Niagara Gazette

12 Months, 12 Issues

October 2, 2010

As Domestic Violence Awareness Month arrives, statistics show the number of cases remains steady while homicides decline

NIAGARA FALLS — Ahkenya Johnson’s murder came almost warning.

   The Niagara Falls mother of two suffered 41 stab wounds and her head was almost decapitated from a slashing wound to her throat. A veteran Niagara County prosecutor called the slaying “one of the most brutal and vicious” killings she has ever seen, “a morbid work of art.”

Yet, as far as her friends and family knew, Ahkenya’s killer, her husband Robert, had never before “laid hands on her or hurt her.”

“I didn’t think that (our family) was above (domestic violence),” Ahkenya’s sister Africa Oltz said. “But I never thought it would be something of this caliber.”

Oltz says she knew domestic violence was a problem that plagued many families across America and right here in the Niagara region. She even worried about Robert’s sometimes “obsessive” behavior toward his wife, but never in her in nightmares could she have imagined what would happen in the Johnson’s quiet Jordan Gardens apartment on Jan. 17, 2009.

“We knew (domestic violence) existed, but we were never exposed to it in our family,” Oltz said. “We were never blinded to it, but we were blindsided by it.”

When her sister died at the hands of her husband, Oltz and her family became part of a continuing battle by law enforcement, the courts and other professionals to combat the crime of domestic violence. A dirty secret that hid in the criminal shadows until the high profile slaying of O.J. Simpson’s wife, Nicole, and a friend in 1995 thrust it into the headlines, domestic violence is now one of the most high-profile crimes in the way it is reported and investigated.

While prevention may be the ultimate goal in fighting domestic violence, it is sometimes hard to gauge the progress in that fight.

“I see the number (of domestic violence incidents) remaining about the same, but homicides have declined (in 2010),” Niagara County Sheriff’s Department Domestic Violence Program coordinator Susan Larose said. “We’re averaging about 3,200 incidents a year, countywide. I think that shows people are aware and are still using the police as an outlet to report those incidents.”

A snapshot of domestic incident reports, from 1998 to 2009, shows only occasional significant drops in the number of cases being investigated in the Niagara region. Larose says it’s a complex crime to fight and attacking the problem is like peeling back the layers on an onion.

“We’re seeing cases with multiple issues,” Larose said. “There is unemployment, drugs and alcohol and mental health issues. We also have violations of orders of protection. Some (abusers) have no respect for a judge’s order.”

Falls police believe abusers who violate orders designed to protect their victims is the fast growing type of domestic violence incident facing their department.

“Our criminal contempt cases are spiking,” according to Detective Kathy Stack, the department’s domestic violence investigator. “However, the judges have been placing high bails on those violators so that has helped keep them off the streets.”

In 1998, Falls police handled 942 domestic violence cases, just three fewer than the 945 incidents they investigated in 2008.

However, in 2009, the number jumped to 1,214 cases. For the last 10 years, Falls police have averaged 1,100 incidents a year.

Superintendent John Chella said the stubbornly consistent case load doesn’t mean the battle against domestic violence is a lost cause.

“We’ve wondered since day one whether high numbers of reports are a good thing or a bad thing,” Chella said. “The positive is you can say the numbers are high because more victims are reporting. So I take the positive and we will be there to deal with those numbers.”

Both Chella and Larose say the most important recent trend they’ve seen in domestic violence cases here is the decline in homicides. After recording five homicides combined in 2008 and 2009, including Ahkenya Johnson, there have been no domestic violence slayings in Niagara County so far this year.

“That is a very good trend,” Larose said.

The domestic violence coordinator also said investigators and prosecutors are taking a hard look at every case that crosses their desks to assess it for the potential of lethality. Though Larose admits, pointing to the Johnson homicide, that could be almost every case.

“The potential for the worst is in every one of these cases,”Larose said. “A simple harassment can be a homicide tomorrow.”

No one knows that better than Oltz.

“He had never put his hands on her or been verbally abusive,” Oltz said of her sisters’ husband, who she later called “a monster.” “You never think in a million years (a domestic violence homicide) will happen (in your family).”

With no “typical” victim or abuser, Larose said her office will continue to attack the domestic violence problem by focusing on early intervention.” Chella said his officers will remain proactive in their investigations and in making arrests.

“(Domestic violence) is not easy to attack,” Chella said. “You’re dealing with people’s emotions. We can teach you how to harden your car or your home to prevent a break-in or a robbery. But how do we teach people to alter their psychological approach to relationships? It’s a challenge.”

A challenge that Oltz has now joined.

“It sounds so cliche,” Oltz said, “but please don’t take (the signs of domestic abuse) for granted. Please don’t think the worst can’t happen to you.”

Contact reporter Rick Pfeiffer

at 282-2311, ext. 2252.

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