Among experts who work with the victims of domestic abuse, the moment when a woman attempts to get away from her batterer is considered the most perilous, a time when violence often intensifies, sometimes to fatal proportions.
It was that situation that Tara O'Sullivan, a newly-minted police officer, walked into Wednesday night when she responded to a domestic disturbance call and was helping a woman collect her belongings to leave a home in Sacramento. A man inside the house opened fire and shot O'Sullivan, who lay injured in the yard of the house as the man, who allegedly had a history of domestic violence, held off other officers from rescuing her.
O'Sullivan, 26, died later at UC-Davis Medical Center.
Julie Bornhoeft, chief strategy and sustainability officer for Sacramento-based Women Escaping a Violent Environment, said she was not surprised by the shooting because when a victim takes steps to leave, it "disrupts that power and it escalates" the abuse.
"It is the most dangerous call law enforcement responds to," she said, adding that a firearm in the home increases the likelihood of serious injury or death 500 times. "Someone determined to maintain control will use what resources they have."
The Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based advocacy group that works to stop gun deaths and injuries, reported a total of 184 women killed by men in California in 2016. The report said 90 percent of those incidents were intimate-partner homicides. Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties had a total of 17,419 domestic violence calls in 2017, according to the California justice department's latest crime figures listed on its website. And one 2011 survey found that domestic violence homicides comprised 11.8 percent of all homicides in the state.
O'Sullivan's death is just the latest incident to shine a spotlight on an issue that often remains in the shadows, because victims do not always speak out, and the crimes are under-reported, experts say.
In one publicized case last year, former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence after an incident in February 2018 at the Los Gatos home he shared with ex-girlfriend, Elissa Ennis, according to court documents. Two felony domestic-violence related charges in that case were dismissed by a judge in May 2018 when Ennis recanted the story she had told authorities about the February incident.
In November, he was arrested again in Tampa, Florida, after an incident in the team hotel that also involved Ennis. She said Foster had pushed her and slapped her during an argument, a Tampa police statement said. The 49ers released him after the arrest. Charges were later dropped, and the football player was picked up by the Washington Redskins.
Marissa Seko, an intervention unit manager at the Oakland-based Family Violence Law Center, said Friday that research shows it takes survivors seven attempts on average to end an abusive relationship. She said it has become increasingly difficult for victims to leave because of the Bay Area housing crisis, and the lack of available bed space at women's shelters.
Beatriz Garcia, a 34-year-old woman who lives in Hayward, recounted Friday how difficult it was for to leave a man who was abusing her after growing up in an abusive home.
Garcia said she felt trapped going from one abusive relationship to another, and she did not trust authorities to help her because she had entered the United States from Mexico illegally at age 15.
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A medical assistant who wants to become a nurse and counselor for domestic violence victims, Garcia said the situation with one man "got so bad I'd rather be deported." She said he bragged about knowing police officers and said that they would believe him over her.
The man, she said, "would lock me in a room without letting me eat for hours and days. I was at the point I didn't care. I was scared he would kill me."
She said one night, the man came home seemingly high on drugs. Garcia said he started slapping her and hitting her. When she tried to get her car keys and cell phone to leave, she said he knocked her down and beat her.
But Garcia was able to call 911, she said, and when a neighbor heard her screams and broke down the front door, she was able to run out of the house. Then police arrived to take away her then partner.
Garcia, who now has a daughter, said she moved to another city to escape, the man but he showed up at her work, a situation experts say happens frequently when abuse victims attempt to hide from their abusers.
Garcia said she eventually sought help from Safe Alternatives to Violent Environments of Fremont. Through the group, she now works with Project LIGHT, a survivor advocacy and leadership training program.
She said she had not discussed her experience publicly before speaking with this news organization on Friday.
"I know now that I'm not damaged goods and able to help my community, but I am continuing to heal myself," Garcia said. "You never know how much in danger you are until you have survived."
Bornhoeft said to expect an escalation of abuse whenever a victim tries to take control of her or his life.
O'Sullivan's death illustrated the peril not only for victims but for police officers who try to help them.
"One of the common themes is, 'Why didn't she leave?' " Bornhoeft said. "The reason victims don't leave is because they know how dangerous it is.
Situations such as the one that led to O'Sullivan's being killed, she said, "are a reminder of that."