David Mora Rojas, a father of three, provided Sacramento residents with a grisly example of why those who study strangulation in domestic violence cases describe it as a dress rehearsal for murder. On Feb. 28, Mora gunned down his three young daughters and their chaperone at a Sacramento church, then killed himself. But long before that date, Mora revealed the true target of his rage was his former partner, the mother of his three girls. The Bee has not named her because she was a victim of domestic abuse.
In a passage from an April 2021 request for a restraining order, she said: “He threatened to kill me if he ever caught me cheating. He called me a whore and said he wanted to kill me. He has choked me in the past.” While allegations of choking are often lumped in with those of threats, insults and other physical assault in domestic violence cases, former police officer Joe Bianco said, more than two decades of research have revealed that strangulation “is the calling card of a manipulative, controlling, dangerous man.”
A number of Sacramento County law enforcement agencies and domestic violence advocates have put to work protocols recommended by Bianco and others who work at The Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention, and some have documented a steep increase in strangling reports that they link to the improved tools. Men with a history of strangling women are one of the deadliest threats to U.S. law enforcement officers, killing 75% of those who died in the line of duty in 2017, according to an analysis by the social change organization Alliance For Hope International. “We’ve correlated stranglers to mass shootings,” said Casey Gwinn, a former prosecutor and president of Alliance For Hope. “We’ve correlated stranglers to familicide, which is what Sacramento is, where he killed his family. We’ve correlated stranglers to cop killers, and we’ve correlated stranglers to men who kill women in America. And the majority of all women in America who are killed have been strangled before they’re killed.” Along with another former prosecutor, Gael Strack, Gwinn set out on a mission to support children and adults who survive domestic violence following the deaths of two young San Diego mothers. Casondra Stewart and Tamara Smith had been killed by their intimate partners. In prior calls to police, both had reported being “choked.” Strack led a review of Stewart and Smith’s deaths to find out whether police and prosecutors could have done anything to save their lives. Once she realized both women had been strangled, she culled through thousands of San Diego police reports to see how often other victims of domestic violence had reported it.
Strack’s curiosity and doggedness led to what one leading physician in emergency medicine described as landmark research that ultimately reshaped laws, medical protocols, the direction of scientific research, police procedures and victim advocacy.
CHANGING PRACTICES IN SACRAMENTO
Strack and Gwinn helped to educate change-makers through two organizations they co-founded: the Alliance for Hope and the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention. Launched with the financial backing of the U.S. Department of Justice, the training institute organizes courses for first responders and others working in the field of domestic violence. Strack’s studies and findings from other researchers dispelled a number of myths and provided new insights into just how dangerous stranglers are. In 2001, for instance, when Strack’s first papers were published in a medical journal, doctors had no idea that the vast majority of strangulation victims survived the ordeal. Later research would reveal that stranglers are by no means specialists who torment only their partners, Gwinn said. Men who strangle women have an internalized rage, he said, that leads them to also target their children, their family pets and people outside the home.
Gwinn pointed to Mora Rojas who was charged with assaulting a law enforcement officer in Merced County less than a week before he killed his daughters Samia Mora Gutierrez,13, Samantha Mora Gutierrez, 10, and Samarah Mora Gutierrez, 9, and their chaperone Nathaniel Kong. Strack and Gwinn amassed a trove of research, case studies, best practices and more into an advanced training course that counted Joyce Bilyeu of the Sacramento Regional Family Justice Center among the registrants in 2018.
After soaking up all the information, Bilyeu said she returned to the capital on fire to train more staff and transform how the family justice center was handling the intake of new clients. She added a number of new tools to assess strangulation victims, including: A card showing signs and symptoms of strangulation, key actions to take, directions on when to transport the victim for care and a warning about what could happen if care was delayed. And 20 questions to assess the risk that a victim will be killed.
By early last year, when Mora’s partner arrived at the justice center seeking a restraining order, the staff knew to ask her about whether her partner had any history of strangling her and to include that history in her request for a restraining order. ‘IT CAN’T JUST BE ONE OR TWO COPS’ The family justice center saw a dramatic increase in clients reporting strangulation after the staff introduced procedures and tools recommended in the advanced training course. “In 2016, we had 29 cases. In 2021, we had 660 cases,” Bilyeu said. “So from 2016 to 2021, it went up 2,175% in reported cases of strangulation. And I don’t think it’s because strangulation was on the rise. It could be, but I think it’s because we are doing really great assessments here in Sacramento.” Bilyeu, however, did not stop with the changes at her own organization. She enlisted individuals from the criminal justice system, hospitals, social services and other fields to develop a countywide strangulation protocol they could all use to identify and communicate evidence-based practices and standards of care for strangulation victims.
