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After the Brutal Murder of Maria Teresa Macias by Her Husband, Her Groundbreaking Case Challenges Law Enforcement’s Right to Ignore Domestic Violence with Impunity

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For months 36-year-old Maria Teresa Macias begged sheriff’s deputies in the rural town of Sonoma, California, for protection from her estranged husband, Avelino Macias. He had been stalking, threatening and beating Teresa Macias for years. For years she had taken out restraining orders against him. She had made more than 20 calls to the county sheriff reporting his violence and sexual assaults. But Avelino Macias was never cited or arrested.

On April 15, 1996, Avelino appeared again at the house where Maria Macias lived with her mother. Maria told her mother, “Go inside. You know what you have to do.” Her mother, Sara Rubio Hernandez, dialed 911 but hung up when she heard a gunshot outside. She rushed to lock the door but not before Avelino shot her twice in the legs. When police arrived, they found Avelino slumped across his wife’s lifeless body, both of them shot through the head.

Three days after Avelino killed his wife and turned the gun on himself, the local newspaper ran an article buried on the inside pages, “Cops Wrap Up Investigation.” That was intended to be the last anyone ever heard of Teresa Macias. But instead, six years later, her murder has become a touchstone case in the fight to end violence against women.

Today is the opening day of a landmark $15 million civil rights lawsuit brought by the family of Maria Teresa Macias against the then-sheriff of Sonoma County, Mark Ihde. The case puts the Sheriff’s Department on trial for what they say is law enforcement’s denial of equal protection to women.

Today we are going to look at a kind of domestic terrorism that has gone ignored by law enforcement for years. Nationwide, up to 40% of calls to police are related to domestic violence; 40% of all emergency room visits by women are related to domestic violence; 1.5 million women are raped or physically assaulted by an intimate partner in the U.S.; 60% of women killed in California in 1998 were murdered by a spouse, ex-boyfriend or acquaintance.

Today, we will look at the case of Macias with two women’s rights advocates and case investigators. Democracy Now! repeatedly called the lawyer for the county, but our calls were not returned.

We begin with two 911 calls Macias made to police. The calls are hard to make out. In the first, the responding deputy, Mark Lopez, refuses to take her reports of restraining order violations as she is being stalked.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Bloody confrontations, 911 calls, death threats, restraining orders, threats to kidnap and kill children. Some might think these are standard descriptions of terrorism. Well, they’re all daily experiences for hundreds of thousands of women in the United States. In fact, one of the leading causes of emergency room visits for women is domestic violence.

For months, 36-year-old Maria Teresa Macias begged sheriff’s deputies in the rural town of Sonoma, California, for protection from her estranged husband, Avelino Macias. He had been stalking, threatening and beating Teresa Macias for years. For years she had taken out restraining orders against him. She had made more than 20 calls to the county sheriff reporting his violence and sexual assaults, but Avelino Macias was never cited or arrested.

On April 15th, 1996, Avelino appeared again at the house where Maria Macias lived with her mother. Maria told her mother, “Go inside. You know what you have to do.” Her mother, Sara Rubio Hernandez, dialed 911 but hung up when she heard a gunshot outside. She rushed to lock the door, but not before Avelino shot her twice in the legs. When police arrived, they found Avelino slumped across his wife’s lifeless body, both of them shot through the head.

Three days after Avelino killed his wife and turned the gun on himself, the local newspaper ran an article buried on the inside pages, “Cops Wrap Up Investigation.” That was intended to be the last anyone ever heard of Teresa Macias. But instead, six years later, her murder has become a touchstone case in the fight to end violence against women.

Today is the opening day of a landmark $15 million civil rights lawsuit brought by the family of Maria Teresa Macias against then-Sheriff of Sonoma County Mark Ihde. The case puts the sheriff’s department on trial for what they say is law enforcement’s denial of equal protection to women.

Today we’re going to look at a kind of domestic terrorism that’s gone ignored by law enforcement for years. Nationwide, up to 40% of calls to police are related to domestic violence. One-and-a-half million women are raped or physically assaulted by an intimate partner in the United States. Sixty percent of women killed in California in 1998 were murdered by a spouse, ex-boyfriend or acquaintance.

