One of my first homicide stories as a young crime reporter was about a woman killed by her boyfriend. One of my last stories as a crime reporter was about a woman killed by her husband. In between, there were too many dead women to count. A few stand out in memory, the ones whose deaths were especially grisly or tragic. But without fail, women slain by the men they loved kept coming across my desk.
It's amazing how routine abuse can become. That's why, whenever a woman turned up dead in South Florida, I knew exactly what to do.
First, find the old restraining order she'd let expire. Second, pull the file from the courthouse. Finally, find the letter inside in which she'd told the court her boyfriend or husband promised he would never hit her again. Because he's a changed man. Because this was a one-time incident. Because I'm at fault, too. Because this is not a reflection of our relationship. He'll never hit me again, the dead women had pleaded—just like Janay Rice did, on national television.
But this story isn't about that press conference anymore. It's about the video that shows Ray Rice with Janay—then his fiancée, now his wife—in an Atlantic City casino elevator. She rushes up to him, and he throws one swift punch. Her body goes horizontal, head slamming into a handrail before she crumples, powerless, to the floor. It happens in seconds, and then come the gut-wrenching moments when Ray Rice stands there, just stands there, over her unconscious body.
Get angry at what Ray Rice did and get angry at what Roger Goodell didn't do, but please don't be surprised by any of it. Not by the hit, not by the blatant attempts to make it look like it was the woman's fault, not by Rice saying he would never do it again, not even by his wife taking him back. From the beginning, the Ray Rice saga has recapitulated everything awful about how domestic violence plays out in America. It has followed the script perfectly.
Act I: We Don't Know All The Facts
"Michael Diamondstein, an attorney for Rice, says that he's hopeful that after an investigation 'the matter turns out to be little more than a misunderstanding.'"—Associated Press, Feb. 16, 2014
"I really don't know that situation. With me, I get all the answers. Then that's when we make decisions within this organization—once we get all the information we can get."—Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, Feb. 17, 2014
Here's what I remember from watching the nightly local news with my parents as a child: My father's voice, booming over the reporter's, with his solution to who killed the woman. It was always the same solution.
Her boyfriend did it.
I remember it in that way it's easy to remember the moments that first nip away at your childhood fantasies, the ones where handsome princes whisk away princesses, Disney-style. My favorite movie at the time was Lady and the Tramp, an animated romp about the romantic adventures of an American cocker spaniel and a stray mutt who defeat an evil rat. Boyfriends killing girlfriends? No way, I would argue with my dad. Even at the age of 5, I knew the unspoken script of denial: We don't have all the facts; we don't know what happened that night; maybe someone else is mad at her, too.
It's easy to compartmentalize violence, to assume bad things are done by bad people lacking compassion and a moral compass. Nobody wants to believe the most dangerous people in their lives might be the ones they love.
Except that's exactly what domestic abuse is, violence and psychological torment wrapped up in a blanket of seemingly earnest "I love you"s.
Domestic abuse is a spectrum, and the deaths I covered are on it just as surely as Rice's left hook is. Domestic abuse is the man who hits his wife and promises he'll never do it again. Domestic abuse is the boyfriend who tells his girlfriend she's ugly and nobody else would have her. Domestic abuse is the man who won't let a woman get a job, insisting she rely on money he doles out to her. Victims often feel like they need to stay with their abusers, and the behaviors that abusers use to retain power and control over their victims—isolating them, minimizing whatever happened, laying on guilt about the children—are cyclical in a way that gets literalized in domestic-violence pamphlets as the Power and Control Wheel.
Too often, this ends fatally. Women are less likely than men to be killed in America, but far more likely than the other sex to be intimate with their killer. Of all the women murdered in 2010, nearly 40 percent were killed by a spouse or someone they were dating, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This number has been 30 percent or higher since 1996.
For men who are murdered, the percentage killed by someone they're intimate with hovers at about 2 to 3 percent.
I eventually stopped watching the news with my dad. I got sick of it proving him right.
Act II: Some Of It Was Her Fault
"In Ray Rice's case, he probably deserves more than a two-game suspension which we both acknowledged. But at the same time, we also have to make sure that we learn as much as we can about elements of provocation. Not that there's real provocation, but the elements of provocation, you got to make sure that you address them, because we've got to do is do what we can to try to prevent the situation from happening in any way. And I don't think that's broached enough, is all I'm saying. No point of blame."—Stephen A. Smith, July 25, 2014
Before you talk about Janay Rice and what she has said, consider this. In 2011, a group of researchers published their findings after studying the recorded detention-center phone calls between 25 couples. In each couple, the man had been charged with felony-level domestic violence and was behind bars while awaiting trial in Washington. In each couple, the victim was a woman. Of the 25 couples, 17 women eventually recanted their stories. The phone calls show exactly how the attackers convinced their victims to do it.
