Examining domestic violence in Routt County
August 18, 2013
Editor's note: Since 2007, there have been four incidents of murder-suicide or attempted murder-suicide in the Steamboat Springs area. The rate of such incidents is alarmingly higher than state and national averages. All of the incidents stem from domestic disputes that turned tragically violent. Reporter Matt Stensland has spent months researching these local episodes to look at the commonalities among them and to talk to experts about the warning signs that might indicate such violence is imminent. Stensland's goal is the newspaper's goal: to try to better understand what steps, if any, can be taken to try to prevent such future tragedies.
Incidents involving the most horrific form of domestic violence repeatedly have shocked the Routt County community in recent years.
These incidents, all murder-suicides or atttempted murder-suicides, have left four people dead. If it seems as though they have occurred at an alarming rate, it's because they statistically have. The four incidents happened in a span of 5 1/2 years. Per capita, that is four times the statewide rate of deaths resulting from domestic violence, according to an analysis by the Steamboat Pilot & Today.
The recent spike locally might not be indicative of a continuing trend, but one local expert fears there are others in the community who are in relationships that have the potential to turn violent.
"When the victims get ready to leave an abusive relationship, that's when the victim can be in the most danger," said Diane Moore, executive director of Advocates Building Peaceful Communities. "Domestic violence is about power and control," and when someone leaves, the other person feels less in control, she said.
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In each of the four Routt County incidents, it is suspected someone became a victim after a partner or spouse tried to end the marriage or relationship.
Rhonda Heaton survived an attack by her husband but no longer has feeling in her hands or feet.
Luz Cisneros is serving life in prison after killing her 1-year-old daughter with a knife after her longtime boyfriend and the father of her child ended their relationship.
With his marriage of 42 years coming apart, Larry Appel murdered his wife before shooting himself last summer.
Most recently, the community was shocked and saddened to learn the allegations leveled against Lisa Lesyshen, who is accused of killing her 9-year-old son, Asher Lesyshen-Kirlan, before turning the gun on herself.
In each case, the couples still were living together, which survivor Rhonda Heaton admits was a mistake. Heaton said her former husband just snapped, but in hindsight, there were red flags leading up to her shooting.
In all four devastating acts, the warning signs were there, and it was domestic violence that Moore described as "classic in some ways."
Experts say educating the public about these cases is important to prevent more of them from happening. Education also can help change community standards to discourage abuse.
"I think the community needs to know the truth," said Sharman Brown, whose sister Christie "Chris" Appel was shot by her husband, Larry Appel, who then committed suicide.
Friends and family members of Chris Appel paint a picture of a woman who was desperately trying to escape a controlling husband who previously had threatened to kill her.
"Most, if not all, the victims of domestic violence say the emotional, psychological abuse is worse," Moore said. "It's insidious. It's constant. It's debilitating."
The Routt County Sheriff's Office recently finished its investigation of the Appel case. The Pilot & Today filed a public records request to obtain the reports, which were released to the newspaper in June.
After not showing up for work July 11, 2012, Chris Appel, 60, was found lying on the living room floor of her rural Steamboat home. Larry Appel, 64, was found in the master bedroom.
According to the Sheriff's Office, Keith Appel called law enforcement to check on his mom in case "his dad was out of control and killed his mother."
According to a letter from Routt County Coroner Rob Ryg to medical examiner Mike Burson, it appeared Larry Appel shot Chris Appel at about 6 a.m. and then committed suicide a couple of hours later. Chris Appel had been shot at least nine times, according to the autopsy report. Larry Appel used two rifles to fire the shots that killed Chris Appel and then shot himself with a revolver.
A laptop was found in the living room with five bullet holes. Investigators think Chris Appel might have used the laptop to try to shield herself.
Forensic analysis later revealed a letter on the laptop typed by Chris Appel. In it, she explained the relationship was not working, and once their financial problems were resolved, she was going to leave her husband. Investigators do not know whether Larry Appel saw the letter.
Investigators interviewed several family members about the incident. Details from those interviews are outlined in the Sheriff's Office investigation reports.
