louis martin
cns news & features

Part 1

"IT LOOKS LIKE he worked her over pretty good," says the brown-uniformed Mendocino county sheriff. She sits in the back of a vehicle at the south parking lot of Noyo Harbor, her face stained with blood and sobbing incoherently. She holds a baby in her arms; a four-year old sits by her side staring straight ahead.

Two county sheriffs are "on scene," Fort Bragg PD has just arrived. Jurisdiction is not clear yet; maybe it's in the county, maybe the city.

Questioning her between sobs, it's determined that her husband is up at Trailer Lookout, a trailer park at the top of the hill.

Spectators in the parking lot wear a look of concentrated concern that is rarely seen in spectators. Sheriffs and PD wear the same look.

It is a day of national celebration--the 4th of July--but the mood is anything but festive in the parking lot. After a call to the dispatcher to determine county or city jurisdiction of the trailer park, PD and sheriffs are ready to roll. It's in the city, so PD will lead, sheriff will back.

The mood: "Get this guy, bring him in."

The trailer is at the end of the drive on a hill overlooking Noyo Harbor. It is a house trailer, neat and trim; the view of the harbor is spectacular. It is not quite as expected, as the white and blue Fort Bragg squad car and sheriff's jeep pull up out front. As Rick DelFiorentino of the Fort Bragg PD gets out of his car, he is met by an angry older gentleman in a red shirt-jacket who says, "I'm going to sue her for what she did to my boy."

DelFiorentino, tall, heavy-set, and with a rapid- fire laugh in ordinary situations, asks the man, whose name is Sid, if his son is inside.

"Yeah, he's in there," says Sid, cranky but cooled off a little.

"Can we go in?"

DelFiorentino goes into the trailer, followed by a deputy sheriff. Sharon sits in the back of the squad car. She has quieted down now.

THIS IS ALMOST a daily scene now in Fort Bragg, the biggest town along the 286 miles of coast line between San Francisco and Eureka. Fort Bragg has the highest crime rate of any town along that stretch of the coast, and the Fort Bragg PD make about 1.6 times as many arrests as are made in the combined coastal regions of Sonoma and Marin counties.

While each case of domestic violence seems separate and terrifying in its own way, the pattern is all too obvious to those who have to deal with it.

Call it "wife beating," "spousal abuse," or "domestic violence," it has been around a long time and it does not seem to be going away.

Says Fort Bragg's soft-spoken police chief Tom Bickell, "The biggest increase in crime we've had is in domestic violence. Our reports went from about 100 in 1993 to 200 in 1994." He attributes the surge to an increase in drinking and the use of drugs--"almost invariably there's alcohol or drugs related to a domestic violence incident." He also attributes it to the pressures of unemployment.

Fort Bragg has the second largest saw mill in the world but not enough logs to keep it busy, according to Georgia- Pacific, the corporation that owns it. It also has a considerable fleet of salmon trawlers that sit in port due to environmental restrictions.

Bickell does not believe the increase is simply a reflection of police reporting, since that has been mandatory since the mid 1980s.

Domestic violence is a simple-sounding issue that turns complex when dealing with reality. Like war, it is difficult to eradicate.

"I DIDN'T HIT her," says Pete, his voice choked and almost in tears. "Look at me," he says. His shirt is ripped, his face cut and swollen looking.

He's a rough-looking character with dark brown hair and course beard. And yet, as he stands in a corner between the kitchen and a bedroom door, facing DelFiorentino, he sounds like a small child who has been picked on by ruthless older kids. He is so choked up he is barely able to speak.

"Well, we need to go down to the station and sort things out," says DelFiorentino at last. "Do you have another shirt?" He is beginning to look baffled by the case.

Outside, Pete glares menacingly at Sharon; he gives her what police call the "mad dog" look.

At the station, "mom" is placed in one room with baby and four-year-old. Milk and a coloring book are brought in for the latter by DelFiorentino, himself a father with young children. "Dad" is placed in the booking room.

Police records are accessed via computer. It turns out the same thing occurred the 4th of July last year. The main difference is that last year Sharon knocked Pete's mother, Rhoda, to the floor and kicked her, according to the report. The case was dropped because Rhoda refused to prosecute. (Later Rhoda will tell DelFiorentino she didn't want to cause separation of mother and child.)

