shirt still visible — the funeral shirts memorializing Arzel Jr.
Two officers fired, then suspended instead
After the horrific discovery, the family and community members demanded answers from the Milwaukee police, an agency that has been criticized for its response to missing women and girls of color.
Then-Police Chief Alfonso Morales defended his department, which had issued a statement saying investigators worked “relentlessly” to find the family.
“As you see, people will blame the Police Department regarding these deaths. That’s unfair, uncalled for and unwarranted,” Morales said at a news conference where he decried domestic violence as a “systemic problem that’s been going on for generations.”
At that time, department officials said they were reviewing a 911 call that “may be related to this incident.”
The next month, Milwaukee had its first case of COVID-19. Then came the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and ensuing protests and civil unrest, followed by Morales’ ouster. The case of Banks and her daughters faded from the news.
The department launched an internal investigation and found the 911 operator and officers had made errors and mistakes, although all three defended their actions as consistent with department policies and training in a later disciplinary hearing.
Saint Pierre, the 911 operator, resigned before the internal probe was complete and took a job as a prosecutor in the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office. She resigned from that position in June.
Micheal Brunson, by then the acting police chief, fired the two officers, Solati and Kuchta, for failing to conduct a thorough and complete investigation.
The officers appealed to the Fire and Police Commission and got their jobs back in January.
The panel of commissioners — Everett Cocroft, Fred Crouther and Steven DeVougas — issued suspensions instead, 30 days for Solati, the more experienced officer, and 15 days for Kuchta, who had been on the job for two years.
In their written decision, commissioners noted the officers had no prior discipline and pointed out the department had not provided other examples of officers who had been fired for committing the same infraction.
The commissioners laid as much blame on Saint Pierre, the 911 operator.
911 operator: The ‘most important actor’ in the case
The 911 call-taker has defended her actions.
The officers’ attorney called her as a witness during their disciplinary appeal and later told the Journal Sentinel she was the “most important actor” because how she handled the call dictated how the officers responded to it.
Saint Pierre said she designated it a Priority 2 because the woman had only heard sounds and did not see an assault. She cited a department manual saying that classification is appropriate when a call is from a third party who does not know what exactly is happening.
The officers’ attorney, Brendan Matthews, asked if she could have made it a Priority 1 call. Such calls are life-threatening incidents involving a criminal act or an emergency that threatens life.
“I would have been written up if I would have done that,” she replied.
She said she had been reprimanded before for giving a Priority 1 to a similar call.
Matthews read a portion of the internal investigation that quoted a 911 trainer, who said the call “should not have been classified as anything other than a battery.”
Matthews emphasized the trainer specifically said: “This one was clear as day.”
The Journal Sentinel’s efforts to reach Saint Pierre were not successful.
The officers served their suspensions. Solati is back on active duty. The department did not make him available for an interview. Kuchta resigned from the department and did not return a reporter’s phone call.
Matthews, who stressed he cannot speak for Kuchta, told the Journal Sentinel he believed the officer left for a more stable job.
“The entire ordeal really took its toll on him, which is unfortunate because by all accounts, he was an excellent and dedicated officer,” Matthews said in an email.
Officer: ‘Could things have been handled differently? My answer is yes’
The officers and their attorney acknowledged they could have done more.
“As I said during the hearing, did these officers do a great job on the call at issue? No. But they did what was required of them,” Matthews told the Journal Sentinel.
“In this case, these officers will never know what they might have been able to accomplish if they’d been given accurate information — or even the appropriate information,” he added.
The officers raised similar points during their appeal hearing.
“Considering and looking back at the day in question, could things have been handled differently? My answer is yes,” Solati said, addressing the commissioners.
“Could the outcome of the morning been altered by a change in our actions? My answer is I don’t know.
“What I do know is that there was no malicious intent, laziness or lack of care on our part,” he said. “I am truly sorry for the pain the surviving family has had to endure.”
His partner, Kuchta, said he continued to think about the call months later.
“I’ve played the what-if game inside my head many times since this incident, wondering if I could have done anything that could have changed the outcome of what happened,” Kuchta told the panel.
What if he tried the 911 caller anyway? What if he had gotten out of the squad car and walked around the building?
“This is something I must live with,” Kuchta said.
It’s something Banks’ family must live with, too.
“For me, half of everything is gone,” said Bank’s mother, Valeria Spinner-Banks. “Half of everything has just been wiped away.”
Banks growing into motherhood. Zaniya smiling as she hula-hooped. Camaria surprising everyone with her whistling skills. Arzel Jr. giggling when people called him “Baby Zel.”
They want to remember everything except the horrific way they died.
