Charity DePina thought she had found love with a boyfriend she met in an online chat room.
The bubbly 22-year-old from Merced would jump in the car with the man, who was twice her age, and ride to Fresno where she would spend days with him.
DePina’s family says she was autistic and had the mental development of about a 10-year-old. She was seeking love and attention, they say. But the young woman found neither with Gabriel Salvador Salinas, according to Fresno police.
Salinas, 44, beat DePina in a southeast Fresno home until she was unconscious and near death on Nov. 10, police allege. She died later at a hospital. Salinas has pleaded not guilty to killing DePina and remains in jail.
Thousands of women are emotionally bruised and physically battered — and in some cases killed — in domestic violence attacks in Fresno every year. Women are verbally intimidated, demeaned, isolated, punched, shoved, kicked, strangled, stabbed, raped and shot by husbands, boyfriends, ex-partners and lovers.
Six women in Fresno, including DePina, were killed by partners in 2017, police say. And hundreds had injuries that needed medical attention. Doctors at Community Regional Medical Center's emergency department, Fresno's busiest, see two to four people each day who have been abused.
Physical violence to partners happens across the city, in wealthy as well as low-income neighborhoods, and victims are of every race, ethnicity and religion. The woman who cuts your hair, bags your groceries, cleans your teeth — or the neighbor who lives next door — could be concealing blackened eyes under makeup and cracked ribs wrapped in tape.
While violent crimes such as aggravated assaults and robbery decreased in Fresno in 2017, domestic violence increased by double digits. And many of the attacks were committed by repeat offenders.
Police Chief Jerry Dyer has made domestic violence one of his department's three top priorities for 2018, along with stopping gang killings and murders of homeless people.
In 2017, nearly 5,200 calls were made about domestic violence in Fresno. That's about 14 a day.
"We are overwhelmed by domestic violence in our community," Dyer said. "The number of domestic violence cases we have is mind-boggling."
The abuse abyss
Domestic violence calls were made in Fresno last year at about twice the rate of calls of similarly sized cities like Bakersfield, Sacramento, Riverside, Long Beach and San Francisco. Fresno, the state's fifth-largest city, had the highest rate of calls of the 10 most populous cities in California in 2016, the latest data available.
More than likely, the calls to police represent only a fraction of the abuse that is happening because it's under-reported.
In the case of Breanna Bradford, Fresno police said the 22-year-old woman had confided in a close friend that she had been assaulted several weeks before her death last fall. Bradford, who graduated from Hanford West High in 2013, was found dead in her vehicle on Sept. 17 after her family reported she was missing. Her ex-boyfriend, James Matthew Gonzales Gay, 36, is accused of killing her and remains in custody.
There are multiple reasons why victims and family and friends of victims don't call police, including intimidation or retaliation by the abuser, or reluctance to "meddle" in a family member's situation.
There's also the fear of losing income or a home: In 2017, more victims of domestic violence were identified as homeless in Fresno-Madera counties than were people with severe mental illness.
Abuse strips victims of self-confidence and self-worth, said Lisa Casarez , 54, of Fresno. She endured six years of an abusive marriage before escaping one evening in a bathrobe, barefoot and with two young children. "You're not who you are anymore because they've isolated you. They pretty much have started chipping away at your self-esteem. You are no longer your own person any more. And you're the walking dead because you don't have your life anymore … you are in a trap."
Women often stay in relationships until the abuse becomes severe, or even life-threatening.
Violent domestic crime increased by 15.8 percent in Fresno in 2017. Those are cases that rose to the level of aggravated assault, meaning they either caused serious injuries or had the potential to cause them. Weapons were involved in 9.5 percent of the domestic violence calls in 2017 compared to 8 percent in 2016.
At the same time, there was a 5.2 percent decrease in aggravated assaults that were unrelated to domestic violence.
One possibility for the increase in serious domestic assaults could be weakened drug laws, Dyer said. "We used to arrest people in possession of methamphetamine; now we don't. Now we just issue them a citation and they go back to stay in their environment."
Studies have shown that one-fourth to one-half of men who commit domestic violence have substance abuse problems. There is debate over whether substance or alcohol abuse causes men to be violent, or whether they provide excuses for the violence.
Research also has shown that women living in disadvantaged neighborhoods are more than twice as likely to be victims of domestic violence, and about one in four people in Fresno County is impoverished — the highest rate of poverty in California as of 2016.
Domestic violence: a citywide problem in 2017
Each point on the map denotes the approximate location (to the block) of one of nearly 3,000 domestic violence cases handled by the Fresno Police Department in which an arrest was made in 2017. Click on a dot to see more information. Red dots represent felony cases, yellow signifies misdemeanor arrests.
But domestic violence is not limited to the poor.
"No sector of our city or county is without it. It happens on the north end, it happens in Clovis," said Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp. "And sometimes, the more well-established the offender is, the more it's hidden."
Domestic violence is about domination and control, Dyer said.
"I can't get inside the head of some of these domestic violence suspects," he said. "But it is a control issue. It is a jealousy issue. It is an insecurity issue that causes the jealousy and the control."
No one else can have her
The most dangerous time for a woman who is being abused is when she is ending the relationship.
On Nov. 5, three days shy of his 65th birthday, Manuel Garcia shot his estranged wife, Martha Garcia, and her boyfriend, Raul Herrera, as they sat in a parking lot after Mass at St. Alphonsus Church. Martha Garcia died in the car and Hererra died at a hospital.
The Garcias had been married for more than 40 years, but Martha Garcia, 61, had recently filed for divorce and told relatives she had a boyfriend. She remained living in the family's southwest Fresno home.
