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Solutions proposed as domestic killings spike in Erie

February 9, 2019

ERIE, Pa. (AP) — The calls starting coming more often during the summer of 2018.

Marinda Matasowski’s relationship with her boyfriend was deteriorating. The 20-year-old would call her mother when their arguments turned violent.

“A lot of times it was a phone call with her crying that he had hit her,” said Matasowski’s mother, Kim Lobaugh. “I really wanted her to leave him. Somehow she always ended up back there.”

The cycle ended tragically on Aug. 2.

Millcreek Township police charge that Matasowski’s boyfriend, 24-year-old James M. Gilbert, fatally stabbed her at Lobaugh’s residence before stabbing himself. He survived the injury and is at the Erie County Prison awaiting prosecution for murder.

“Every day is difficult,” said Lobaugh, who cares for Matasowski’s 18-month-old son, Jaysen. “You wake up every day and have to be reminded every morning of what life is like now.”

It’s a pain too many families experienced in 2018.

In a year that shattered Erie County’s record for the most homicides, a staggering number of the killings were alleged to have been committed by a person the victim was close to — a spouse, a relative or someone with whom they’d had a relationship.

The spike in domestic killings has brought a call for a death-review panel to study the phenomenon.

Linda Lyons King, the executive director of SafeNet, the nonprofit that serves domestic abuse victims, said a review panel’s findings might reveal key insights about the 2018 deaths, such as patterns in the behavior of the perpetrators or points when the violence could have been stopped sooner.

“We have this really large body of information,” King said. “Where were there intervention possibilities?”

A total of 21 deaths in the county were ruled homicides by the Erie County Coroner’s Office in 2018. The high for homicides in a year had been 15 in 1975, 1976 and 2010.

Two of 2018′s homicides were of people who were injured in Chautauqua County, New York, and died while undergoing treatment in Erie, and one was of a man who died in 2018 of injuries he suffered when he was shot in Erie in 1997, according to Erie County Coroner Lyell Cook.

The remaining 18 homicide victims were people who were injured in Erie County and died here in 2018. At least half of those 18 homicides, including Matasowski’s, were domestic-related. At least five of the city of Erie’s 11 homicides were domestic-related.

By comparison, five of Erie County’s 12 homicides in 2017 were domestic-related, as were at least four of the county’s 13 homicides in 2016.

Lives lost

For Lobaugh, Matasowski’s son, Jaysen, serves as a reminder of the daughter she lost to violence.

“He’s just a little blessing to have around,” Lobaugh said. “Just looking at his face every day is a reminder of her, and you see her in his eyes every day.”

Matasowski, a 2016 McDowell High School graduate, loved dance and cheerleading, her mother said. After Jaysen was born prematurely and spent time in the neonatal intensive care unit, Matasowski decided she wanted to pursue a career as a neonatal nurse, Lobaugh said.

“She had just an incredible personality and was full of life,” Lobaugh said. “She could make a joke out of anything.”

Matasowski’s death in August came in the middle of a year that started with a violent streak of homicides.

The shooting death of 31-year-old Amanda Grazioli on March 8 marked 2018′s first homicide. Her husband of five months, John Grazioli, 45, is awaiting trial for first-degree murder in her killing at their Millcreek Township home.

The slaying was quickly followed by the March 9 deaths of Michele Brown, 53, and Tammy Greenawalt, 35. Brown’s husband, 59-year-old Regis Brown, pleaded guilty to first- and third-degree murder in September and received life in prison plus 20 to 40 years for bludgeoning Brown to death and fatally stabbing Greenawalt.

A deadly March continued with the killing of Keeno Butler, 44, whose girlfriend, Windi Thomas, pleaded guilty to fatally beating and crushing him during a March 18 confrontation at their east Erie residence. Thomas, 44, is serving 18 to 36 years in state prison for third-degree murder in Butler’s death.

On March 24, authorities in Erie said Alfred Phillips, 75, fatally shot himself after killing his stepdaughter, 63-year-old Dorothy Gilkey, and Tanesha Harkless, 41, who was Gilkey’s daughter.

Two more deaths came at the end of the year: Selena Wall, on Nov. 18, and Alicia Stalheim, on Nov. 24. Police have charged Stalheim’s boyfriend with fatally shooting her at the Pizza Hut where she worked.

Wall’s death left her mother, Debra Wall, bereft and missing her best friend.

Debra Wall said that Wednesday was the first time she could bring herself to visit the Gabe’s retail store in Summit Township since Selena Wall, 32, was shot inside her Hess Avenue apartment in Erie and died two days later.

Gabe’s was one of their favorites, and they always had a good time shopping there, Debra Wall said.

Erie police have charged 31-year-old Erie resident Marcus A. Gibbs, whom investigators said was Selena Wall’s boyfriend, in the homicide. He remains at large.

Debra Wall said she was shocked to learn that Gibbs is accused of shooting her daughter. She said the two knew each other since they were teenagers and dated for a time, and Selena Wall stayed in touch with Gibbs when he spent time in prison.

“Problems? As far as I know, there wasn’t any. It seemed like he cared, like he was there for her and her son,” Debra Wall said. “When I was around, there was never any hollering — nothing like that. Selena cared about him. She was putting her little heart into this relationship, she really did. That’s why it is so shocking to me, you know?”

Wall said her daughter was a warm, caring person who was very positive. She cared about her son and did a lot of things with her nieces, nephews and the children of her friends, she said.

“She was a good friend to all her friends. I felt she was my best friend,” Wall said.

New strategies

King, SafeNet’s executive director, said the unusually high rate of domestic killings in 2018 calls for further study from a death-review panel. She hopes the analysis could pinpoint areas where screening for domestic violence could help prevent future killings.

