Despite what you might see on TV and in movies, would-be murderers stalking female victims are usually not strangers lurking outside bedroom windows late at night, waiting to strike. In fact, rarely do cold-blooded killers fit this anonymous stereotype. It’s more often someone the woman already knows.
While men are statistically more likely to be murdered than women, the crimes are very different— women are more often targeted by a current or former partner. In fact, according to Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, nearly half of female victims of homicide were, at some point, romantically involved with the person who killed them.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group, an average of 57 women in the U.S. each month are shot and killed by intimate partners, and victim counts are increasing. Between 2010 and 2017, murder by an intimate partner using a gun increased by 26 percent according to one study. An additional one million women in the U.S. have survived being shot by an intimate partner.
Abusive partners typically choose and groom victims by exploiting any vulnerabilities they can find, often “love-bombing” the victim with over-the-top displays of romanticism before brainwashing them into believing that no one else will love them the way they do.
Rita Smith is a renowned domestic violence expert and advocate who’s spent more than 40 years helping survivors in emergency shelters. Today, she’s vice president of external relations for the nonprofit DomesticShelters.org and a senior advisor to the NFL on domestic violence and sexual assault policies. She spoke with A&E True Crime about red flags indicating possible abuse in relationships.
What are red flags we should look out for when we meet someone new that could indicate the person is potentially dangerous?
One of the more common indication is that the person is almost too good to be true. They are very committed, they seem very interested and they accelerate engagement [with their partner] as much as they can. They want to get involved on a deeper level faster than most people would feel comfortable doing, but they are really charming and engaging, so you may miss that you are getting wound up more tightly than you intended initially.
The other signs that could possibly show up are intense interest in who you are connected to, how and where you spend your time and what your likes and dislikes are—almost like they’re getting a checklist of who you are. It’ll feel like they’re gathering a profile on you … which will later make you really vulnerable. If it feels intrusive or if feels like, ‘Whoa, that’s a lot of information right off the top,’ pay attention to those feelings.
You’ve counseled a lot of survivors of domestic violence. What is the number one indicator that makes the hair stand up on your arms, and that tells you this person is in danger of being killed?
Through my years [working] in shelters, I’ve unfortunately worked with women who have been murdered. If they’d ever been threatened with a gun, I worried about them walking out the door of shelter. The most commonly used weapon [in domestic violence homicide] is a gun.
Some of the other things that made me worry a lot was whether or not they were being tracked. When I first started working in this field, we didn’t have the cyberstalking that’s going on now—there was literal stalking. He would show up at her work or she would see him sitting outside her house or he would follow her to some place she said she was going. Particularly if it started to escalate, I worried about what that meant for her safety.
I was director of a shelter in Metro Denver when we had three current or former clients murdered in a fairly short period of time.
One was living at the shelter and had gone out to take care of some business. She drove a truck and this man had grabbed on to the undercarriage of the truck and the police officer stopped her and asked her if she knew there was somebody under her truck. He ended up [later] killing her with a knife. That’s the kind of extreme things abusers will go to monitor and track their targets.
As an advocate, how do you keep going when a victim you’ve counseled is killed?
I asked a mental health agency to come in and do trauma work with the staff around that blitz of murders. It is very hard to deal with losing someone. I always felt like could I have done something differently. You deal with a lot of guilt.
Eventually, though, I started thinking about the hundreds of women and children who had come through the shelter who had survived. I could balance my guilt a little bit by knowing there were a lot more people who had made it out. It never really makes it OK, but it makes it more tolerable.
What are some signs that an intimate partner is capable of or escalating toward homicide?
Other types of assaults are major indicators: Is there any kind of sexual violence or sexual coercion going on? Because abusers who tend to force sexual encounters are more likely to move to lethal actions.
If you have a restraining order or protection order [against someone] and it’s being violated and the frequency of violations escalates, that can be a sign that lethal violence is much more likely.
Also, the stalking behaviors—if they’re constantly in your space, if you’re getting texts all the time, if you find out you have spyware on your computer or your phone or there’s some kind of tracking device on your car—those kind of monitoring behaviors are a pretty big sign.
So are threats of suicide. Abusers rarely kill themselves without taking out other people. It’s almost always a murder-suicide. If they’re threatening suicide, that’s a huge red flag. There’s also abuse or threats of abuse to a pet. And of course, if there’s access to a gun or threats with a gun, these are very clear signs they have that potential.
When someone threatens to kill you, most advocates will say that’s rarely an empty threat. Do you agree?
Yes. I don’t think abusers make empty threats and I will never underestimate an abuser’s threat. Particularly that kind of a threat. Because you’re betting with your life that they’re not going to [kill you] and that’s not a bet I’m going to have anyone take. Every abuser has the potential to be a killer.
What do you think drives abusive partners to kill their girlfriend or wife when they’ve claimed to love them?
For the vast majority of killers, it’s the ultimate measure of control. Something has triggered them and they realize they’ve lost control and they’re not getting that person back. They come to the conclusion that the only control they have left is to kill her or to kill [her] children. Too many of them kill the kids to punish her.
There are a few abusers who have mental health issues. I think about that guy who just killed his kids who was into QAnon, [Matthew Taylor Coleman]. But most are not into that level of unreality. Most of them are clearly making the choice— they feel threatened, they feel like they’ve lost control, they’re angry. Their last act of revenge is to take something away from their partner that she cares deeply about.
For the ones who are highly lethal, they go buy the gun that day. They’re finishing the act. So we should take all of their threats seriously.
What do you do if you’re enmeshed with a partner and suddenly come to this realization that a.) it’s abuse and b.) it’s escalating to a point where your life is in danger?
If you’ve come to the place where it’s like, ‘I have got to get out now,’ then you reach out to someone who can help you think through the best and the safest strategies to do that. And that’s almost always going to be a domestic violence advocate, a local program near you. They’re in the area and they know what the resources are. Making a plan will help you extract yourself safely, or as safely as you can, which is really critical.
If there’s imminent danger, calling 911 always is the first step. But if you feel like you may have some time to create a plan that allows you to get out with some strategies in place, some finances, a place to go, that’s always the ultimate goal. But that realization may come to you in a moment when you’re really in danger. Calling 911 is going to be your best bet to survive that moment and then you can begin to make plans after that threat is at least minimized for the moment.
A lot of survivors don’t leave because they think things will get better. Does this ever work out in your experience?
The reality is, and most of them should recognize this if they don’t, if they could stop the violence, they’d have done it a long time ago. If they, by themselves, could get the abuser to behave differently, that would have done it a long time ago.
Most survivors I’ve talked to have tried every strategy; they have given in, they’ve resisted, they have changed behaviors, they have cooked something different for dinner, they have stopped seeing family. They have made all kinds of adjustments to try to meet the requirements of that person’s comfort and happiness but, sadly, they won’t ever achieve it. The goal is not for the violence to stop but rather for the abuser to keep control of you. So it doesn’t’ matter what you do. The goal is to always keep you off guard, keep you off balance. Because that’s how the abuser gets to control you.
Can survivors get out on their own?
A lot of women over the years have gotten out on their own prior to when shelters were available. You can do it, but it’s so much safer and you will have so much more support if you can reach out to your local domestic violence program. Particularly if you have kids [because]the danger level is exponentially higher.
We want to be there when you need us. We want to help you. Ask us, we’ve got resources. We can help you do this in a safer way. The end goal is really a safer community, a safer family unit. And that takes a lot of work. Doing it by yourself isn’t necessary anymore.
Are you in danger? Do you need separating from an abusive partner? Find a domestic violence shelter in your area at DomesticShelters.org or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE.