Louise D. Palmer, "Women's Cries Often Ignored in Cases of Abuse; Protection Laws Not Enforced," Times-Picayune Feb. 8, 1998: A22.
Avelino Macias parked his '82 Cutlass and, with his loaded .357-caliber Magnum in one hand and a yellow flower in the other, walked one block to the house where his wife, Teresa, and her mother, Sara Hernandez, were arriving for work.
"Go inside, Mama," Teresa Macias said as Avelino Macias, who had physically and sexually abused her even after she had left him, approached. "You know what to do." Shaking, Hernandez entered the house and dialed 911 while Avelino Macias argued with his wife. She sat on the curb in a despairing crouch, tears running down her face. Minutes later, he put his revolver to her head and pulled the trigger. He then ran to the house and shot Hernandez in the legs before turning the gun on himself.
When the police found Teresa Macias, Avelino Macias' body was splayed across hers in a final gesture of domination.
Teresa Macias' death is not just another domestic violence incident with a tragic end. It is one of many such incidents around the country that illustrate that new state and federal laws designed to protect women from stalking and domestic violence are not being uniformly enforced. Women in dangerous situations who depend on law enforcement officers to protect them often find the officers are indifferent, or even hostile, to their plight.
In the three months before she was murdered, Teresa Macias had been to the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department at least 18 times to report that her husband was harassing, stalking and threatening to kill her, according to witnesses, police reports and her own written accounts. She did everything she could: She obtained a court order to keep him away, documented each violation of that order, went to counseling, presented witnesses.
But neither the Sheriff's Department nor the district attorney's office acted to stop Avelino Macias from terrorizing his wife. He was never arrested, cited, charged or jailed despite laws requiring his arrest on misdemeanor and felony charges.
A deputy who often responded to Teresa Macias' calls for help was himself ordered by the courts to stay away from both his ex-wife and an ex-girlfriend because of his allegedly violent behavior.
*** The right to justice ***
Because Sonoma County's failure to protect Teresa Macias is not an isolated case, women's rights advocates are looking to the courts for help, hoping cases like hers can set legal precedents to force police and prosecutors to apply the law and treat domestic violence and stalking as serious crimes.
"Whether or not women have the right to justice is the question here," said victim advocate Marie De Santis of Santa Rosa. "In this century, we won the right to vote, to education, to reproductive rights. But these rights are meaningless without a justice system to keep them secure."
More than 1 million women are victims of domestic violence every year, and 1 million are stalked, according to a recent U.S. Department of Justice report. Of all women killed in the United States in 1995, one quarter died at the hands of a current or former boyfriend or husband. However, only 25 percent of all reported stalkers were prosecuted.
Hernandez remembers her daughter insisting during a conversation shortly before she died, "I don't want other women to suffer what I am suffering." So, on behalf of Macias' three orphaned children, and in memory of her daughter's struggle, Hernandez sued Sonoma County for $15 million. "You can't turn your back on injustice," she said. "It will only grow."
The handling of domestic violence cases such as Macias' has caught the eye of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which voted unanimously to hold hearings on police-community relations in Sonoma County on Feb. 20.
This is a consolation to Hernandez. But what still gnaws at her, even now, is the memory of Teresa Macias fighting so hard, knowing she would die, living through fright and the shock of it.
"The end is drawing near," Macias wrote in her journal shortly after she left her husband.
A thin, pale, blue-eyed woman whose intelligence was masked by a shy disposition, Teresa Macias immigrated from Mexico to the United States to marry Avelino Macias in the early '80s. She suffered so quietly that even her mother was not aware that over the course of a decade, her husband had repeatedly beaten, raped and threatened her, as well as sexually abused the youngest of her three children, as Teresa Macias alleged in sworn statements to the courts.
*** Ending the silence ***
In March 1995, Teresa Macias decided she could no longer expose her children to her husband's violence and reported him to authorities. She moved to a shelter but returned home weeks later, having been told her husband had left town. He came back and forced his way into the house.
Eventually, she and her mother threw him out for good, but by then state authorities had taken the children away, saying Teresa Macias could not protect them from her husband.
"He followed her day and night, even to work," recalls Marty Cabello, a friend of the Maciases' who describes 37-year-old Avelino as a handsome extrovert, a man of contradiction who was as kind as he was cruel. "I used to tell him, 'You can't make someone love you, take your hand off her heart.' But he was obsessed."
Teresa Macias kept on: She went for counseling that the state required, renewed restraining orders and then distributed them to police. She documented each violation and had corroborating witnesses.
Although the Sheriff's Department and the district attorney declined to comment while the civil case is in court, the sheriff released information after Teresa Macias' death confirming that deputies had contact with her on at least nine occasions between January and April 1996, but sent only two written crime reports to the district attorney. No one wrote up the other contacts.
Even Cabello's report that Avelino Macias had told her he planned to kill his wife did not move the sheriff's deputies to action.
"It was like they just didn't want to be bothered," Cabello recalled. "They just laughed and said, 'Everyone always says that.' "
*** Calls for help unanswered ***
On the two occasions that reports were sent to the district attorney, the office refused to file charges. One refusal read: "Party must obtain permanent order; no corroboration; no harassment." In fact, Teresa Macias' claims were backed up, and there was a valid restraining order in place.
This lack of action was contrary to county rules that require arrests for all restraining order violations, as well as state laws requiring automatic felony arrests for stalking.
To fail to prosecute violations of restraining orders is to endanger a life, domestic violence experts say. If men are emboldened by the inaction of law enforcement officers, their hostile conduct can escalate.
