Oklahoma struggles to reduce domestic violence deaths
Desirae Parnell left home that December day in 2016 intent on going to the courthouse to get a protective order.
A friend who was a police officer planned to help her fill out the paperwork.
But first, she wanted to take care of a few things at a medical center she managed in south Oklahoma City.
She never made it to the courthouse.
In the parking lot where she worked, an ex-boyfriend, the father of her two sons, waited. He'd been threatening her since before she'd moved out several months before. Now, just three days shy of her 31st birthday, he pulled a gun and shot her in the head.
On average, an Oklahoman dies every five days as a result of domestic violence, more than 1,600 victims between 1998 and 2016, according to the Oklahoma Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board.
In recent years, Oklahoma often ranked among the worst in the nation for the rate of women killed by men, according to the Violence Policy Center, a national research and advocacy organization. But women aren't the only victims of domestic violence in Oklahoma. In 2016, for example, more than half of the victims whose deaths were attributed to domestic violence were boys or men.
Despite the efforts of service providers and other advocates, the state has struggled in recent years to reduce the number of domestic violence homicides. From 2012 through 2016, the number of victims increased slightly each year, from 88 to 95.
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"Something needs to change," said Carolyn Parnell, Desirae's mom. "I don't know what ... but somehow something needs to change to help protect these victims."
'She's supposed to be here'
Don and Carolyn Parnell could see that their daughter, Desirae, was in a better place.
Desirae had recently taken over managing a second Access Medical Center, financially enabling her in August 2016 to leave her boyfriend and move out on her own with her two sons.
"She was doing great," Carolyn Parnell said. "She was getting happy again."
At least twice in the past, Oklahoma City police responded to domestic incidents involving Desirae and Zachary Blake, the father of her sons. In 2012, Parnell told police Blake came home drunk and slapped her. Three years later, she told police Blake threatened to beat her. Over the years, Blake had been controlling and emotionally abusive to Desirae, Carolyn Parnell said.
"She thought she could change him," Carolyn Parnell said. "She thought she could make him a better person."
A last straw for Desirae was when Blake didn't take their sons to wrestling practice as planned and she didn't know where they were. Desirae told Blake she was getting a protective order. If she did, he threatened, he'd kill her and then himself, her parents said.
Later that week, Desirae filed another police report. Blake was harassing her with telephone calls and text messages, even threatening to kill her. She took the boys to stay with her parents for the weekend. Desirae returned to her apartment with her mom to pick up a few items and discovered the screens on the windows were torn.
Several days later, on the morning of Dec. 7, 2016, Carolyn Parnell got a call from one of her daughter's employees. The end of the shopping center near Desirae's office was roped off with police tape. Word was spreading among onlookers of a murder-suicide.
"I knew what had happened," Carolyn Parnell said. "And all I wanted to do was get Don and get there. I just wanted to hold her."
Carolyn and Don broke the news to their grandsons, just 5 and 7 years old. They held the boys in their laps, told them their mom and dad got in a big fight, that their dad hurt their mom. She wouldn't be coming back.
"Mommy's in heaven now," they said, "and no one can ever hurt her again."
The grandparents didn't want to overwhelm the boys, so they waited a few days and then told the boys their dad got so mad during the fight that he hurt himself, too, and he wouldn't be coming back either.
Don and Carolyn, both 60, are raising their grandsons now. They talk about Desirae with the boys and let them know that the door is always open if they have questions. They put together a scrapbook of news articles about what happened. When the boys are old enough or ask to know what happened, they plan to give them the book and let them make their own decisions.
A blue and orange banner hangs on a wall in the boys' bedroom. It bears the logo of Desirae's oldest son's baseball team, the Moore Astros, and the words "In loving memory of Desirae Parnell." Desirae started the team and volunteered to coach for the first season despite knowing nothing about the sport. Her son wanted to play, and the team needed a coach.
After Desirae died, the team hung the banner outside the dugout. The players wore an angel decal on their helmets with an abbreviation of her name, "Des."
