Friends of 20-year-old Susana Robles Desgarennes knew her as an upstanding mother, with plans to launch a makeup company upon finishing her business studies at City College. On the side, she volunteered at Young Women’s Freedom Center, but advocates say the same forces that drove her passionate support for marginalized young women and girls like herself led to her death.
On Sept. 30, police found Robles Desgarennes and her ex-boyfriend, 24-year-old Angel Raygoza, lifeless in a car in Dolores Heights, in what investigators believe to be a murder-suicide. They left behind their 4-year-old daughter.
Robles Desgarennes was 15 years old when she first came to Young Women’s Freedom Center, which works with young women who are either homeless or marginally housed and unable to access social services. Many of them, Executive Director Jessica Nowlan says, end up or stay in violent or unhealthy relationships without other shelter options.
Robles Desgarennes “is a life lost too soon at the hands of a violent partner who was enabled by the gendered economic stratification in San Francisco and the ever-present misogyny in our society,” says Nowlan, who worked with her. “As a young woman’s world begins to open up and she begins to believe that she deserves a life free from violence, her abuser reacts proportionally.”
The murder-suicide was but one of two domestic violence incidents in only a week — both of which involved guns and took place days before Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
The second death came on Sept. 24, when police fatally shot an armed man, Damian Murray, who held his girlfriend and their two children hostage in their Nob Hill apartment. After police arrived hours earlier, they heard a woman yell for help and Murray threatening to shoot unless officers stepped back.
“It’s important to know that we responded to a domestic violence situation where, after three hours of negotiating, the incident developed quickly into a life-or-death situation,” Commander Greg McEachern said at a town hall about the shooting. “This was a difficult situation for the officers to navigate.”
That “difficult situation to navigate” is one that domestic violence advocates deal with daily. October is nearly over, but advocates say that the issue needs broad attention year-round.
“Domestic violence is not something that we need to talk about for a month,” Nowlan says. “It needs to be at the center of our conversations about health and equality in California and the nation.”
San Francisco has a Domestic Violence Consortium that Executive Director Beverly Upton says brings about 25 organizations together to intervene before fatal violence occurs and help the abused recover. Together, the consortium encompasses legal, cultural, and emotional needs of those afflicted by domestic violence, and it has helped bring down homicide rates.
The rate of women killed in San Francisco due to domestic violence steadily dropped from nine annually in the 1990s, to between one and three deaths per year in the early 2000s. For a 44-month period between 2011 and 2013, there were zero deaths, according to the city’s Department on the Status of Women. Since then, one to three domestic violence homicides per year have once again become routine.
And in the aftermath of multiple incidents last month, the issue dominated local headlines.
One can’t help but look at these lives recently cut short by domestic violence — not to mention the mass death inflicted in Las Vegas — and wonder how it would have turned out without guns in the equation.
“You’re really seeing a tragedy,” Upton says of the gun violence trend. “We’ve been spared [gun violence] in the past.”
Lam made numerous 911 calls to police up until the moment her boyfriend, Cedric Young Jr., fatally shot her. A restraining order, which would have required the person it’s filed against to surrender his guns, could have made a difference for her, Upton says.
“Officers take guns away from common areas when responding to a domestic violence call, an arrest is made, and an emergency protective order put in place,” says SFPD spokesperson Grace Gatpandan.
Protocol for people in a restraining order could use more work, Upton says. By creating an opportunity to confiscate weapons, the effort to reduce gun violence receives some help.
California has some of the most restrictive gun laws nationwide. Applications limited to one handgun every 30 days, and require proof of California residency and of being 21 years old. Generally, guns are illegal to expose in public places or streets, although people may apply for concealed carrying.
But in 2016, San Francisco homicides by firearm jumped 15 percent and non-fatal shootings increased 27 percent. U.S. gunmakers doubled firearm production between 2010 and 2013, according to 2016 data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
“As some of the most recent domestic violence homicides have illustrated, guns and domestic violence are a lethal combination,” says Minouche Kandel, policy director for the Department on the Status of Women. “Federal gun laws would help.”
Until federal action transpires, identifying the signs of the potential for homicides is another challenge. For the city’s part, Kandel runs a liaison program that trains city employees to link coworkers to safety and services.
Coworkers who have daily interactions with someone who is in, or in the process of leaving, a violent relationship might notice a change in patterns: tardiness, inability to focus, receiving multiple texts, or the partner suddenly showing up at work.
“The workplace might be one of the few places where it’s safe to talk,” Kandel says. “They become a linkage.”
Being the link for people with limited English proficiency, vulnerable immigration statuses, varying sexual orientations, and young people in schools are some of many scenarios to consider, Upton says.
Women suffering from both substance abuse and domestic violence are also harder to find, Kandel says.
“No cultures are more violent or more prone to domestic violence, and everybody has a role in ending it in our community,” Upton says. “We can always be doing more.”
The city’s domestic violence crisis 24 hour line is 415-864-4722.