Son Keith Appel said his father had not worked in awhile and had been "sitting at home being depressed." Larry Appel also thought he had throat cancer, Keith Appel told officers.
Keith Appel said he did not know his mom wanted to leave his father, but he said the couple faced financial hardships and risked losing their home.
Although living together, the couple slept in separate bedrooms.
Signs of abuse
Coping with the death of Larry and Chris Appel has not been easy for the many Appel relatives who live in the Yampa Valley.
"The only thing you can compare it to is standing at ground zero of a nuclear explosion, but you have to wake up every morning and deal with it," said Brown, Chris Appel's sister. "I haven't put it in order yet. The only thing that's gotten me and us through this point is pray, pray, pray."
Brown was reluctant to talk about the incident. So, too, were Mike and Keith Appel, the sons of Larry and Chris Appel. Keith Appel was concerned about upsetting the family.
Brown did say that it was important for the community to know what happened to her sister and that domestic violence needed to be addressed.
"They think they have the right to control another person's life to the point of murder," Brown said. "That's madness personified."
Brown said Chris Appel did not tell anyone the "whole story" about how Larry Appel was treating her, only "bits and pieces."
Brown said she had told her sister numerous times to get out of the relationship and even offered her a place to stay.
After the shooting, Brown said she spoke to some of Chris Appel's friends who "saw something different" in Chris Appel leading up to the incident. A few of them asked Chris Appel whether she needed a place to stay. Brown did not know what was causing the concern, but she said Chris Appel was getting more self-confident.
Brown told investigators she was unsure whether her sister finally had gotten the confidence to tell Larry Appel that she was leaving him.
During the investigation, the Sheriff's Office learned that Chris Appel had sent a text message to a relative and talked about leaving her husband. In the message, Chris Appel said her husband told her "the only way they would be separated was by cremation."
A look at the numbers
Many research studies have been done to try to understand murder-suicide. It is a complex subject, and even the basic concept can have different interpretations.
"Some experts consider the homicides to be simply a side effect of the suicide, wherein the specific one self-precipitates a perceived necessity to kill others," Dr. Scott Eliason wrote in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. "Other experts say that murder-suicide cannot be categorized with homicides or suicides, but it is actually a distinct behavior."
The Denver Domestic Violence Coordinating Council tries to account annually for all the incidents in Colorado. The group acts as an umbrella organization for providers of domestic violence services.
In 2012, there were 39 domestic violence-related deaths identified, including the deaths of Chris and Larry Appel. The annual review includes the deaths of both victims of homicide and the murderers who committed suicide.
Between 2008 and 2012, there was an average of 38.8 deaths each year in Colorado. Using 2010 U.S. census data, a community with about 130,000 people is expected to have on average one death each year. With 23,509 residents, Routt County should have one death on average every 5 1/2 years.
With four deaths in that time frame, Routt County's death rate related to domestic violence incidents is four times the Colorado average.
"There it is in black and white," said Moore, who has been with Advocates in Routt County for 30 years. "I don't think it should be happening as frequently, and it is high."
The numbers help explain why some feel these incidents are happening more often.
"It may feel that way to your community," said DoraLee Larson, who oversees the Denver Domestic Violence Coordinating Council.
Larson, though, does not think the recent spike necessarily means this is a trend that is going to continue.
The deaths are not always proportionate to population, and statistical outliers are common. For example, in 2010, Grand Junction saw four deaths related to domestic violence while Denver saw one.
"There really are no specific geographic locations where it happens more than anywhere else," Larson said.
"I don't think it's a trend," Moore said. "I hope it isn't, but I also think it speaks to that we have a problem … and what are we going to do to help serve our community and support each other?"
Guns and murder-suicide
Comparable national numbers are more difficult to come by because there is no comprehensive national database, according to the Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates against violence involving guns.
The Violence Policy Center annually publishes a study called "American Roulette: Murder-Suicide in the United States." The study uses information collected from news stories on the Internet throughout a six-month period.
Between 1,000 and 1,500 murder-suicide deaths occur each year in the U.S., according to the study.
