Houston’s fifth domestic violence homicide highlights DA strangulation initiative
Jason Farmer, a 34-year-old registered sex offender, is behind bars charged with manslaughter, accused of strangling his fiancee’s sister last week during sex.
Angela Montante, 23, was found Friday in a motel room in southwest Houston after Farmer allegedly called police and reported the death. Farmer told police it was consensual sex gone awry, a common defense when an intimate partner is killed during sex.
It is the second time Farmer, a registered sex offender, has been accused of choking an intimate partner, and the alleged manslaughter happened just days before Farmer was expected to go on trial for the alleged molestation of two girls.
The escalation of violence that allegedly led to Montante’s death is a trend prosecutors are trying to slow through a new initiative with law enforcement agencies to aggressively go after suspects who choke or strangle intimate partners but don’t kill them.
Montante was the county’s fifth victim of fatal domestic violence this year — including strangulations and shootings — a troubling statistic for prosecutors.
“A person who can strangle an intimate partner is determined to maintain power and control over their victims,” said Carvana Cloud, a chief prosecutor in Harris County District Attorney’s Office who recently created a strangulation task force. “So they look for victims who are susceptible or vulnerable to their manipulation and abuse. It’s a different type of rage that a strangler has to have.”
A non-fatal strangulation is often the last step before domestic violence turns deadly, usually in a fatal shooting, according to prosecutors and experts.
“Harris County leads the state in the number of domestic violence homicides,” Cloud said. “We need to punish these offenders and hold them accountable. In the ‘escalation of violence’ from strangulation there’s only one thing left, and that’s homicide.”
Cloud, after taking over the Family Criminal Law Division under DA Kim Ogg’s administration, put together a “strangulation task force” that includes experts in domestic violence and representatives from law enforcement agencies, including the Houston Police Department and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, to address domestic violence deaths. The group, which meets monthly, realized that first responders have not been trained to look for all the signs to record, or the right questions to ask, when filing paperwork in a felony case.
Because only about half of women who have been strangled have easily observable marks around their neck, many cases filed as misdemeanor assault or not filed at all could have been filed as felonies. Police had not known to look for symptoms commonly observed when the flow of blood or oxygen is obstructed.
“There are signs that police can ask about,” Cloud said. “Like raspiness in the throat, a sore throat, ringing in the ears, or if she says she lost consciousness or she says she couldn’t see or she says she saw stars.”
She noted that strangling a domestic partner was not generally filed as a felony until 2009, when legislators passed a bill to strengthen existing law and make obstructing breath or blood by restricting the neck a more serious form of domestic violence. But police usually just looked for the telltale red marks on the neck. By training law enforcement officers and prosecutors that there are more observable signs of strangulation than just red marks, felony filings in domestic violence cases rose by almost 1,000 last year.
History of assault
Before the DA’s initiative, felonies were difficult to prosecute because of a lack of recorded evidence and the unfortunate fact that many victims recant out of fear or even go back to their attacker, hoping it doesn’t happen again.
“We were either dismissing them or reducing them down to a lesser offense at a rate of about half,” Cloud said. “And it’s really not a good idea ever to let these guys off with a slap on the wrist.”
Defense attorneys said they welcome more training for officers, especially in identifying evidence that may be conclusive in high-stakes cases.
“So many of these cases are the proverbial ‘he said, she said’ with no evidence,” said Tucker Graves president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. “If they’re going to take the time to single out these cases, they need to train these officers to make sure they’re investigating them properly.”
In Farmer’s case, he spent three years in prison for a 2009 rape at knife point of a woman in her home. After confronting her with a knife, he put his hand around the woman’s throat to get her into a bedroom where he raped her while her small children remained in the living room. It took her three days to come forward because she was so terrified, court records show. Farmer was arrested for a first-degree felony, a charge that was reduced to a second-degree felony when he pleaded guilty in exchange for three years in prison.
After getting out of prison, he apparently lived with friends and family and allegedly continued sexually abusing people around him.
A 10-year-old he knew said she woke up near him on a couch one evening in 2013 and realized his hand was under her shirt, a violation that left the girl sobbing. There apparently was not enough evidence to arrest him, so investigators continued to interview the girl and one of her family members, a 13-year-old girl.
