Wichita’s domestic abuse epidemic inspires call for municipal court to reform offender treatment

Sedgwick County logs more cases than four other most populous Kansas counties

By: and - October 21, 2021 12:00 pm
Council Grove residents Curt and Christine Brungardt, parents of domestic violence homicide victim Jana Mackey, said they were disappointed the Wichita Municipal Court made insufficient use of batterer intervention programs to potentially change behavior of abusers. Wichita continues to cement itself as the epicenter of domestic violence in Kansas. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Council Grove residents Curt and Christine Brungardt, parents of domestic violence homicide victim Jana Mackey, said they were disappointed the Wichita Municipal Court made insufficient use of batterer intervention programs to potentially change behavior of abusers. Wichita continues to cement itself as the epicenter of domestic violence in Kansas. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

WICHITA — Social activist Jana Mackey volunteered at a rape crisis hotline and lent a hand to victims of abuse, lobbied at the Kansas Capitol on behalf of human rights and earned a college degree in women’s studies before starting law school.

Editor’s note

This is the first story in a two-part investigative series about the epidemic of domestic violence in Wichita. The project is a collaboration between Tim Carpenter, senior reporter at the Kansas Reflector, and Pilar Pedraza, senior reporter with KAKE News in Wichita.

Kansas Reflector will publish the second story Friday. KAKE News’ broadcast coverage begins Thursday evening and continues into the weekend.

The 25-year-old’s advocacy career was cut short July 3, 2008, when an ex-boyfriend, apparently angry at Mackey for ending their relationship, showed nobody was exempt from the plague of domestic violence. During a struggle in a Lawrence home, Adolfo Garcia-Nunez killed Mackey. He fled to New Jersey but was caught by police. He was found hours later hanged in a jail cell, a likely suicide. Dark thoughts that drove Garcia-Nunez had emerged before. Four years earlier, he broke into a former girlfriend’s home and attacked her with a knife. She escaped; he spent a year behind bars.

Mackey’s mother and stepfather, Christie and Curt Brungardt, struggled to make sense of their daughter’s death. They were told their job was to go home, grieve and leave the work of reshaping the human condition to professionals. The now-retired Fort Hays State University faculty members said Mackey’s death compelled them to step outside the ivory tower of academia and dedicate themselves to direct action in a quest to reduce gender and relationship violence.

They formed Jana’s Campaign, an educational nonprofit that has worked in 47 states to assist middle school, high school and college students to stop violence before it starts.

The Brungardts carried their daughter’s story to the Capitol to encourage passage of laws requiring rigorous, court-ordered assessment and treatment for domestic abusers. That produced a compromise bill in 2012 encouraging — not mandating — city and state courts send second-time abusers to a certified Batterer Intervention Program lasting six months. The law granted members of the judiciary discretion to follow their instincts, despite the Brungardts’ objection to inclusion of the exemption.

The opening was exploited by judges on the Wichita Municipal Court, including one that lobbied against a statewide mandate for batterers, to shuffle domestic violence offenders into anger management classes or other forms of abbreviated intervention programs.

In the years since, Wichita became a mecca for domestic violence cases, protection orders, arrests and homicides.

“If you could save lives by sending them to the correct place for rehabilitation, why wouldn’t you? If it saves a life, is it worth it? It seems to me, yes,” Christie Brungardt said.

Jana Mackey, a University of Kansas law student in Lawrence, was killed by a former boyfriend. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

 

‘Take me seriously’

Rowena Irani, a psychology student at Wichita State University, was shot in the head by her former boyfriend Oct. 3, 2016. Her mother found her, still alive. Irani died the next day.

Irani, 22, worked at WSU escorting people with disabilities to classes and had a job at Wichita Children’s Home.

A couple of weeks before the shooting, Irani quit dating Dane Owens. At that time, he was a student at Kansas State University. Court records show Irani exchanged texts with a brother worried about Owens. In the thread, she said: “What’s the worse that’ll happen? He’ll take a rifle and shoot me?”

Owens walked into Irani’s unlocked front door in Wichita with a loaded .45-caliber pistol in hand. In a subsequent interview with police, Owens was asked what he wanted Irani to do that required persuasion with a gun.

“Take me seriously,” Owens said.

He was convicted of first-degree murder and received a sentence of life in prison without a chance for parole for 25 years.

 

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Women in danger

The standard certified, 26-week Batterer Intervention Program is designed to hold offenders accountable for violence against intimate partners and support survivor safety. It focuses on changing participants’ dangerous behavior through lessons that drill into distorted ideas of power and domination, which is at the root of domestic violence. It includes strategies for communication that don’t devalue and degrade women, the most common recipients of domestic abuse.

Under direction of the state attorney general’s office, the Batterer Intervention Program movement picked up steam across Kansas. In Wichita, where a prominent city judge lobbied against a mandate, adoption has lagged.

Judges on the Wichita Municipal Court demonstrated a preference for short-term remediation at the same time the number of domestic violence cases mushroomed.

The Brungardts, who led the state’s batterer intervention advisory board for five years, said they met with Wichita officials to plead for change, but were politely informed they should mind their own business. The Brungardts said participation in the six-month Batterer Intervention Program wouldn’t work for everyone, but the program ought to be a key piece of any justice system’s response to domestic violence because beliefs and behaviors don’t change easily.

