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Domestic violence often “not taken seriously,” investigators say
“This is not something we see in a small town. It is like a scene from a movie,” was the phrase heard across town last week after a Pearsall man shot two people in a downtown store.
One of the victims was the assailant’s estranged wife.
The Wednesday morning incident has pushed the ever-present threat of domestic violence to the forefront of the community’s consciousness, although law enforcement officials believe many disregard warning signs until an abusive situation becomes violent.
“It really is not taken seriously,” Frio County Chief Deputy Peter Salinas says. “It is an imbalance of power and control; abusers use intimidating words and behavior to control their partners. Then they apologize.”
Victims come from all walks of life and the abuse takes different forms – emotional, sexual and physical.
In many cases, according to investigators and counselors, a pattern of abuse cycles through a perpetrator’s apology, after which an abuser may beg for forgiveness and promises the behavior will change. Ultimately, investigators say, a victim may feel remorse and ask that a protective order be lifted.
The victim forgives the abuser, but the abuse returns within a short time and often escalates.
“Many of the victims suffer in silence,” Salinas says. “Often, we can recognize abusive relationships, as the signs are blatant, but there are many cases where a victim has been enduring abuse for years and there are not outward signs.”
The effects of domestic violence in rural communities are often exacerbated by limited access to support services for victims, family connections with people in positions of authority, the stigma of abuse, lack of available shelters and other challenges.
Reluctancy to report the abuse may come from shame or a sense of embarrassment as small town citizens are well acquainted with law enforcement officials and healthcare providers.
“Victims are financially dependent on their abusers and this poses an issue as well,” the chief deputy says. “We deal with a number of impoverished families, where both the victim and children are dependent on the abuser. This does not just include physical abuse but also sexual abuse on a spouse or children in the home.”
Prior to the attempted murder last Wednesday, police say, two of the last three murders in Pearsall since 2010 were directly related to domestic violence.
In 2018, John Ledesma found his estranged wife with another man and viciously murdered Ruben Esparza using a box cutter. Ledesma then attempted to take the woman’s life using the box cutter.
Less than a year later, Ledesma pled guilty to murder and was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
Some eight years earlier, Josie Cantu, 44, was found dead, handcuffed to a bed, after a fire destroyed a trailer home. An investigation into the case revealed three places in the house where a fire had been started deliberately. Police soon named the woman’s boyfriend, 24-year-old Anthony Gonzales, as the prime suspect.
Last June, during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, local law enforcement and prosecutors reported an uptick in domestic violence cases across the region. After a Pearsall man brutally beat his girlfriend, police reported responding to 20 calls for domestic dispute in a mere three months.
“Since COVID, our office has seen an increase in the number of severe domestic violence cases,” 81st District Attorney Audrey Louis says. “These are some of the most serious cases we handle and we will continue to aggressively prosecute domestic violence offenders.”
Salinas is urging those in an abusive relationship to break the cycle and find a way out of the situation.
“Typically the violence becomes more frequent and severe over time,” the chief deputy says. “The longer one stays in an abusive relationship, the greater the physical and emotional toll. Depression begins to set in and it becomes harder to leave.”
Seeking shelter or calling a domestic hotline during a safe time, when the abuser is not home or when with family or friends, can provide the emotional support a victim needs to make the decision to leave, the chief deputy says.
The district attorney recommends packing a bag with clothes, medication, important documents, cash and keys in the event the victim has to leave abruptly. DA Louis also says victims of abuse should consider using a computer at the library instead of at home, remove the GPS from their phone and car, change their email password and clear their internet browsing history, as all of these can provide abusers with clues to their victims’ whereabouts.
Safer Path Family Violence Shelter, (830) 569-2001, and the Wintergarden Women’s Shelter, (800) 363-9441, both have 24-hour hotlines for victims of an abusive relationship.