She also successfully appealed to the city of Sacramento to fund a training institute course for hundreds of first responders, medical personnel and others who support strangulation survivors. By the time that event was held in December 2020, Bilyeu was able to share the strangulation protocol with the attendees. Two months later, Bilyeu presented the protocol to the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors and received their endorsement.
Joshua Helton, a 16-year law enforcement veteran and a trainer in strangulation prevention, said that steps like the ones Bilyeu took – developing protocols and educating a broad group – help to develop a knowledge base that ensures victims will get the right response all the time. “It can’t just be one or two cops that know how the policy works, or maybe half a dozen cops that think it’s important,” Helton said. “The implementation of the policy has to be so ingrained in how the organization does business when it comes to this type of thing that when those original influences … are no longer available, … the organizational knowledge still carries response forward.”
If a battered woman is strangled even once by her partner, research has shown she is 750% more likely to eventually be murdered by him,.Strack and Gwinn said. “If you’ve been strangled repeatedly, then that number is only going to go up,” Strack said. “So at the end of the day, we have figured out that the strangled victim is the high risk victim, and the strangled victim is suffering coercive control as part of that relationship. By the time you get to strangulation, it is the ultimate form of control. The next thing is death.” The vast majority of survivors do not die by strangulation but rather in subsequent attacks with guns, often within a year of an attempt to flee the relationship, Gwinn said. It’s why the team at the training institute refers to strangulation as “the last warning shot.” Dr. Caroline Giroux, a psychiatrist at UC Davis Health, described strangulation as “almost a symbolic way to annihilate a person, basically cutting the spirits of the person in all sense of the term: the air one is breathing, the life energy. It’s very symbolic and very scary.” Victims often have grown accustomed to violence and will minimize what they are experiencing by describing it as choking, Gwinn said. but they are actually being strangled: Someone is somehow applying external pressure to their necks, cutting off their airflow, their blood flow or both.
“Choking is when you get food caught in your throat,” Gwinn said. “Victims don’t mean food got caught in their throats. They mean he strangled them. They just don’t call it strangulation.” Some survivors lose consciousness and wake with no memory of what happened, Strack said. Upon realizing this, the former prosecutor said, she was disquieted by the thought of the victims she had labeled as uncooperative because they told her they didn’t remember what happened to them. During training institute classes, she said, she’s watched as police officers, doctors and prosecutors come to similar types of realization. “To this day, there is a sense of shock, and some of the professionals are actually pissed off,” Strack said. “They’re going like, ‘Why didn’t somebody tell me this, like 30 years ago? Generally, that (response) is coming from practitioners who’ve been working with victims all this time. And then there’s like this sense of guilt that, ‘Oh, my God, how many cases did I miss? How many cases did I mishandle? How is it that I don’t know this?’”
There’s been no evidence yet that Mora’s partner called police immediately after being strangled, said Gwinn, so her allegation of choking appeared only in the restraining order and there would be no medical documentation there of those injuries. Many women who have survived strangulation may find themselves in similar circumstances, he said, and the only answer that the family courts provide to them and their children right now is supervised visitation. Mora was supposed to be having such a visit with his daughters when he shot them. “The decision was made that somehow these children will be safer if they were in a church, and an unarmed civilian observing would somehow make them all safer,” Gwinn said. “In retrospect,…that’s just uninformed public policy. He wasn’t any less dangerous in the church that day than he was the day before or he was two months ago.” In a review of 300 strangulation cases, Strack and her research peers found that children were present when the victim was being strangled in four out of 10 cases. In 10 of the 300 cases, the strangulation survivors were pregnant. One miscarried 24 hours afterward. Gwinn has written case studies on a number of stranglers who slaughtered their entire families. From his own research and that of others, he said, he’s increasingly finding that many stranglers experienced sexual abuse as children but were not believed when they reported it to their mothers. That childhood trauma is not an excuse for their actions, he said. Rather, it’s an explanation for the misogyny that fuels their rage.
No one will ever be able to conclusively say why Mora didn’t wait until he could kill his wife, Gwinn said. “He clearly killed the children in order to leave her with a wound that she will carry for the rest of her life,” Gwinn said.”I can’t even fathom life after my children have all been murdered.”
Source Credit: Cathie Anderson, The Sacramento Bee. Link to original article.