We can, and must, do more to protect women from deadly domestic violence

March 18, 2021 12:01 am

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If ever there were a case in which a known abuser of women had clearly telegraphed the intent to kill someone he’d dated, then Mark O’Leary would be Exhibit A.

The 40-year-old felon now faces first-degree murder, felony firearm and other charges in the slaying of his estranged partner, Sammi Jo Burkhart, in Chesapeake in February. It was just a few months after O’Leary had been arrested in Virginia Beach for misdemeanor assault against Burkhart, who was 37. Court records revealed he had a history of harming women, The Virginian-Pilot reported. A witness to the slaying, who O’Leary reportedly held hostage along with Burkhart, told police what had happened.

Despite the earlier violent attacks, a magistrate released O’Leary on bond in late December. A spokeswoman with the Virginia Beach Commonwealth Attorney’s Office told me her office had objected in court.

He had been convicted of threatening another woman before. That partner, who had children with O’Leary, took out felony charges against him in Norfolk. She accused him of assault, abduction and breaking and entering while armed with a weapon just a few days before Burkhart was killed.

I couldn’t reach O’Leary’s attorney for comment Wednesday.

It must be asked: Given all the indications O’Leary was capable – and willing – to attack women in several cities, could more have been done to prevent the slaying?

If found guilty, the court will surely sentence O’Leary to a long prison term. That will do nothing for Burkhart, and perhaps little for her grieving family.

I know second-guessing after domestic violence homicides is easy, especially when there’s been a record of abuse. Data collected by the state’s Family and Intimate Partner Homicide Surveillance Project show more than one-third of slayings in Virginia each year are linked to domestic violence. Women are usually the victims in these cases.

Guns are used in more than half of such homicides. About 40 percent of intimate partner homicides take place while or after a relationship is ending, when women are trying to reassert their independence.

Sadly, less than three months into the new year, Burkhart isn’t the only victim of suspected domestic violence in Virginia. The cases include:

  • A 37-year-old Chesapeake woman was shot by her live-in boyfriend in early January during a domestic dispute, police said. Antonio Lee Sutton, 39, has been charged with second-degree murder and other counts in the death of Iaisha James and wounding of her daughter.

  • In Henrico, Michael Thurston Sr., 42, faces a second-degree murder charge in the killing of his estranged wife, Tabitha Inge, last month. The family of the 35-year-old woman said authorities had charged Thurston with more than two-dozen domestic violence counts in the past year. Yet, he wasn’t behind bars in the days leading up to Inge’s death.

  • Henrico police charged Germaine Barlow, 40, in last week’s slaying of his wife, Tiffany Michelle Yellardy, 37. She had two children.

  • Norfolk police confirmed Wednesday that Kenyatta F. Jones, the 27-year-old suspect in a double homicide last week that killed a mother and her 23-year-old daughter, was the boyfriend of the younger woman. Jones was arrested this week and faces murder and gun charges.

What happened to Burkhart, then, wasn’t unique. But there should’ve been some way to derail the horrific course of events.

A Virginia Beach Police spokeswoman told me that officers who came to Burkhart’s aid in mid-November had been trained in “lethality assessment protocols” — a way of determining the likelihood that someone could be killed in a situation. They check for a suspect’s history of strangulation, for example, or threatening someone with a gun.

“They took steps to safeguard her … to include assisting the victim relocate that evening,” the police spokeswoman said by email.  “The officers immediately obtained warrants on the suspect” and later arrested him.

Gun safety and anti-domestic violence advocates told me, however, they wondered whether more could have been done.

As a condition of bond in Virginia Beach, maybe the court could’ve forced O’Leary to wear an ankle monitor to track his whereabouts. As a released felon, he wasn’t supposed to own firearms; could police have searched his property to ensure he was obeying the law?

“Looking back, the escalation seems really clear,” said Kate McCord, associate director of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She noted police should do a better job of preventing people with a history of violence from using guns — especially if they’re felons.

She urged me to publish the statewide hotline number, 1-800-838-8238, which is answered 24 hours a day. It provides support and referrals to people grappling with domestic violence and abuse.

I’m writing this as reports indicate the ongoing dangers many women face in trying to live safely and free of sexual terror. The World Health Organization just announced that around the globe, almost 1 in 3 women have experienced physical or sexual violence at least once in their lifetime.

Several officials also told me that since the pandemic began, domestic violence cases have risen. People can’t avoid abusive partners as easily now, since so many people are stuck at home – and behind doors.

It’s another reason to disrupt potential acts of violence whenever possible. If there are women in danger, they need to seek help. Relatives, police and advocates must do their part.

No one should be surprised by what happened to Sammi Jo Burkhart. But that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]