There was no history in police records of domestic violence, but the couple's adult children told police they recalled their father being violent with their mother when they were young.
There were indications that the impending end of his marriage deeply troubled Manuel Garcia. On Nov. 4, he posted a photo of an eye with a teardrop on his Facebook page, and wrote in Spanish: “It’s sad when you find out you were not as important to someone as you thought.”
Shortly after the shootings, police found Manuel Garcia in the living room of his home. He had shot himself in the head, police said.
In about 38 percent of partner homicides the abusers kill themselves, according to a nationwide database on violent deaths.
In addition to Martha Garcia, two other of the six domestic violence homicides in Fresno in 2017 involved estranged couples and homicide/suicide, according to police.
Sergio Galeana Herrera, 59, had talked about killing his wife, Fidelina Lemus, 49, before shooting and killing her and then turning the gun on himself on April 16, 2017, an adult daughter told Fresno police. Herrera and Lemus were estranged but living in the same home near downtown Fresno. There had been no calls to police prior to the deaths, police said. But Herrera had been drinking six to eight hours before the shootings, police were told.
Gilda Rose Pino, 54, had started and stopped divorce proceedings several times before her husband, Tony Pino, 50, shot and killed her on March 4, 2017 and then shot and killed himself in a house in central Fresno, police said.
Tony Pino had been arrested for misdemeanor domestic violence six years ago, but the offense was with a different partner. Police said a domestic violence call at the central Fresno home was documented as a general incident and not a crime.
Deciding to leave an abuser can be like pouring kerosene on a fire.
In many cultures, the woman is subordinate to the man, Smittcamp said. "The man is in charge of the money, the children, the work, the sex, the social life," she said. "When the woman leaves, the man can feel like he's losing everything, and the reaction is: 'If I can't have you, no one can have you.' ”
Behind bars in 48 hours
A domestic violence 911 call starts a clock ticking for Fresno police.
Officers have been concentrating on apprehending domestic violence suspects within 72 hours, part of the department's accelerated efforts to reduce the number of aggravated domestic violence victims.
Out-of-custody suspects pose a grave danger to victims, Dyer said. "We know if we don't get them in custody that first week that there's a high likelihood that they're going to return to the location and more severely injure that victim."
The department is searching for about 100 out-of-custody domestic violence suspects in any given week.
Fresno police have faced criticism in the past about how officers respond to domestic violence calls.
Families of two Fresno women who were victims of abuse in 2014 filed a civil rights lawsuit against the department in 2015, saying the police didn't do enough to help the victims even though they were clearly in dangerous situations. Cindy Raygoza was stabbed and killed by an ex-boyfriend; Pam Motley was shot by an estranged husband and wound up almost fully paralyzed.
In both cases, the families contended police officers were insensitive during interactions with the women prior to their deaths. Police denied making any disparaging comments.
A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in January, saying the police were not liable for the attacks on the women and there was no evidence police gave disparate treatment to domestic violence victims. The dismissal has been appealed.
Kevin Little, the Fresno lawyer representing the families, said that "my basic problem is that many officers lack the necessary sensitivity to handle these cases with diligence and thoroughness that they demand."
Dyer said the police department's focus this year on apprehending domestic violence offenders is showing promise. Serious physical assaults decreased in the first three months of 2018, he said. The number of domestic violence aggravated assaults increased slightly in April.
When a domestic violence suspect is on the loose, that individual is put on a "most wanted" list that Fresno officers can access in their patrol cars as they cruise neighborhoods, Dyer said. "They are out there … on a daily basis looking for these people." Domestic violence apprehension teams also spend entire shifts searching for offenders.
A sergeant and eight investigators — two more were added last September — are assigned to domestic violence cases. Investigations take time and an enormous amount of work, such as obtaining search warrants for phones and searching social media for evidence. "If we don't do those things, we may miss some important evidence," Dyer said.
"I don't buy the premise that there's not much law enforcement can do to combat domestic violence," he said. "I've heard for years 'You can't put a police officer in every bedroom.' No, but you can remove the offender from the home as quickly as you can."
Afraid to leave
At the Marjaree Mason Center for abused adults and children, the police, sheriff's and probation departments have advocates who help victims file restraining orders, explain court processes and connect the abused to resources.
Their support leads to more successful prosecutions of offenders. But getting women to seek help is at the crux of reducing domestic violence. Women stay in abusive relationships for various reasons, among them fear of the abuser. And in Fresno, some victims have another fear: deportation.
"An offender may actually tell a victim 'Don't report this because if you do you're here illegally and you're going to be deported,'" Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said.
The U visa program can help victims who are undocumented immigrants, Mims said. "As long as they're involved in the prosecution they can actually be here legally and safe," she said. But help is limited. Only 10,000 U visas are issued annually throughout the United States.
It can take as long as five years to process a U visa application. Victims are vulnerable while they are on the waiting list, said Krista Niemczyk, public policy manager at the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, an advocacy group. "It's hard for survivors to feel comfortable that they can come forward to law enforcement," she said.
Victims also are at risk when an offender gets released from jail, Mims said. Victims can register with the department to be notified when an offender is released so they can get an escape plan in place, she said.
Nicole Linder, executive director at Marjaree Mason, said the severity of attacks only worsens the longer someone stays in a relationship — and tragedies can happen when women don't seek help.
"There are six women that we lost, but think of all the lives that were saved because they were able to get out," she said. "They were brave enough to say, 'I don't want to do this anymore and I need some help.' "