"It's not fair the boys got left without a mom," Carolyn Parnell said. "She's supposed to be here watching them grow up. She's supposed to be going to the ballgames. It's just, it's not fair that they don't get that, and she doesn't get it either. All of them were cheated that part of life."
Every five days
On a Wednesday morning in March, members of the Oklahoma Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board gathered inside a conference room at the Oklahoma Attorney General's office building, not far from the state Capitol.
The 18-member group, created through legislation in 2001, is tasked with identifying domestic violence-related homicides that happen in Oklahoma each year, reviewing cases and making recommendations with the ultimate goal of saving lives.
The board includes a variety of backgrounds, including a domestic violence survivor, law enforcement officers and medical and health professionals.
The review board's most recent report identified 95 victims who died in 2016, ranging from a newborn to a 78-year-old. The average victim was 37. Ten of the perpetrators either killed themselves or were killed by someone who intervened.
The fatality review board uses a variety of sources to identify and review domestic violence deaths. Program manager Jacqueline Steyn monitors the news and works to identify homicide cases.
Sometimes service providers and law enforcement agencies notify the board about domestic violence deaths in their communities. Once a potential domestic violence-related homicide is identified, Steyn gathers additional information, including medical examiner's reports, law enforcement records and court records.
She knows the process is not very streamlined and there's always the possibility that the review board might not identify every single victim, but she said she thinks the board gets “exceptionally close.”
“Every life lost has to be respected,” said Steyn, who is not a member of the board. “Not just for that person's life but for their family, and so we do everything we can to make sure we include all homicides.”
The review board reports on an array of domestic violence cases, including intimate partner homicides and homicides committed by family members and roommates. The board selects certain cases to examine in depth.
It's a painstaking process. Most of the people who serve on the fatality review board are professionals who have seen "the worst of the worst before," said Brandi Woods-Littlejohn, the review board's chairwoman. Still, the job is challenging. Every case the board reviews represents a life cut too short by violence.
While reviewing cases, the board looks for systemic issues. If systems were involved or aware of the violence, how did they respond? Was the response appropriate? What improvements can be made so that maybe next time the outcome will be different?
On this particular Wednesday morning, members of the review board sifted through a stack of papers about 2 inches thick containing court records and police reports from an intimate partner homicide. They discussed the case in closed session to protect the privacy of the victim, whose name is never publicly released.
Woods-Littlejohn said it's important to honor the lives lost to domestic violence.
"Nobody deserves what's happened in these cases," she said. "Nobody deserves to be abused and certainly nobody deserves to be killed because of the violence occurring in their life, so we work really hard to honor those victims and try to learn their stories so that we can improve the system."
'It takes the community'
While the largest number of domestic violence homicides occur in counties that are home to some of the state's largest cities, such as Tulsa and Oklahoma City, rural areas are not immune to the problem.
Located along Oklahoma's eastern border, LeFlore County had 37 domestic violence homicide victims from 1998 through 2016, the fifth-most of any county in Oklahoma.
For some victims, the vast, rural nature of the county presents challenges, said Deanna Chancellor, executive director of Women's Crisis Services of LeFlore County, which serves LeFlore and Latimer counties. A victim who lives in the southern part of LeFlore County might have to drive an hour or more to Poteau, the county seat.
"They don't feel like they have services that they can access freely," she said.
During recent years, her agency expanded its outpatient services and tried to market the different services it provides, Chancellor said. She said early intervention is key.
"We want to have no fatalities in our county," Chancellor said. "It's a process, and it's something that didn't start overnight. We're not going to improve it overnight, but our goal is that we would make strides every year to have better outcomes with the cases that we're involved in."
In Oklahoma, almost four in 10 women have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, which was published last year using data from 2010 to 2012.
Experts said domestic violence is a complex issue that requires a collaborative community response.
“As service providers we can only do so much,” said Angela Beatty, senior director of domestic violence victim services for the YWCA Oklahoma City. “It takes the community to be able to say that domestic violence is not OK. We often use the tag line that domestic violence only rises to a level that the community is willing to accept.”