“You can’t do anything unless you have the data,” King said. “You’ve got to start somewhere.”

King said it will be difficult to say whether Erie’s increase in domestic killings is part of a larger trend until more data is available about deaths that occurred across Pennsylvania and the United States in 2018.

King said none of the victims in 2018′s domestic homicides were SafeNet clients. But the organization, which offers shelter, counseling and other services to victims of domestic violence, has seen increased demand in recent years.

The number of people who received services from SafeNet jumped from 914 in 2016 to 1,208 in 2018. The number of calls SafeNet received on its crisis hotline went from 844 in 2016 to 1,320 in 2018, according to data King provided.

One new response to domestic violence has already been put in place.

Erie Police Chief Dan Spizarny said the 173-member city police bureau started a “lethality assessment program” in partnership with SafeNet over the past year, but “unfortunately, it was too late to make a difference in those cases.”

“But we are hoping going forward to help identify potential violence in domestic situations and hopefully, our partnership with SafeNet will yield results,” Spizarny said.

Under the program, officers who respond to domestic incidents question victims to determine the level of danger the victim might be in, and if it needs to be reported to SafeNet, Spizarny said. City police were supplied with cell phones through SafeNet and the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, and those phones can be used by victims to call the 24-hour domestic violence hotline immediately, he said.

“It’s another person offering services,” Spizarny said. “Police can say we can get you to a shelter, but some people are untrusting of the police. It may take an offer from people on the phone. If they don’t take immediate shelter or services, SafeNet is able to follow up with those people in the future.”

Before the lethality assessment program was implemented, Erie police resolved domestic situations the best they could, Spizarny said. But if a person didn’t want to leave a residence, officers would talk to them until they were calm and would leave, he said.

“And sometimes we would end up back there an hour or two later,” Spizarny said. “Now we know someone is following up on that call.”

King said her organization receives about one referral per day from the police. Millcreek police have also been conducting lethality assessments for several years, King said.

“It’s a mechanism by which law enforcement should be gathering information so that they can assess what they have before them in terms of future danger to the victim,” District Attorney Jack Daneri said.

Daneri also said he is supportive of a death-review panel, which he said could help identify ways to tweak existing protocols for law enforcement’s handling of domestic violence situations.

“When the desired result does not happen, in other words, someone dies at the hands of another, you most certainly want to go back and say, ‘Was there anything we could have done?’” he said.

Erie can look to a model to how to address violent trends. Unified Erie, the anti-violence initiative, formed in 2010 and has been credited with reducing gun violence and gang-related violence, particularly among teenagers. In 2018, unlike in previous years, none of the Erie County homicides involved gang violence.

With guidance from the District Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Erie, Unified Erie has brought together a range of local social-service organizations and law-enforcement agencies to implement crime-prevention strategies that have worked elsewhere.

One program involves “call-ins,” the most recent of which was held on Wednesday, in which the agencies meet with troubled youth to warn them against further violence and offer then assistance to improve their circumstances.

Unified Erie is aware of the domestic-violence trend and is willing to help with prevention programs, but is letting SafeNet take the lead in developing new methods, said Amy Eisert, director of the Mercyhurst University Civic Institute, which does research for Unified Erie.

“We are trying to defer to SafeNet,” Eisert said. “They have been the experts in this field from the very beginning.

“We want to work with them,” she said.

‘I wish I could get that back’

Alicia Stalheim’s killing was one of the final homicides reported in 2018.

Erie police charged that 48-year-old Luis Rodriguez, whom Stalheim had been dating, fatally shot Stalheim and wounded another employee while they were working at the Pizza Hut on East 38th Street on Nov. 24.

Stalheim’s family remembered her as a cheerful person and a hard worker. She was the kind of person who would sit in the background at family gatherings and take everything in, watching and inquiring, and was always telling everyone what was going on, said her mother, Mary Banister-Shaffer.

Banister-Shaffer said her 25-year-old daughter was also driven. She was at work without fail at 5:30 a.m. each day she served as a hot walker at Presque Isle Downs, handling horses after they worked out, never sleeping in or calling off sick, Banister-Shaffer said.

After Stalheim started working for Pizza Hut, she worked her way up to a manager’s position, Banister-Shaffer said.

“She wanted her own store, and she worked to be the best she could be when they gave her one,” she said.

Stalheim moved to the Pizza Hut on East 38th Street in Erie over the summer “and just tore that place apart” to improve the restaurant, regularly working long hours to get it into shape, Banister-Shaffer said. The mother of two would also jump in to make sure every job at the pizzeria got done, including delivering pizzas when necessary, said Stalheim’s father, James Shaffer.

Stalheim, who was separated from her husband, had been dating Rodriguez, according to family and others. James Shaffer said he knew his daughter was dating someone but never met Rodriguez, and she never told him if there were any problems in the relationship. Banister-Shaffer said she got to know Rodriguez, and his relationship with her daughter seemed normal, but she wasn’t happy about Stalheim going out with him.

“She had some faults, obviously made some bad decisions and it cost her. But everyone loved her. She was such a good person, a hard worker who never got upset,” Banister-Shaffer said. “Anytime I needed anything she would stop and get it. Then she would stop by and tell me about her day. I would sometimes tell her, ‘OK, can you tell me tomorrow?’ Now I wish I could get that back.”

James Shaffer said he’ll remember his daughter as a friendly, positive and cheerful person who was a great mother. He said the two would talk regularly, and he ended each conversation by telling Stalheim that he loved her.

“I always tell my kids I love them, because you never know what’s going to happen the next day,” he said. “You always have to tell people how you feel. You might never get a second chance.”

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Staff writer Ed Palattella contributed to this report.

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Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com

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