Today, we will look the case of Macias with two women’s rights advocates and case investigators. Democracy Now! repeatedly called the lawyer for the county, but our calls were not returned.

We’re going to start with two 911 calls that Maria Teresa Macias made to police. The calls are a little hard to understand the words. In the first, the responding deputy, Mark Lopez, refuses to take Maria Teresa’s reports of restraining order violations as she is being stalked. Let’s take a listen.

OPERATOR: Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department.

DISPATCHER: The speaker, female, wants to file a 166-4 report.

MARK LOPEZ: What’s her name, by chance?

DISPATCHER: Maria Macias.

MARK LOPEZ: Hang on a second. Hold on one second, OK?

DISPATCHER: OK.

MARK LOPEZ: Are you there?

DISPATCHER: Mm-hmm.

MARK LOPEZ: She just left here. She just filed two reports with me and one with Dan Deffenbaugh. She brought some statements in. I’ll talk to her. I don’t know what she wants.

DISPATCHER: Well, I see that’s why Dan’s dispatched her through to me. I just hung up with her.

MARK LOPEZ: Look, I can’t keep filing a report every time she calls. I already told her that the request is submitted.

[break]

OPERATOR: Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department.

MARIA TERESA MACIAS: Hi. Somebody could speak Spanish?

OPERATOR: No.

MARIA TERESA MACIAS: OK, we try to speak English.

OPERATOR: OK.

MARIA TERESA MACIAS: I’m scared a little bit. I want to make another one report, because I have a restraining order, because he supposedly — he’s supposed to stay 100 yards away.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Maria Teresa Macias trying to speak to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department, first asking, “Can somebody speak Spanish?” “No.” “OK, we’ll try to speak English. … I want to make a report, because I have a restraining order. He supposedly — he’s supposed to stay 100 yards away.”

Well, today we’re going to find out about this case with two people deeply involved with it: Tanya Brannan is an investigator and advocate with Purple Berets, a grassroots group that provides help and counseling for sexual assault and domestic violence victims, and Marie De Santis, who is an investigator and advocate with the Women’s Justice Center, an advocacy group for victims of rape, domestic violence and child abuse.

How many times, again, Marie De Santis, did Maria Teresa Macias call 911 to talk about the stalking by her ex-husband.

MARIE DE SANTIS: In the last year and a half of her life, Maria Teresa Macias went to the sheriff’s department for help on at least 22 occasions. And out of those 22 occasions that she went to report either Avelino stalking or terrorist threats or breaking and entering, his breaking and entering, the sheriff’s department only wrote two reports. And its state law requires that they write a report on every domestic violence call. So, out of those over 22 occasions, sheriff’s department only wrote two reports.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of today’s landmark $15 million civil rights lawsuit, _Maria Teresa Macias v. Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Ihde.

MARIE DE SANTIS: The case of Teresa Macias v. the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department is poised over a question of life-and-death importance for all women. And the question is this: Can police ignore women’s pleas for help with impunity, or do women, victims of violence against women, have a legal right to hold police accountable? And until the Macias decision, federal courts have repeatedly held that women — that police have absolute discretion to choose which cases they want to handle and ignore which cases they want to handle. In other words, police have no affirmative obligation to act. And this has been the decision of Supreme Court decisions. And, of course, this absolute discretion of police to choose which crimes they want to handle combined with the very strong sexism still left in our law enforcement departments has left women abandoned to the systematic violence against them.

What happened with the case of Macias v. Mark Ihde was that the family, knowing that there was a big chance this case would fail, wanted — anyway, felt that the times had changed and that perhaps the courts would see that women did and should and must have a right to equal protections of the laws, and so that the family filed — in 1996 filed the $15 million lawsuit against the sheriff’s department, claiming that the sheriff’s department had violated Teresa’s 14th Amendment constitutional right to equal protection of the law, specifically discriminating against her as a woman and as a Latina and as a victim of domestic violence. And the case was thrown out of federal court, as we expected and as has happened with most — with all such previous cases. And the family appealed to the 9th Circuit Court, hoping that the times had changed. And indeed they had. The 9th Circuit Court in July, year 2000, ruled unanimously, in the most unambiguous language to date, that women, victims of domestic violence, indeed, do have a right to equal protections of the laws and that police have a constitutional obligation to provide that equal protection.

