An Arkansas Batterer, A Murdered Young Woman, And The System That Protected Him

Laura Aceves in 2009 holding her niece

Laura Aceves in 2009 holding her niece

No Jihadist on earth is more dangerous and determined than an abusive man who has in his sights the object of his terrifying desire for control – the woman he believes has driven him to do the things he does, the woman he believes has treated him with disrespect, the woman who is going to leave him.

In Berryville, Arkansas, abuse victim Laura Aceves was beaten with a baseball bat, dragged behind a car, strangled, tormented, had her personal belongings stolen and ruined, was stalked and terrified and told by her abuser that if she left he would kill her. She tried everything to get away from him, but the law was no help. He walked right through no contact orders, and the law failed to stop him. Aceves was determined to get away, had saved money, was planning to get an apartment out of state with a friend. Today, Aceves is dead from a bullet in the head, and her ex-boyfriend, Victor Acuna-Sanchez, sits in jail on capital murder charges, accused of murdering her.

18-year-old Acuna-Sanchez was slapped with restraining orders, which he routinely violated, and at the time Aceves was killed was out on bail under a no contact order for charges relating to two prior attacks on Aceves. Law enforcement was quite familiar with him – in fact, a few weeks before Aceves was murdered, Acuna-Sanchez had violated a no contact order, was picked up, and was released without bail a day later. That’s without bail. One day later.

When we talk about who caused, or contributed to, the end of life for this 21-year-old mother of 3, we can start with the State of Arkansas itself. Lots of guns, loose gun laws, and (we’ll get to this later) law enforcement that still seems to view the abuse of a woman at the hands of her husband or significant other as some kind of family matter. As reported by the Huffington Post,

“In the last decade, Arkansas has frequently been ranked as one of the 10 worst states in the nation when it comes to men killing women, according to annual reports by the Violence Policy Center. The ranking is based on FBI data on incidents in which a sole male offender kills a single female victim, a typical indicator of domestic homicide. In Arkansas, the combination of lots and lots of guns and lax firearm laws contributes to the problem. Research has shown if a batterer has access to a gun, the victim is eight times more likely to be killed. According to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, in 2010 Arkansas had the third-worst gun murder rate for women in the nation.”

And we now come to the archaic views held by those in charge of keeping dangerous men like Acuna-Sanchez off the streets and away from their victims, such as those apparently held by Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Devon Closser, a woman who was at least partially responsible for a system so lax that there was no procedure in place to let prosecutors know when a dangerous character like Acuna-Sanchez was posing an immediate threat to his victim. The system could use “fine-tuning,” said Closser, who also said that it was “not unusual” for offenders like Acuna-Sanchez to be released for doing nothing more than violating a no-contact order. What, do judges in Carroll County write orders just to have something to do with their hands, practice their penmanship? A violation of a no-contact order comes after the no-contact order which comes after a reason for the no contact, which comes after a violent attack. To minimize the role of a no contact order – to in fact imply that violating a no contact order is some little procedural blip – is the heart of the problem. The question remains, after violations and failures to follow court orders, after felony battery charges and stalking, why was Acuna-Sanchez consistently released on his own recognizance – why was he on the streets at all?

Perhaps it starts with the mindset of people like Berryville’s 71-year-old Sheriff Bob Grudek, who believes violence against women is due to lack of family values and togetherness and social ills besetting the traditional family and the fact that women are at fault for failing to escape. In fact, it appears the notion of this type of violence against women is a totally bewildering problem for him – but it’s not a violence problem, it’s a social problem: 

“This is a very serious social problem . . . Maybe if our culture goes back to when we had different values … I don’t remember when I was a kid hearing about any domestic violence . . . The question you’re asking me is what’s wrong with the courts . . . I’m asking you, what’s wrong with the women? . . . It doesn’t make any difference what kind of training officers get. You can tell that person they are at risk. But they will keep going back . . . Women continue to live in that environment. Why don’t you do a study on why victims go back to these abusers? Why do they do that?”

You want to know why victims stay? It’s not because they’re gluttons for punishment, or enjoy the terror and pain. Here’s a good enough reason for most of us:

“The overwhelming majority of domestic violence happens when someone tries to leave, is getting an order of protection, or filing for divorce — somehow resisting his control,” noted Ellen Reed, executive director of Lydia’s House, a shelter for abused women. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a woman say, ‘I can’t get an order of protection, he’ll kill me’.”

This whole leaving thing – well, there are many of us who’ve been on the receiving end of this type of violence, and we know, in our guts, that leaving, unlike fighting back, might cost us our lives. It’s not only that he’s told us over and over that he’ll kill us if we leave, it’s not only that he’s threatened our family and pets and co-workers and friends, it’s not only that he’s destroyed our personal belongings and stolen from us, it’s not only that he’s disabled the car and ripped the phone out of the wall and blocked the door with a couch. No, that’s all garden variety abusive man crap; this feeling is something more instinctive, more primal – if we leave, we will die. Statistics bear out this fact, the fact that most spousal/boyfriend murders happen at the point where the woman is determined to leave. So, though the choice isn’t a pretty one, the choice often comes down to staying or dying.

As someone who was once upon a time a crisis counselor for abuse victims, I see many things that can be done here. First, how about we start addressing the rhetoric, stop calling it “domestic violence,” as though it’s just a little bit violent as opposed to other forms of real violence? We don’t call break-ins “domestic break-ins,” we don’t say we had a domestic car theft, do we? Or domestic vandalism? And something else, something that’s being floated across the nation (and was even suggested in Arkansas, but failed to elicit much support) – Tag the abusers with electronic monitoring devices, and enforce it a hell of a lot better than Berryville enforced its no contact orders. Let’s try no more free tickets out of jail. How about mandatory 6-month jail sentences for each offense of violating a restraining order or no contact order? These guys – they really, really don’t want to go to jail, really, really don’t think they belong there. They think they’re just fine the way they are.

The ball in Berryville was fumbled and dropped all over the place. Young Laura Aceves’ abuser was allowed to terrorize her without consequence. He was permitted to remain on the streets while she was on the run. He had a gun, whether obtained legally or illegally. The Sheriff apparently viewed her as an idiot for failing to successfully escape her abuser’s obsessive grasp. Evil flourished – and those who were pledged with the job of protecting this young mother are complicit.