Tracie Williamson's family believed their loved one needed help leaving an abusive relationship.
After finding a four-page handwritten letter over the weekend, which was apparently penned several weeks ago, David Partridge, Williamson's father, was convinced more than ever that his daughter was quietly crying for assistance. The letter detailed a violent relationship with Williamson's live-in boyfriend, Peter Perez, who made threats of serious injury or death to Williamson, members of her family and even Perez's own 1-year-old daughter.
But when Williamson had the opportunity to talk to police, she never mentioned anything was wrong. She never asked officers for help or sought a protective order.
Monday night, Williamson, 28, her 10-year-old daughter, Linzie Williamson, and Perez's 1-year-old daughter, Jessica, were found dead of multiple gunshot wounds in their South Salt Lake house, a secluded structure in the middle of an industrial area near 2400 S. West Temple. Perez was also found dead inside the house of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Law enforcers and advocates for victims of domestic violence say the Williamson case is an example of an extremely difficult situation: How do you help a person escape an apparent abusive relationship when that person won't publicly acknowledge that he or she needs help?
"The reality is that the whole issue of domestic violence is so complicated," said Asha Parekh, director of the Salt Lake Area Family Justice Center.
The process of getting help for a domestic violence victim varies from one person to the next, she said. But what friends, family members and others in the community can do is provide continuous support to that person and constantly let them know what resources are available so when the day comes that they are ready to get help, they know what numbers to call or where to go.
"Let the person being abused know that there are real people out there who want to help them," said Judy Kasten Bell, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Council. "Maybe it will make an impression so when she is ready to leave or wants to follow through, then she will have a number and a face of someone to call."
Part of the problem in the Williamson case was the lack of documented evidence against Perez, said South Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Snyder. There have been stories of possible abuse involving Perez and Williamson as well as his ex-wife since the slayings, but very few of those incidents were reported when they actually happened.
"The most important thing to do is report it," Snyder said. "The whole key is to get the aggressor into the system. The more times they are brought before the system, that's when the red flags are raised for a judge. When it's not reported, there's very little law enforcement or the justice system can do."
Over the past 15 years, Snyder said law enforcement has been given more tools to fight domestic violence. But investigators still can't "bend the law to work on hunches," he said.
South Salt Lake police have two documented cases of Williamson calling them, once in December 2007 and another time in March 2008. The December call was to report a civil problem over repossession of a vehicle. The call in March was to ask questions about credit-card fraud, but she did not file an official report. She did not report abuse during any of those calls, Snyder said.
Perez called West Jordan police in November 2007 to also report a problem with a vehicle he loaned to someone but hadn't gotten back. The people who were the subject of that call later called police themselves to complain Perez was harassing them.
In April, Partridge called South Salt Lake police twice. On April 11 he called officers claiming Williamson was being kicked out of her home and wanted them to check to make sure she was OK. Police responded and talked to both Williamson and Perez. Both claimed there wasn't a problem and she wasn't getting kicked out, Snyder said. There were also no obvious signs of abuse, he said.
Two days later, Perez threatened Williamson's mother on the phone, according to Partridge. Partridge called police to make another welfare check. Again, officers talked to both Williamson and Perez at their house and could find no evidence of abuse, Snyder said.
Police investigated the phone harassment but determined it did not rise to the level of a criminal charge.
After Partridge found Williamson's letter on May 10, he called police to do yet another welfare check. This time, no one answered the door and officers could not find any sign of active abuse. The next day, Partridge called West Jordan police to tell them he was concerned about his daughter's safety. But he never provided investigators with a copy of the letter. West Jordan police Wednesday said they had yet to see it.
On May 12, Williamson's sister called police, asked them to make another welfare check and this time met police at her sister's house. It was then that officers pried open a window and found the bodies. Investigators believe Williamson and the others had been dead for some time, likely several days.
"If you have a family member or friend caught in (a violent relationship), don't criticize them or their relationship. Offer support. Encourage them to talk to the police. Try to give them other avenues to at least get out," Snyder said.
Family members say the reason Williamson never asked for help, even when police were at her house, was because she was too afraid.
Again, Parekh said the best family members can do is keep in constant contact with that person and find a way to help empower them.
"The reality of domestic violence is victims feel a great deal of shame. It's not surprising victims want to keep it quiet or within the family. That's historically as a community how domestic violence has been handled," she said. "We need to help victims recognize it's not anything they've done that's created this problem. That it's OK to get help. Oftentimes victims know they're in an abusive situation, but when they talked to (a professional) they see the intensity of what they're experiencing or how long they've been putting up with it. It's very complicated for someone to exit a domestic violence relationship. The level of danger goes up. It's very critical victims are supported by many people in the process of leaving."
The Family Justice Center, which just celebrated its one-year anniversary, has helped 635 people during the first year. The center provides a one-stop shop for domestic violence victims to get help, including shelter and how to check a police report.
The YWCA is another resource for victims. There is also a number victims can call 24 hours a day to seek help, so Bell said they can call when the abuser is not at home. That number is 800-897-5465."It's critical we're not blaming anyone (for what happened) ... the victims, the families," Asha said. "It's just not that simple. You can't say it's this person's fault or that person's fault. It's a complicated situation."
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