AMY GOODMAN: Maria De Santis, investigator and advocate with the Women’s Justice Center. Tanya Brannon, also with us, of Purple Berets. We tried to get the lawyer for the county on, couldn’t get him. But the case, Maria Teresa Macias v. Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Ihde, his role, Tanya Brannan?

TANYA BRANNAN: The sheriff’s role?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes.

TANYA BRANNAN: Oh. Well, as was said, the sheriff’s department never — they only wrote two reports. They never made any arrests. Now, by the time of the Macias homicide, with the work that we had done over the previous five years, we had gotten a new domestic violence policy in the county that went even farther than state law, so that the sheriff’s department was mandated to make an arrest on every domestic violence incident. There’s also a whole plethora of investigative actions that need to be taken that, again, were mandated in the policy. Despite that, that was never done. Avelino was never arrested. He was never cited. And only two police reports were ever filed.

AMY GOODMAN: We also heard Teresa saying, “Does anyone speak Spanish?” What about the speaking of Spanish and having translators in the police department when people call with these frantic calls for help?

TANYA BRANNAN: At that time, there was only one deputy in the Sonoma Valley that spoke even marginal Spanish. It certainly had been one of the focuses of our work up until then. And on every one of the 911 calls, you can hear that “Does anyone speak Spanish?” and then this deep sigh as she realizes she’s going to have to try to make herself understood.

The positive effect of that, however, the thing that makes — one of the things that makes this lawsuit so powerful is that because there were no Spanish speakers responding to her calls, there was almost always a third party present that witnessed her contact with the sheriff’s department. So, whereas normally the sheriff would say, “Oh, yeah, we did everything. We talked to her. We did everything,” and you couldn’t prove that he didn’t, we can prove that he didn’t, that he walked in, he looked at the restraining order — every time the sheriff’s department came, Teresa showed them her restraining order. And it outlined the entire history of violence, the sexual abuse of herself and her children, the threats to kill Teresa and her family. And the sheriff’s department would kind of brush that aside. According to witnesses, they never took out anything to write on, never made any notes, never asked for any history of the violence, and would just walk out. So we can document that. That’s part of the power of this case.

But not only did Teresa report, she had friends report. She had employers. When Avelino came to her place of work and threatened her and threatened the employers, she had them report and make statements. Her friend Marty Cabello went into the sheriff’s department with her not too long before the murder and remembers beating on the deputy’s desk and saying, “He’s going to kill her. He’s going to kill her and then her mother. He’s telling everybody he is. You’ve got to do something.” And the sheriff’s department’s response was, “Well, everybody that says that doesn’t do it.” And they did nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: And the record of police when it comes to domestic violence in their own situations, their own families?

TANYA BRANNAN: Well, there have been three studies now around the country of domestic violence in law enforcement families. And in each of those studies, what they’ve found is that 40% of all police officers admit, self-report, that in the last year they have been violent with their intimate partner. So, the truth is, you’ve got about a 50/50 chance of a batterer responding to a domestic violence call.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to continue to follow this case, precedent-setting lawsuit. And it is the case of Maria Teresa Macias v. the Sonoma County Sheriff. She was killed by her ex-husband. But her case goes to trial today in Sonoma County.

That does it for the program. Tanya Brannan with Purple Berets, Marie De Santis, investigator and advocate with the Women’s Justice Center. Special thanks to Noelle Hanrahan, who brought this story to our attention. You want to get contact information, you can call — rather, you can email us at mail@democracynow.org. You can go to our website at www.democracynow.org. Democracy Now! is produced by Kris Abrams, Miranda Kennedy, Lizzy Ratner. Michael Yeh. Anthony Sloan is our engineer and music maestro. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for listening to another edition of Democracy Now!

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