In the booking room, Pete props his head on his hands and stares at the worn beige linoleum floor. Straight ahead of him is an empty jail cell. All jail cells in the Fort Bragg police station are in fact empty; the city "fathers" have decided that maintaining a jail is too expensive. On his left is a digital finger printing machine; on his right is a breath analyzer. He's about .1%, just over the limit for driving, but not "smashed."

The early part of the day was nice, he says. How could it have come to this, he seems to be asking. He was standing in line at the barbecue waiting to get served and everyone was pouring wine. He was talking to some people form New York. It was a friendly social atmosphere in which boundaries were crossed, assisted, of course, by alcohol.

"If I had hit her," he says, "she wouldn't have gotten up." He is a steel worker, he says. He looks strong.

He is asked for an explanation of his wife's behavior, now that it is fairly clear that he is the victim, not she. He says he doesn't understand it.

"She just goes nuts," he says.

Sharon is tall, good-looking, stylish in vest and tight jeans; her hair is feathered. She is twenty-nine and has a proud look about her when not sobbing.

When she is cleaned up, it turns out there is no evidence of any injury. When she hears that she may be arrested for battery, she launches a verbal attack on DelFiorentino; she tries to walk out of the station. It is a tense, ugly scene until DelFiorentino has hold of her arm and talks to her calmly but firmly. She begins to sob again, her features now distorting like a child's.

DelFiorentino is inclined to arrest her for battery. But there is a complication. She is nursing a baby. Or, according to her husband and in-laws, she is occasionally nursing the baby. Mostly the baby is drinking from a bottle.

That is apparently what began the incident, not that it seems to matter anymore. When Sharon was gone for some 45 minutes from the barbecue and the baby started crying, Pete drove up to his parents to get a bottle. When Sharon returned and found Pete gone, she drove to his parents and an argument began. The argument let to physical confrontation, and the fulfillment of an ancient pattern.

However, after a call to municipal judge Lehan of the Ten Mile Justice Court in Fort Bragg, it is decided that it would be too complex to arrest her; additionally, the judge feels it would not look good in the paper. The judge, being an elected offical, is sensitive to public opinion.

It is decided to file a report and let the DA sort the matter out. Pete and Sharon are released.

DelFiorentino laments that while the judge can tell him what to do, the judge is not responsible for what happens as a result; if a suspect commits other alleged criminal acts, the blame falls on the PD.

No one ends up very happy with the situation. Pete's father comes down to the station to complain that Sharon wasn't arrested. He wears the pained look of one who has suffered an injustice.

What becomes obvious here is that in any kind of a dispute, both sides must be heard and examined to get to the truth. And even when the truth emerges, there may be complications preventing a satisfactory resolution.

While it is true that in most cases the male is the aggressor, it is not always so. Patterns are not fixed; there are plenty of exceptions.

Take the case of Matt and Marlene.

Part 2

"FIRST FRIDAY" can be a lot of fun in Fort Bragg. It happens on the first Friday of each month when the new art exhibits go up in the galleries, shops stay open late, and the town has a kind of party. Many of the town's shops and galleries serve wine and hor d'oeuvres, and the "art crowd," not really great in number in Fort Bragg, nevertheless dresses up and acts out a little.

What might pass for an ordinary evening in San Francisco is an exotic evening in the old mill town.

The afternoon is bright and sunny--a pleasure after all the dreary days of Winter--and the night is almost surreal in clarity. The smoke from the smoke stack at the mill looks almost like art in the light blue sky of early evening.

Marlene is tall and still good looking. Only a few years ago she worked as a model in LA. She lives with a logger who, most of the time, is a patient, thoughtful guy. Like a lot of loggers, he doesn't fit the logger stereotype. But he does have a tendency to get physical when he gets mad. Just like his father.

"You don't want to go?" she asks him earlier. "No," he says in a non-negotiable kind of way. He doesn't care that much for art, and he's been off booze for 9 months now --since the last little incident. He is being "good." Marlene, however, is tired of being good and, feeling a little dulled out, decides to go out without Matt.

At North Coast Gallery she looks at works by Erica Fielder--bold, natural images, a little like Gauguin's, that turn her on to something missing in her own life. Her girlfriend, Sam, shows up in a green felt hat with a big red rose on the front. Sam wears a silky blouse rather than one of Mike's, her boy friend's, cotton shirts.

