Jardine: Deadly Routine

April 26, 2009 

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Jeff Jardine

  • “Domestic violence is such a difficult caseload – a difficult offender to work with. There is absolutely no indication (a murder) is going to happen. There’s no classic profile of a fatal domestic violence offender.”

    - Jerry Powers, Stanislaus County’s chief probation officer.

    “We can’t lock ‘em up for the rest of their lives on misdemeanor or felony charge of domestic violence. They get as much jail time as judge is willing. While (the offender is) in, we have to hope the victim is given tools to make changes in her life.”

    - Birgit Fladager, Stanislaus County District Attorney.

    “The unfortunate thing is that we have limited programs. We can’t keep (victims) forever. We can’t hide them forever. Ultimately, they have to get back into the world, and they should be able to get back into the world. They shouldn’t have to hide.”

    - Belinda Rolicheck, executive director, Haven Women’s Center of Stanislaus.

It's convenient to blame a judge who lets a man, convicted of domestic violence, have two months of freedom before reporting for his 60-day county jail term.

It's easy to bash the prosecutor who accepted that arrangement as part of the plea agreement.

It's popular to rattle sabers and claim the system failed 26-year-old Katherine Voelker of Waterford, who police say was stabbed to death by her former boyfriend, 38-year-old Erick John Vogel, as their two small children watched. This happened last week in a McHenry Avenue motel, where somehow he found her in hiding.

But considering the circumstances of the case, could the killing have been stopped?

"The only person who can prevent it is the abuser," said Belinda Rolicheck, executive director of the Haven Women's Center in Modesto, where Voelker and her children holed up for a month before moving on to another victims program. "He's the only person who could stop what he's doing."

"It sounds like he was hellbent on going after her," Stanislaus County Probation Chief Jerry Powers said.

Therein lies the tragedy, or at least a part of it: Voelker was in the minority among women who are domestic violence victims. She'd had enough of an abusive mate. She sought help to escape him.

Far too often, victims stay in abusive relationships, controlled and terrorized for years. The abuse escalates over time before an arrest is ever made. Then, the black eyes, bruises and physical pain from the beatings fade, replaced by the fear of what might happen if she testifies against a man who has been so brutal and controlling.

"Victims become uncooperative with us in virtually every case," said Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager, who prosecuted domestic violence cases here as a deputy district attorney in the mid-1990s. "They're afraid of the defendant. They'll make a statement, then they'll go back and lie to the police and say, 'I didn't say that.' Or, 'I walked into a wall,' and I know that's not true."

The victim frequently becomes the roadblock to a conviction, Fladager said. Hence, a plea bargain.

"Essentially, we'll take what we can get and get (the abuser) into a mandatory counseling program, which lasts a year," she said.

Fladager remembers all too vividly the case of Darius Kirvin. In 1994, as a deputy district attorney, she prosecuted him for domestic violence. His wife begged Fladager to drop the charges and threatened to leave the county. Kirvin ultimately pleaded guilty and was sentenced to jail. But like Vogel, he was given several weeks before reporting to the jail.

A few weeks later, he killed his wife. He eventually was sentenced to 25 years to life and is in prison at the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown.

"I think of that every time there's a domestic violence case," Fladager said.

Got to have a paycheck

Prior convictions and overcrowding at the jail become factors as a judge determines whether a convicted abuser should be incarcerated immediately or can be allowed time to get his affairs in order before lockup. Many times, the victim will plead for that window of time for economic reasons, Fladager said.

"If he's going in for a significant stay, the family loses the ability to make house and car payments," she said. "(The victims) don't want to be homeless. (Defendants) also need to pay for their counseling. If they lose their job, they can't do that."

Which means that in many cases, a man convicted of domestic violence returns home to the woman he abused and lives with her until reporting for his jail term.

Just as there aren't enough jail beds, Powers, the probation chief, has two officers he can assign to monitor the roughly 2,000 people on probation for domestic violence convictions. One officer handles the 1,500 convicted of misdemeanors. The other handles the 250 or so convicted of felonies. The rest are in custody, he said.

In the Voelker case, Vogel had been convicted twice: on a misdemeanor domestic violence charge in August and on a felony charge last month. After pleading guilty to the felony charge March 24, he was ordered by Superior Court Judge Donald Shaver to report to the jail May 26 and to meet with a probation officer in the interim. Because of the heavy caseload, Vogel was scheduled for his first meeting with his parole officer April 13, and attended that meeting. He was told to register in a court-ordered counseling program for domestic violence offenders at Sierra Vista Child and Family Services, Powers said. Citing client confidentiality, the agency refused to disclose whether Vogel signed up for the counseling.

Understandably, whenever there's such a tragic or shocking event, the associated agencies rethink their methods and policies. Giving defendants time to get their affairs in order before going to jail is a routine that needs revisiting, said Haven's Rolicheck.

"Maybe it doesn't need to be routine," she said. "Maybe the routine needs to change, and we need to be listening more thoroughly to these women. If you need a reason to do that, this is a very good reason.

"We who work in this field really believe and understand that the victim knows her abuser better than anyone else -- what he's going to do, how he's going to respond. In general, the criminal justice system doesn't pay attention to them (the victims). I don't think they ask."

GPS and abuser profile

In conversations with Rolicheck since Voelker's slaying, Powers offered to use GPS devices to track domestic violence offenders and perhaps prevent a similar incident in the future. Officers can electronically limit the areas where a monitored probationer can go. If the offender ventures beyond those areas -- as small as the foundation of a home to several square miles in diameter -- the device will place a telephone call to alert the probation officer.

"It doesn't shock and immobilize them," Power said. "But it makes them think twice. We'll arrest them and they go to jail."

Haven counselors who work with the victims could alert the Probation Department if the victims feel their abuser is an immediate threat, and probation could attach the GPS devices, he said.

"It never occurred to us to use Haven in that way to help victims," Powers said.

Likewise, counselors who work with the victims could gather information about the abusers -- where they hang out, who their friends are, where they're likely to go in a panic -- creating a profile that could be used to find them if they violate the terms of their probation. The victims, of course, would have to waive confidentiality.

The district attorney's office two years ago began working toward establishing a privately funded family justice center in Modesto. Such centers house representatives of all the agencies involved in domestic violence, creating a one-stop location for victims. They've been successful in Alameda County, Anaheim and San Diego, Fladager said.

"She (the victim) always knows where to go," Fladager said. "Walk in the doors and she'll get all the help she needs."

Good concepts all, though too late to save Katherine Voelker.

Only her killer could have done that.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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