‘I’ve seen some brutal things’: Murders of Santa Cruz County women on the rise
In the past 12 months, five women have been victims of homicides, a dramatic jump from 2019. Service providers say they have seen an increase in calls for help as the pandemic eases, and urge anyone who might be in a dangerous situation to get help.
It might seem easy to encourage women in abusive relationships to leave their partners. But experts caution that the most dangerous time for a battered woman is not when they’re in the relationship, but when they leave it. Upon breaking things off, there’s a 75% increase in violence, lasting for up to two years.
This July, that might have proved true for one 32-year-old Watsonville mother, Robin Kern, who had recently founded her own facial esthetician business and started a new relationship, according to her father.
“I had never seen her happier,” Scotts Valley resident Roger Kern said of his daughter.
But, he says, things soon took a turn for the worse when she found out her boyfriend, Alberto Scalant, had past charges of domestic violence, terrorist threats and stalking, and broke up with him. On July 13, Kern was found stabbed to death in her Watsonville apartment, and Scalant — who fled to Mexico — was charged as the prime suspect.
On Monday, after a long extradition process, Scalant will have his first hearing in connection with Kern’s death.
Kern is one of five female homicide, or “femicide,” cases Santa Cruz County saw between September 2020 and last month — a dramatic increase from a single case in 2019. This aligns with a rise in overall homicides: In Santa Cruz County, the number of homicides doubled from 2019 to 2020, and nationwide, the FBI reported a nearly 30% increase in murders — the largest one-year increase on record.
Officials say the COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic hardship it caused, likely contributed to this increase in violence. And when it comes to domestic violence, while each case is different, experts note that the rise in femicides — along with domestic violence-related calls — in Santa Cruz County comes at a time when women might have been isolated with their abusers amid stay-at-home orders.
As Domestic Violence Awareness Month kicks off this October, here’s what you need to know about femicide and domestic abuse in Santa Cruz County.
Everything is more severe
At Monarch Services — an organization based in Santa Cruz and Watsonville that offers immediate response to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking — service numbers doubled between April 2020 and 2021, compared to the previous period. Calls to the organization’s bilingual crisis line also tripled, and it placed twice as many people in motels or emergency shelters during the first 12 months of the pandemic.
According to Delphine Burns, Monarch’s communications manager, the pandemic could have heightened tensions in relationships in a variety of ways.
“It really ranges from factors like financial dependence, that people might have on their intimate partner, or being alone together a lot more,” she said. “Or also being cut off from support systems like friends or family that somebody in a domestic violence relationship might typically reach out to for an alternative place to stay.”
One of the main reasons people often stay with their abusive partner is they have nowhere else to go. According to Lynn Boulé, the director of advocacy and prevention with another service provider, Walnut Avenue Family & Women’s Center, the county’s severe lack of affordable housing is the nonprofit’s “biggest barrier” in addressing cases of domestic violence, in addition to pandemic-related factors. The group applied for extra funding during the pandemic to place people in emergency shelters, and it reported increases in the number of people it put up, as well as the number of nights they were staying.
While Monarch Services reported spikes in domestic violence-related calls, at WAFWC, the phone lines at the beginning of the pandemic were “eerily quiet,” according to Julie Macecevic, the nonprofit’s executive director. She hypothesizes that victims were locked indoors with their abusers, unable to call for help.
People are stressed, and they’re exhausted...
But now that the center’s doors are back open and pandemic lockdowns have waned, walk-in numbers are up. The organization sees three to four domestic violence-related cases a day — twice as many as pre-pandemic numbers.
“People are stressed, and they’re exhausted, and all of those things are going to aggravate homes where there’s already violence in them,” Macecceic said.
According to Boulé, the domestic violence cases the nonprofit is seeing are more severe than normal, describing an increase in demand for support around basic needs like food and clothing, as well as more “life and death situations.” She said that, given what she has seen, it makes sense that femicide numbers would be up.
“I have seen some pretty brutal things in these last six months,” Boulé said.
‘Not a new problem’
After his daughter’s death, Roger Kern received an outpouring of responses from other people who had experienced domestic violence.
“It’s certainly pretty widespread,” he said. “And it’s not a new problem.”
Kern said that the common thread through all the responses was that a restraining order is often not an effective tool for protection against abusers. Monarch Services reports that perpetrators violate about 50% of restraining orders the organization helps victims obtain.
For Robin Kern, though, it never got to that point.
“Robin seemed to totally trust the guy,” her father said. “My daughter was quite mature and knew what she wanted and was really upfront with people ... I certainly trusted her. She was able to handle her life just well, juggling three kids and her own business.”
Kern’s July slaying was preceded by that of another Watsonville mother, 24-year-old Brenda Becerra, who is suspected to have been killed by her 47-year-old husband last October.
On June 28, Rachel “Elias” Meisenheimer — a 33-year-old who used they/them pronouns — was allegedly killed by their ex-partner . And in August, a popular Santa Cruz musician, Jane Daughterty, was found dead in her Capitola condo. Police believe 65-year-old Daughterty was killed by her estranged husband, Michael Daugherty, who was later found dead of an apparent suicide.
“Murder-suicide is a real threat right now,” Boulé said.
Spinning the narrative around
According to Macecevic, service providers are now trying to focus on flipping narratives and highlighting stories of resilience and healing, rather than the horror stories of domestic abuse.
This month, to raise awareness about domestic violence, the county’s Commission on Justice and Gender will be collecting stories from survivors — in hopes of showing that people come out on the other side.
“There is hope, there is another side to this and help is out there to support families who need it,” Macecevic said.
On Tuesday, from 10 to 11 a.m., representatives from Monarch and Walnut Avenue will discuss local domestic violence trends and responses in a virtual coffee chat — a part of a series hosted by Santa Cruz’s Collective of Results and Evidence-based Investments. Speakers will discuss the justice and gender Commission, provide data and context on recent femicides and identify specific ways to respond to violent threats, words and acts.
Register for the event here.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call any of the hotlines below.
24-Hour Bilingual Crisis Hotline: 888-900-4232
233 East Lake Ave.
1509 Seabright Ave.
Santa Cruz 95062
Walnut Avenue Family & Women’s Center
24-hour Domestic Violence Hotline: 866-269-2559
303 Walnut Ave.
Santa Cruz 95060
National Domestic Violence Hotline