How this story was reported
This article is based on numerous public records, including police reports, medical examiner’s records, court files and records from the Fire and Police Commission. Those records also included video of the officers’ disciplinary appeal hearing.
The reporter attended the sentencing of Arzel Ivery Sr. and the Banks family news conference after the hearing. This article also referenced earlier coverage of news conferences from the Milwaukee Police Department related to the discovery of Banks and her daughters.
Where to find help
The Sojourner Family Peace Center in Milwaukee operates a 24-hour confidential hotline at (414) 933-2722 and offers assistance with e-filing for restraining orders at (414) 278-5079.
The Milwaukee Women’s Center also offers a hotline at (414) 671-6140.
The Asha Project, which serves African American women in Milwaukee, provides a crisis line from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at (414) 252-0075.
Diverse & Resilient, which serves the LGBTQ community, operates the “Room to Be Safe” resource line (414) 856-5428 and has online resources at roomtobesafe.org.
The Hmong American Women’s Association, which serves the Hmong and southeast Asian community, has advocates available at (414) 930-9352 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The WI Hmong Family Strengthening Helpline is available after hours at (877) 740-4292.
The UMOS Latina Resource Center in Milwaukee offers bilingual, bicultural, domestic violence, sexual assault and anti-human trafficking supportive services and operates a 24-hour hotline at (414) 389-6510.
Halfway through 2020, Milwaukee homicide rate is highest it’s been since the early 1990s
Halfway through 2020, on top of a deadly pandemic and rising tensions between police and the public, Milwaukee has been tormented by a homicide rate not seen in this city since the crack epidemic of the 1990s.
As of the July Fourth holiday, 86 people have been killed in homicides in Milwaukee in 2020, which is double the number of victims at the same time in 2019, according to police.
Should that number again double to 172 victims over the next six months, Milwaukee will face a homicide reckoning it hasn’t seen in recent memory. It would top the 165 lives lost in 1991, during the height of the troubled 1990s in which more than 100 people were killed every year and more than 120 were killed in nine out of 10 years.
“I am very troubled by what I’m seeing in Milwaukee this year,” he said.
And it’s all happening at a time when multiple forces — all inter-related —are destroying any semblance of normalcy: the coronavirus pandemic; the economic downturn; the heightened levels of racial tension, particularly involving police; and several bouts of civil unrest.
“Our hope is that this is an anomaly year just given all the different crises that we’re dealing with this year,” said Reggie Moore, director of the city’s Office of Violence Prevention.
Domestic violence exploding
The spike in violence comes after a four-year decline in homicides, following 147 killings in 2015. In 2019, the city saw 97 homicides, down from 99 the year prior and 119 in 2017.
Inspector Terrence Gordon, speaking before a Common Council committee on June 4, said Milwaukee’s 2020 homicide rate kept pace with previous years during the first two or three months of the year, until two especially tragic events and the coronavirus pandemic changed things.
In February, a gunman killed five co-workers and himself at the Molson Coors complex. Two months later, another gunman killed four teens and one woman inside a home in the North Division neighborhood.
The virus has inflamed anxieties and economic and racial disparities already present in neighborhoods where violence has historically been present, according to Moore.
He said the same factors are playing out in other U.S. cities, causing an increase in violence. He called it “the perfect storm.”
First-time calls to the Sojourner Family Peace Center hotline have gone up since the pandemic, Moore said. Many victims weren’t on anybody’s radar before.
“That underscores the level of stress and trauma that the pandemic has created, on top of the already ongoing stress and trauma from concentrated poverty and unemployment and other issues that families were struggling with,” Moore said
The Gun Violence Memorial Project is an exhibition memorializing the memories of the 700 hundred Americans who lose their lives to gun violence every week, including those who are murdered by intimate partners. The exhibition comprises four houses built of 700 glass bricks each. Each brick honors the memory of someone who lost their life to gun violence and contains a remembrance object provided by their loved ones. Each brick also displays the honoree’s name, birth year, and year of death. More information about the Gun Violence Memorial Project and about remembrance objects can be found at https://www.gunviolencememorialproject.org/.
The Gun Violence Memorial Project is a traveling exhibition and will open in April in the National Building Museum in Washington, DC. The designers are seeking remembrance objects to include in the exhibition. Remembrance objects can either be loaned or gifted to the exhibition. If an object is loaned, it will be returned once the DC exhibition has ended. If an object is gifted, it will remain a permanent part of the exhibition.
If you have lost a loved one to gun violence committed by an intimate partner, please consider honoring their memory by loaning or gifting a remembrance object to the Gun Violence Memorial Project. More information about to contribute a remembrance object can be found here. Remembrance objects contributed by mail must be sent by March 31, 2020. Assistance with postage costs is available upon request by emailing email@example.com.