"Where's Matt?" asks Sam.

"Oh, stuck in a book," says Marlene, "or watching the tube. More likely watching the tube," says Marlene.

They laugh, then work their way through the crowd, that is not that big, to a table in the middle of the room with wine and hor d'oeuvres. The hor d'oeuvres are not that plentiful; there is only one label of wine. They skip the hor d'oeuvres, go for the wine. Well, just a half glass, says Marlene to herself. She has an agreement with Matt to not drink.

"And how about Mike?" asks Marlene.

"Oh, watching the tube or staring at the wall," says Sam, and they both have a good laugh.

Two galleries and one restaurant bar later, Marlene calls Matt to pick her up--she realizes she is too drunk to drive--and Matt tells her to go to hell. She is not happy with his lack of sympathy for her situation. Sam, who is not as drunk, drives her home.

Ten minutes after she has let herself in the door, she calls 911 for help. Matt has shoved her around, and she's afraid of what she feels like doing to him.

Outside the apartment she is telling DelFiorentino, "I would have beaten him up if I could have. But he's too strong for me." She makes a fist, says she has a "good one."

"Do I deserve this?" she asks, off on another track.

While DelFiorentino talks with Marlene, officer Hernandez goes into the apartment to talk with Matt. Matt tells Hernandez that he would have called 911 if she hadn't. Apparently he recognized that things were out of control. He's been through it before.

While DelFiorentino talks with Marlene, Matt slips by her carrying a small bag. He's headed for his pickup in the parking lot. He has agreed to go away for the evening, a common, practical solution when there is a potential for more violence and people need to cool off.

He slips by so quietly that Marlene doesn't even notice. He looks calm, collected.

"I guess he was mad," she says, "because I went out drinking and he can't."

A report will be written but no arrest will be made. There is no "traumatic injury" as required by law. What's more, Matt and Marlene seem to understand the pattern. They've been through it before. Maybe they are even showing signs of progress by calling 911 and not letting it go too far.

Back inside the well-lit, gallery-like apartment where a hand-made knit blanket lies rumpled on the couch, Marlene thanks DelFiorentino and Hernandez, then locks the door. This was one of the easier domestic calls.

WHILE DOMESTIC VIOLENCE is on the rise, it presents a difficult problem for law enforcement.

Since 1986 law enforcement has been required to report all instances of domestic violence under penal code 273.5. These are cases involving "traumatic injury" to a spouse. Subsequent additions to the law have broadened the interpretation of "spouse" to include domestic partners, coinhabitants, and gay and lesbian couples.

While the law sounds substantial, only a very small number of cases actually get to court--possibly as few as 3%.

One of the problems is that few victims are willing to follow through on charges. Police make the arrest, document the case, then the victim changes his or her mind. That's why getting signed statements from the victim is important, says DelFiorentino. With a sworn statement, then police can prosecute on their own.

"We ask them to make a commitment," says officer Dan Porter, a big, square-jawed cop with the Fort Bragg PD.

But even after a commitment or a signed statement, many change their mind "down the line," according to Porter.

Sometimes even counter charges are lodged against the police. In order to ward off counter charges, police try to leave a pretty extensive "paper trail" of how they have handled a case and why.

Then, if a case does make it to court, says DelFiorentino, there is the general feeling among cops that "truth goes out the window." In court, he says, no one cares about what really happened, and the cops get hammered by one side.

All in all, this does not make domestic violence cases very satisfying for police to deal with. As has been observed in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, it appears that the cops are more on trial than the defendant.

While few cases make it to court, most do repeat themselves. Round 1 is followed by round 2, which is followed by round 3 . . . .

And the cause?

A model of violence is probably learned in the home, says Porter. And according to DelFiorentino, it goes back to a "primal" way of dealing with conflict on a physical level.

The violent way may be the natural way, but it is clearly no longer acceptable by most of society or the penal code which states that "domestic violence is alleged criminal conduct."

Says Porter, who's made many domestic violence arrests, "You hear (from guys), 'Hey, this is nobody else's business but mine.'" While you can make an arrest, he laments the fact that you can't change somebody's "philosophy" by arresting them.

Says Porter, whose duties include an anti-drug-abuse program in the schools, "You almost need a class to say it's not right."

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