In the first half of 2011, there were 378 homicides with 288 female victims and 89 male victims (the gender of one victim was not identified). Of the 313 suicides in the same six-month period, 283 were male and 30 were female. A firearm was involved 89.5 percent of the time.
"The most common catalytic component in murder-suicide is the use of a firearm," the study states. "Firearms allow shooters to act on impulse."
The study consistently finds the murder-suicide incidents involve an intimate partner about 75 percent of the time. That also is how often the incidents occurred in the home.
Nationally, incidents of murder-suicide share some common characteristics, according to the National Institute of Justice, which is the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Those characteristics include access to a gun and a prior history of poor mental health or substance abuse, especially alcohol. Threats can be a red flag, particularly increased threats that are more specific.
A history of domestic violence and previous history of abuse are by far the most dominant factors in murder-suicide cases, according to a report by the National Institute of Justice.
"In most cases, the man exhibits possessive, obsessive and jealous behavior," the report states. "There is a gradual build-up of tensions and conflicts after which an event leads the man to act. The triggering event is often the woman’s announcement that she is leaving.
"The time immediately after a woman leaves an abusive partner is the most dangerous."
Going home scared
It has been more than three years, but Heaton suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and still has nightmares every night. Daily, she remembers how her husband shot her and left her for dead.
When reached by phone earlier this month at her new Colorado home, Heaton said she thinks her ex-husband, Bob Cash, became lethal when he finally realized she was leaving.
"That's when the panic set in," Heaton said.
Cash had lost his job, was losing his house and had started drinking again. There was no history of violence or threats.
Heaton told him she wanted a divorce, but she kept their relationship civil.
"I was still being his friend and helping him and talking to him because that's the type of person I am," she said.
In hindsight, Heaton said it was a mistake to keep living together. They were still sharing the same bed.
The night before the attack, Heaton said Cash made unwanted advances. The next day, she called Cash and told him to move out of the bedroom.
They argued, and Heaton waited in a parking lot a few blocks away. She was afraid to go home, and she stayed in her car until it was time to go to bed. She tried to find another place to stay that night but ended up going home.
"It's not my personality to reach out for help," Heaton said.
Heaton said she probably did not realize the pain she was inflicting on Cash by telling him she was leaving.
She said she noticed Cash's personality had changed, and he had an evil look.
At about 6:30 a.m. June 11, 2010, Cash came in the bedroom and shot Heaton in the neck.
Leading up to the attack, Heaton said that at times, Cash was possessive, obsessive and jealous.
She said Cash was extremely jealous of her kids from a previous marriage and of Heaton's best friend.
"He was jealous of anyone else having my attention," Heaton said.
Cash also thought Heaton was seeing a new man.
"He said he wasn't going to put up with me telling my new boyfriend that I loved him," Heaton said.
Cash was sentenced to 38 years in prison for his crime.
Why the increase?
The hope is that the high death rate related to domestic violence is merely a spike and not a trend, but experts offer some theories as to why a problem might exist.
Heaton believes money problems contributed to her husband's behavior.
"I think it has more to do with the times right now," she said. "People are very vulnerable to lose whatever they have."
The National Institute of Justice acknowledges that economic distress is a factor, but a report states it is "one of several factors that trigger a man to murder his family. In most cases, the couple has a history of disagreement over many issues, most commonly money, sex and child-rearing."
Larson, with the Denver Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, said rural areas might be more at risk because there are not as many domestic violence and family services resources as there are in the Denver area, for example.
"Resources play a role," Larson said. "There is no question about that."
Moore, of Advocates, agrees but also thinks the problem can be explained by a society that has become more violent over time.
According to the National Institute of Justice, the U.S. has three times more murder-suicides involving families than Canada. It has eight times more than Britain and 15 times more than Australia.
The National Institute of Justice firmly believes access to guns is a major risk factor.
"States with less restrictive gun control laws have as much as eight times the rate of murder-suicides than those with the most restrictive gun control laws," a report states.