In this case, Avelino Macias' behavior had become so brazen that he followed his wife into a police station one day. Hernandez remembers the officers had him in handcuffs but released him at the recommendation of a state counselor.
Three weeks later, on April 15, 1996, Teresa Macias died.
Cabello saw it coming.
"Avelino had this look in his eyes like he wasn't there anymore, so I got Teresa and told her, 'Just take the kids and go and hide.' She was shaking and crying. 'I'm not strong enough,' she said. 'I've asked God to forgive me for everything. . . . I've made my peace.' That was the last time I saw her."
In places where laws aimed at shielding women are strictly enforced, violence drops. According to San Diego police, the rate of domestic homicides there dropped 60 percent because the domestic violence laws are enforced.
But where they are not enforced, women have had little success suing officials for failing to implement them, according to Julie Goldschied, senior staff attorney for NOW Legal and Education Defense Fund.
The last successful case was in 1984, when a Connecticut woman sued local police for standing by while her husband beat and finally stabbed her.
"The bottom line is that we have a legal standard that makes it appear that women can succeed, but in practice they haven't been able to," Goldschied said.
More than a dozen cases aiming to expand a woman's right to equal protection and due process have moved through the courts since the Connecticut case. Among them:
In Elyria, Ohio, Karen Guerrant called the police when her ex-husband, who had been convicted for attacking her, refused to leave her house. Police arrived but did not remove him. Once they left, a fight ensued and Guerrant's family repeatedly called the police and begged for help. By the time they returned, Guerrant was dead, stabbed 12 times by her husband, Alfred, who was eventually sentenced to life for the murder. Her mother sued the city and in November 1994 settled the civil case out of court for $650,000.
In Cambridge, Md., Carol Pinder's ex-boyfriend, Donald Pittman, was arrested after beating and threatening to kill her and her children. Even though the police assured Pinder that he would be held in jail overnight, he was released without posting bail. That day, March 10, 1989, he burned down Pinder's house, killing her three children. Pittman was sentenced to life in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Pinder's appeal of a lower court ruling that said she didn't have the right to sue.
In Central Islip, N.Y., Cecelia Eagleston filed repeated police reports detailing threats, assaults and harassment by her estranged husband, Thomas, in violation of a restraining order against him. Three days after the last report, on Dec. 7, 1986, he stabbed his wife more than 30 times with a butcher knife. Thomas Eagleston was sentenced to five to 15 years for the attack, which his wife survived. She sued local police. The judge ruled that the police acted improperly but that she had not proved that failing to respond to domestic abuse cases is a form of discrimination against women. In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
*** Sex discrimination ***
Hernandez's suit alleges that both the sheriff and the district attorney violated Teresa Macias' right to equal protection and have allowed their offices to downplay the seriousness of domestic violence. A discriminatory attitude toward women underlies the assumption that such violence is not criminal, according to the suit.
The argument will be bolstered by the high number of sexual harassment suits filed by female deputies, the low number of female deputies - 3 percent - on the force, and the fact that male deputies keep their jobs and continue to respond to domestic violence cases like Macias' even though they are the subject of restraining orders alleging they battered or stalked their own wives or girlfriends.
Despite these charges, District Attorney Mike Mullins and Assistant Sheriff Gary Zanolini both insist that domestic violence is a priority and point to changes made since Macias' death, including more money, training and a new office dedicated to domestic violence cases.
"We've addressed a lot of system failures, and we're doing more, and yet there is more to be done," Zanolini said.
The answer to why law enforcement has difficulty dealing with domestic violence cases is complex, national experts say. Discriminatory attitudes are only part of the equation. Police and prosecutors may be reluctant to work these cases because women sometimes backtrack on charges or return to their abusers for complicated reasons, including fear and financial dependence. There also may be an ingrained institutional tolerance for turning a blind eye.
"The practice of staying out of domestic violence troubles dates back to a time when attitude, and policy, was, 'It's a family issue and the state doesn't belong there,' " said Joan Zorza, editor of the Domestic Violence Report, a national newsletter. "So you now have laws on the books, but they are just ignored."
Sonoma County women's rights activist Tanya Brannan said this is why, even after Macias' death, there are people such as Michelle Eterovich fighting to get Sonoma law enforcement officials to do their jobs.
"I can't understand why after 14 restraining order violations, my ex-boyfriend is not behind bars," Eterovich said, exasperated. "I'm terrified of him and yet the police take it so lightly."
It also explains, Brannan said, why the stalking and killings of women have continued in Sonoma.
On Nov. 29, 1996, Mina Arevalo was gunned down by her husband, Nick, who then killed himself. She had repeatedly called police seeking protection from his violent behavior.
One year later, on Nov. 18, 1997, Gina Barnett's bullet-ridden body was discovered after the district attorney's office had dismissed a battery case against her ex-boyfriend James Nivette, even though he had a long history of violently abusing Barnett. Local police and the FBI are looking for Nivette, who is suspected of fleeing to France.
Knowing that change comes slowly, women continue to invest in grass-roots organizing and legal action around the country in the hope that future homicide investigations don't end the way Teresa Macias' did: with police finding a copy of her restraining order against her husband lying under an empty box of bullets in his car.
GRAPHIC: Marie De Santis, left, and Tanya Brannan, women's rights advocates in Sonoma, Calif., are on a mission to make police and prosecutors enforce laws that make it a serious crime to harass or stalk women. NNS PHOTO TERESA MACIAS Had reported threats 18 times AVELINO MACIAS Police never arrested him TWO PHOTOS