Almost two years later, the older girl allegedly told investigators that Farmer continually sexually assaulted her for eight months beginning in 2012. She told police he offered her money not to tell and when she refused, he said he would burn down her family’s house if she told, according to court records. She said he once gave her a “slush that tasted weird” that made her sleepy and she woke up to find him sexually assaulting her.
In addition to her ordeal as a victim of sexual assault, the young girl learned she had contracted a sexually transmitted disease.
Farmer, when he was arrested Friday for manslaughter, was free on a total of $200,000 bond after being charged with indecency with a child and continuous sexual abuse of a child, accused of repeatedly molesting the 13-year-old victim.
He was scheduled to go to trial Monday, where he faced a minimum of 25 years in prison and a maximum of life if convicted. He remains in the Harris County jail, in lieu of a $1,000,000 bail. His court-appointed attorney, Miranda Meador, did not return calls for comment.
Farmer apparently called the HPD officers about 7 p.m. Friday and said he killed a woman between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Thursday.
When police got to the Americas Inn in the 8200 block of Southwest Freeway, Farmer allegedly said he had killed his fiance’s sister and took officers to the woman’s body inside the motel room he rented.
He told police that he choked Montante while they were having sex, prosecutors said. Farmer told police that Montante panicked and he stopped choking her while she continued to “freak out.” Her body went limp three to five minutes later.
The “rough sex” defense, such as that offered by Farmer, is common in similar cases, said prosecutors and experts who do not believe it.
“There’s no way she consented to that strangulation,” said Kelsey McKay, an expert in domestic violence strangulation cases who worked as a prosecutor in Austin for 12 years. “During rough sex, if you strangle someone, they go unconscious in about 10 seconds. It takes another 60 to 111 seconds for them to then die. So, their body would be limp and unconscious and you would have to continue that pressure up to two and half more minutes. That case is such B.S.”
McKay has been working with the DA’s office to increase awareness among law enforcement. A tangible result of the task force has been the creation of checklist for police and first responders that is the size of a business card. McKay, Cloud and others are teaming up to train law enforcement officers to look for evidence of strangulation to get more domestic abusers off the street.
“Studies show that after one non-fatal strangulation, the offender is eight times more likely to murder (the woman),” McKay said. “When you look at an intimate partner homicide, 43 percent of the women who were killed by an intimate partner were strangled in the year leading up to it.”
It’s a mission for McKay who said research shows that men who commit domestic violence, especially stranglers, are linked to serial killings, mass shootings and shooting police officers.
“These are the kinds of perpetrators who are more violent and have more disregard for human life, and they are the ones who go on to be serial killers and mass shooters,” she said. “A strangulation means you like to feel what it’s like to kill someone, you are feeling the pulse in their body go limp, you are playing God. Serial killers like to play God.”
She acknowledged that not everyone who strangles someone is a serial killer, but said serial killers grow out of that action.
Still, when a man is accused of killing a woman during sex, the defense is often that rough sex got out of hand.
“Women are not consenting to strangulation in sex like people want to think they are,” McKay said. “It’s because they’re dead and perpetrators have to come up with something that’s mitigating, and they use that all the time. They’re outsmarting the criminal justice system over and over and over.”
Houstonians were shocked in 2014 when 18-year-old Eddie Herrera was arrested for strangling 17-year-old Jacqueline Gomez during sex in a hotel room after her prom at Aldine’s MacArthur High School. She was found dead the next morning in the hotel bed.
Herrera told police he and his mother worked together to rent the hotel room, get two bottles of whiskey and at least 20 pills of hydrocodone, a prescription painkiller. He told detectives that he and Gomez drank a bottle and a half of whiskey and took most of the pills before having consensual sex.
It was during sex, he told police, that she asked him to squeeze her neck. Prosecutors at trial told jurors Herrera choked Gomez past the point where she was unconscious during a brutal episode of rough sex. He then passed out next to her and woke to find her dead.
Herrera was later convicted of assault and faced life in prison. Jurors sentenced him to 25 years in prison.
One of the members of the strangulation task force, Barbie Brashear with the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, said the recent emphasis on raising awareness is important to increase safety for survivors across Harris County.
Brashear said her agency conducted a study that showed systemic problems in how the DA’s staff handled the prosecution of domestic violence cases, including critical protections such as obtaining restraining orders against a violent partner.
“We found some pretty glaringly obvious changes that needed to be made,” Brashear said. “With this administration, we’ve seen a willingness to listen and to work together.”