When children fall victim
Two of the four tragic incidents in Routt County have involved children of parents who were breaking up.
Larson said it appeared the parents in each of the cases could have been using their children like pawns.
"I will get back at you any way I can," Larson said to describe what the perpetrators might be thinking. "It's horrific."
Lisa Lesyshen is in custody after being charged with first-degree murder involving domestic violence. She is accused of shooting her 9-year-old son five times before shooting herself in the neck. Asher Lesyshen-Kirlan died in the May 29 attack.
Lesyshen and her husband, Michael Kirlan, were separating but still living together at their Stagecoach home.
According to court records, Kirlan told Lesyshen on May 27 that he was in a relationship with another woman. That same day, Lesyshen bought a Smith & Wesson .22-caliber revolver from a Steamboat pawn shop after passing a background check. The shootings occurred in the early hours of May 29.
According to an arrest warrant, investigators found a note on Asher's nightstand. It was addressed to Kirlan.
"Remember you are responsible for what has happened here, and you are the person that caused it," the note read, according to the warrant.
Dealing with pain
Nearly six years after the Sept. 6, 2007, killing of 1-year-old Brianna Simon, Isaias Simon still visits his daughter's grave once or twice each week at the Steamboat Springs Cemetery.
Brianna's mother, Luz Cisneros, is being housed at the Denver Women's Correctional Facility where she is serving a life sentence without parole for killing Brianna.
Simon agreed to talk about the tragedy on the condition that it be made clear that it still is difficult for the family, and they do not want to be approached by anyone in the community about it.
"Don't come to me; let me come to you," Simon said.
(Todavía es difícil para la familia hablar del tema, ellos no quieren que la comunidad les hable del tema. Él dijo que no debe preguntarse, déjese que venir a usted.)
Simon said he and Cisneros would argue, but it never got physical.
"Never anything like that," Simon said.
Simon said he would usually back down and walk away from the arguments.
The couple was breaking up, and Cisneros wanted to move to Wisconsin.
Leading up to the murder, Cisneros had threatened to harm their daughter. Simon took the threat as psychological abuse. He did not think she would act on the threat.
Simon said he never had seen such a loving mother, and he did not think she was capable of hurting Brianna.
Simon does not know whether Cisneros killed their daughter in order to punish him.
"She is the only one who can answer that," Simon said. "I've been asking myself, 'What went wrong?'"
Struggling for help
In order to keep the streak of domestic violence deaths from turning into a trend, experts and victims say it is important for those who might be at risk to seek help.
"People should definitely reach out to people," Heaton said.
Admittedly, Moore said it sometimes is not that simple. Heaton, for example, said it was not in her nature to ask for help.
"I always try to remind myself how hard it is to call a stranger," Moore said, adding that victims sometimes feel scared or humiliated when reaching out.
Simon's experience further shows that getting support is not always easy.
"I did look for help," Simon said.
He said his daughter was killed 10 days after he had visited the Routt County Department of Human Services. Simon said he went there to figure things out, including child support, custody issues and protective services for Brianna.
"I needed someone to watch what Luz was doing wrong," Simon said. "They said, 'You don't need that because you guys are not in domestic violence.'"
Simon said he did not tell Human Services that Cisneros had made threats toward their daughter.
He left Human Services thinking his daughter needed to be hurt before help was offered.
"I don't think we need for a child to be abused," he said.
Human Services Director Vickie Clark was not working for the organization at the time and said she could not talk about specific cases.
"In general, we do our best to represent what the concerns or needs of our clients are," Clark said. "We can only react to the information that we have."
Simon feels the system let him down.
Simon wanted objective help, but instead, he feels Human Services took a side, and it was not his. Simon said he felt like Human Services was treating him like he was the person at fault.
Clark said her department does what is in the best interest of the child and tries to treat both parents fairly.
"There is not any discrimination against men, women or anything in between," Clark said.
Torn between protecting his daughter as well as the woman who cared for and loved Brianna so much, Simon did not reach out to police or Advocates.
"Please support your friends and family in reaching out to Advocates or any other resource," Moore said. ■