Attackers in domestic violence have an advantage most criminals don't. They have an intimate relationship with their victim and know exactly how to appeal for sympathy. They prey on our capacity to forgive. In the detention-center calls, first the men downplay what happened, then they beg for help. They bemoan the horrors of incarcerated life, fret about their children growing up fatherless, worry about how their victims are doing without them, even threaten to kill themselves. They tell stories about the good times, how they first started dating, invoke the Lord, even Buddha. Finally, the attackers tells the victims to change their stories. It works.
These are several of those conversations:
"You gotta sit up front and tell them that what you wrote in the (police) report was a lie."
"Uh huh, I will."
"No one really knows what happened anyway, it was all kind of a blur, I don't know what happened."
"I know, I don't know either."
"Well, if you don't know if you really committed a crime ... "
"But you've just gotta' say .. what you wrote on, in the statement is a lie, that you're just mad 'cause you thought I was cheatin' on you with your cousin. If you say that—"
"If you say that, they'll automatically let me go."
"I don't know if you really committed a crime."
When the women agree to recant, the couples coordinate what should be said to make everything go away. They start depicting themselves as a united front, even think of ways to protect the attacker, often blaming the government, prosecutors, outsiders for their plight.
Now, read Janay's quote again from her press conference.
"I do deeply regret the role that I played in the incident that night."
Act III: He's A Changed Man, So Let's Move On
"I think what's important here is that Ray has taken responsibility for this. He's been accountable for his actions. He recognizes he made a horrible mistake, and that is unacceptable by his standards and by our standards, and he's got to work to reestablish himself. And the criminal justice system, as you know, put him in a diversionary program with no discipline, and we felt it's appropriate to have discipline, and to continue to counseling programs, and to continue our education and work."—Roger Goodell, Aug. 1, 2014
He will act better now is what Kathlin Y. Raigoso told the court. She filed for a restraining order in 2009 after her husband, Erasmo Reina Moreno, hit her with a dumbbell while she was eight months pregnant, according to Aventura, Fla., police. The hit capped several turbulent months during which, Moreno said, the 31-year-old Raigoso had verbally abused him, calling her 72-year-old husband "a decrepit old man and threatening him with violence in the event he does not vacate his own home," one court record said.
Like Rice, Moreno pleaded not guilty in his violence case and was placed in a pre-trial diversion program. His wife took him back.
"I have decided to lift the restraining order and give my children the opportunity to live with their father. I think that he, my husband, will act better now in his home and change his attitude," she wrote to the court.
Five months later, they were living apart, but Moreno still had access to their gated community on the day Raigoso came home and found their 10-year-old son gunned to death. Moreno was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound just a few miles away.
I remember her not because the details shocked me, but because the newer reporter assigned to work on the story with me made me realize just how routine these deaths had become to me. I found the case information for the restraining order online and told the other reporter exactly how to get the file from the clerks and what to look for. He came back with copies of the court file, saying the clerks all had certain looks on their faces when he asked for it. Oh, you want this file? They had been waiting for us.
Officially, the police said it was still an open investigation, but that felt like a formality. The husband did it.
Act IV: Half Measures And Consequences
"I don't know if I want to get into all the details about it. I think it's pretty obvious and pretty apparent. Everybody's seen the video, and we'll just leave it at that."—John Harbaugh, Sept. 8, 2014
I want to believe Ray when says he'll never hit Janay again. I want to believe he's a changed man, that he understands why hitting Janay was wrong. I want to believe the cycle of domestic violence can be broken. I want to believe a whole lot of people learned from what happened. But we didn't.
Janay Rice is the victim, but on the day Ray Rice was cut by his team, then suspended indefinitely by the league, it was mostly Ray whom everyone talked about. Was his punishment fair? Too harsh? How will he make a living? What kind of precedent does this set for the league?
If a few people asked about Janay, their voices couldn't rise above the shouting. She's the victim, but where were the pundits asking how she was doing? The man who hit her had just lost his job and been sent home—to her. Was she safe? Did anybody ask? Did anybody care?
As this wore on, I was going through my old clips, trying to find old stories I remembered. But what struck me were all the ones I forgot. Geraldo Regalado, who went on a rampage inside a Hialeah cafe, killing five people, including himself and his estranged wife, because he couldn't let her go. Larry Daughtry, who killed his girlfriend then left her two young sons alone with their mother's body for close to 20 hours. John Charles Reasee, whose reaction to hearing he was going to jail for violating a restraining order was to attack his ex-girlfriend in the middle of a courtroom. The judge leaped from his bench and rushed to shield Nicole Word, but Reasee still landed five blows, including one with a closed fist to the side of her head, before he could be brought under control.
"I thought he was going to kill me," Word told me back in 2009. "I really did."
Reading the quote again, I told myself to focus on the positive, the one thing that made this story different from most of the others I'd written: Janay, Ray and their daughter are all still alive. But otherwise, it's all the same.
Image by Jim Cooke, photo via AP. Middle photo via Getty.