A husband’s decision to drive his wife and three children into Tempe Town Lake rocked the Valley and beyond last month.
Glenn Baxter’s quadruple murder-suicide took place in the middle of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and for a short time the faces of Danica, Reighn, Nazyiah and Zariyah replaced the color purple as a symbol for awareness.
The cruel coincidence of the incident’s timing prompted a newsroom discussion about a deadly form of violence that an expert said is under-reported.
The killing of Danica Baxter and her three children were the final acts of a man who Tempe police Lt. Mike Pooley said had been abusive to the point that he’d lost the woman he loved.
“We do know that Danica had gone through things with Glenn,” Pooley said. “His anger was kind of normal. It was something that she was used to. That she thought maybe she could control.”
What came next has become routine in similar cases– a candlelight vigil, fundraisers and, for a brief period, true awareness.
Then, there was nothing. That is part of the problem.
One in four women and one in seven men are victims of domestic violence, according to the Arizona Department of Health. Children aren’t exempt. Approximately 60 percent of abusers mistreat his or her own children. Still, many victims stay with abusive partners for the sake of their kids.
“At the end of the day, it’s my mommy and my daddy,” said Dr. Maria Garay-Serratos, CEO of Sojourner Center in Phoenix. “Often, children, they just don’t want their parents to be separated. It’s just really difficult for a woman.”
Garay understands domestic violence is a murky and complex issue. Not just because she heads an organization at the front lines of the issue, but because Garay was a victim growing up in Mexico. She said that’s why more needs to be done to sound the alarm and not just when something tragic happens, such as the Baxter case, but every day.
“People don’t talk about the fact that most cases of domestic violence are not reported,” Garay said. “So when you hear this one in four, this one in three, we’re like, it’s probably one in two.”
But it’s not just physical violence. It could also be emotional, psychological or sexual. It’s difficult to determine what exactly causes someone to snap. Garay said it could be control or cultural acceptance. Even traumatic brain injuries are possible causes.
Society plays a role too, she said. The collective response to the video of former NFL player Ray Rice knocking out his future wife in a elevator amounted to victim to shaming over her decision not to leave him.
“People got very angry at her,” Garay said. “And they got angry at her because she didn’t do what we wanted her to do.”
To improve how society handles domestic violence, Garay said it needs to be less judgmental of victims’ choices. For society to understand and prevent domestic violence, she said victims and abusers need more resources.
While many may look to law enforcement for that, police and prosecutors often don’t get the chance to intervene until after something terrible happens.
“Most domestic violence incidents take place in a residence, out of sight of the public, out of sight of law enforcement,” said Scottsdale police Det. Tom Weishaar. “Domestic violence is a hard one to prevent.”
That makes sifting through witness accounts in a domestic violence call the toughest part of Weishaar’s job. The second hardest is convincing a victim to work with law enforcement.
Scottsdale police are always searching for new ways to improve how they handle domestic violence, Weishaar said. For example, the department recently cut out the lag time it takes for a protective order to show up in the county computer system by uploading them straight into their own.
That means any Scottsdale police officer can look it up at any time. Before, they had to wait two to three weeks. Even if police arrest someone, there’s still another hurdle.
“Really what it gets down to is the willingness of a victim to assist with prosecution,” said Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.
Montgomery has had success holding abusers accountable, even if a victim doesn’t want to testify in court. He created a program that uses high-definition photography to record injuries in strangulation cases. The result has been an increase from 15 to 60 percent in the charging rate of those kinds of cases.
“You’d be able to see broken blood vessels in the eyes, beneath the lips, the roof of the mouth,” Montgomery said. “That then gave us objective evidence.”
The county attorney said some lethal domestic violence might be prevented if there were additional counselors available for victims in misdemeanor cases. But, that’s easier said than done.
“We would have to increase the number of victim advocates, and we would have a whole separate parallel program of trying to embed victim advocates with victims at the moment of law enforcement contact,” Montgomery said.
It’s unknown if professional counseling services were trying to help Danica Baxter. Tempe police will close the case and Montgomery said it’s unlikely we’ll ever know if something could have been done to intervene.
“At the end of the day you’ve got a husband and a father [who] did things that are unspeakable,” Montgomery said.