One example of a collaborative approach is Palomar, the family justice center that opened in Oklahoma City last year. A variety of agencies that operate at the center on N Hudson provide services to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, human trafficking and elder abuse.
Awareness of and access to domestic violence services is critical. The fatality review board has consistently found that between 95 and 98 percent of domestic violence homicide victims did not receive services from a service provider agency before their deaths, Steyn said.
Among the board's recommendations for this year were strangulation awareness training, understanding the unique needs of male victims and cross-training to help with the needs of elderly abuse victims. Eleven of the 95 victims killed in Oklahoma in 2016 were over the age of 60, according to the report.
“There's no one practice or no one solution that we can implement that will change the tide,” Steyn said. “It will be many different things. But even though it's complex, we need to work together collaboratively.”
Celia Huntley wore a yellow sweater. It's the only piece of yellow clothing she owns. Huntley doesn't care for the color, but it was her cousin Jillian's favorite.
So, Huntley wore her yellow sweater to a court date in the middle of July and again more recently when she met with a reporter from The Oklahoman. Wearing yellow is one way she keeps her cousin's memory alive.
Jillian Riddle was killed Sept. 19, 2016. She was 31 years old. Prosecutors charged her boyfriend, Bobby Rogers, with murder. He is accused of breaking Riddle's neck. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for May 7.
Huntley talked to her cousin about 10 days before her death. The reception was choppy so they didn't talk long. Riddle told Huntley she was staying with her new boyfriend. She said she was doing well and she was happy, Huntley recalled.
That was the first Huntley had heard about Jillian's new boyfriend. Huntley didn't know his name. But when she saw Rogers' mugshot on television after Jillian was killed, she immediately recognized him. Rogers had been in a relationship with one of Huntley's friends in the past.
In 2008, Rogers pleaded guilty to domestic assault and battery. He choked his then-girlfriend, hit her in the face and bit her leg, court records show.
Photographs of Jillian, or Jilly Bean as Huntley affectionately called her, are taped to the wall in the corner of Huntley's living room. The photos commemorate different stages and milestones of their childhood and young adulthood — birthdays, a visit to a mall photo booth as teenagers and other occasions. There's one from Halloween when Jillian dressed as a vampire. She always had to be scary, Huntley said.
Huntley and Riddle grew up less than a block from each other in Moore and were less than a year apart in age. They were like sisters.
Huntley wishes she had known who her cousin was dating. She wishes she could have warned Jillian.
"I wish she would've talked to me," Huntley said, her chin quivering with emotion and her eyes glossy with tears. "I wish she would've opened up to me and told me what was going on. I feel like I could have done more and I should have done more."
Every morning, Huntley pauses near the cluster of photos to say hello to her cousin. Some days, she sits in a chair beneath the wall of photos and talks to Jill. Occasionally she sends a Facebook message even though she knows her cousin will never respond.
Huntley can't help but laugh when she hears the jingle of an ice cream truck. It reminds her of a time Jillian made Huntley and another cousin go to great lengths to track down an ice cream truck in the neighborhood. They might have startled the driver, but Jillian got the Tweety Bird ice cream bar she was craving.
"She was one of a kind," Huntley said. "She was not afraid to tell you what she thought. She was a true redhead through-and-through — fire from head to toe."
Riddle was spunky and outgoing and loved to sing. She could turn anything into a song, even household chores like folding laundry, and she knew the words to every song from every Disney movie.
"It's unbelievable how much you can miss someone," Huntley said.
How to get help
For help if you or someone you know would like help connecting with services, call 1-800-522-7233. Advocates are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The safeline provides assistance with safety planning, crisis intervention, emergency shelter and advocacy for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.
Darla Slipke is an enterprise reporter for The Oklahoman. She is a native of Bristol, Conn., and a graduate of the University of Kansas. Slipke worked for newspapers in Kansas, Connecticut,... Read more ›