“Those judges have so much power,” Curt Brungardt said. “It really puts women in danger. Losing a daughter, you can see where our priority was. The end result is, I’m convinced, that women in Wichita are not as safe.”

The potential risk is immense: Incidence of domestic violence in Sedgwick County stood at nearly 15 per 1,000 residents in 2018, nearly double the rate of eight per 1,000 residents for Kansas overall. The Kansas hotline for victims of domestic violence is 1-888-363-2287.

Council Grove residents Curt and Christie Brungardt, participating in an interview with KAKE TV about domestic violence in Wichita, work to honor their daughter, Jana Mackey, who was killed by a former boyfriend in 2008. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas
Council Grove residents Curt and Christie Brungardt, participating in an interview with KAKE News in Wichita about domestic violence in Sedgwick County, work to honor their daughter, Jana Mackey, who was killed by a former boyfriend in 2008. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

 

‘Our shining light’

Emily Sonneman, 24, went to her ex-boyfriend Dion Stevens’ apartment in Wichita to return personal items after breaking up with him after less than a year of dating.

During an argument inside his apartment, Sonneman jumped from a second-floor balcony in an attempt to escape Stevens. He chased her outside, firing as he went. Sonneman was struck multiple times by bullets.

When police arrived, she identified Stevens as the assailant. She died at a hospital. Stevens, 26, committed suicide.

Sonneman was born in Wichita, but grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin. She returned to Wichita in 2004 and graduated from Goddard High School, where she excelled at soccer. She died July 6, 2016.

“Emily was our shining light,” her obituary said. “She was a ray of sunshine to all who knew her. She was a champion known for her enthusiasm for life and her unending dedication to those she loved.”

 

Epicenter of violence

Domestic violence has been widespread in Wichita for years, and leaders of domestic violence programs in other places in Kansas are well aware of the reputation. The statistical legacy of Wichita’s approach to domestic abuse — defined as a pattern of coercive behavior used to subordinate another person in an intimate relationship — has been recorded in annual reports produced by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.

The number of domestic violence incidents in Sedgwick County for 2020 hasn’t been reported yet by the KBI, but the number reached 7,700 in 2019 and 7,778 in 2018. In 2012, when the Kansas Legislature adopted the law recommending the judicial branch embrace the Batterer Intervention Program, the county had 3,600 cases annually.

The KBI reported that in 2018, the year for which complete figures were available, Sedgwick County had more domestic violence cases than the combined total of the four other counties in Kansas with more than 100,000 residents. The 2018 tallies for domestic abuse by county: Johnson, 2,883 cases; Shawnee, 2,025; Wyandotte, 1,449; and Douglas, 787.

In 2019, Sedgwick County had three times as many domestic abuse cases as Johnson County, despite Johnson County having 85,000 more people.

Sedgwick County also compiled three times the number of protection from abuse orders on an annual basis as issued in Johnson County, which has a larger population.

The Wichita City Council is responsible for hiring judges on the municipal court. The judges are responsible for misdemeanor cases, including domestic battery, that could prompt a formal batterer intervention assessment and enrollment in an intervention program. In August, when the city council unanimously renewed the judges’ four-year contracts and gave each a raise, there was no discussion of runaway domestic violence in Wichita.

“We should thank our municipal court judges for the job they did and the job they continue to do for us,” said city council member Bryan Frye.

Frye served on the council’s subcommittee that reviewed the judges’ personnel files. The results of courthouse surveys and the self-evaluations submitted by the judges came back “strong,” he said.

“As a city, we are blessed to have four judges that are by all accounts professional, dedicated to their job and served us very well during this struggle and the demands put on them during the COVID year,” Frye said.

Officials at Wichita City Hall responded to a request for information about use of a Batterer Intervention Program by stating 89% of domestic battery cases moving through municipal court were referred to a BIP in 2020, up from 71% a year ago. It’s not clear how many offenders were assessed, entered a program, how those programs were structure or completed the counseling. There’s little current information about recidivism among the municipal court’s domestic violence offenders in Wichita. Those statistics would offer insight into whether the court system was running abusers through an efficient but unproductive legal turnstile.

The Wichita City Council, including member Bryan Frye, right, unanimously renewed contracts and awarded raises in August to Wichita Municipal Court judges. The city’s court system has been criticized for underutilizing batterer intervention programs for domestic abusers. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

 

‘Horrific incident’

The domestic dispute between Jason Williams and his wife escalated Dec. 30, 2020. Williams shot out a window to gain entry to the house and fired as many as 25 rounds during the melee.

He wounded his wife in the shoulder and executed his mother-in-law, Michelle Barr, inside the home. Wichita Police Department crisis negotiators persuaded Williams to release two children.

Williams, carrying two firearms, set the kids free but prevented his wife from leaving. At that point, Williams was shot and killed by a Wichita police officer.

Police Chief Gordon Ramsay told KAKE News in Wichita that Williams’ wife had secured a protection from abuse order that was served the day prior to the violent showdown.

“He did say he was not going to come out alive,” Ramsay said.

The kids, ages 5 and 7, witnessed the extreme of domestic violence.

“Horrific incident for them,” the chief said. “We’re going to do everything we can.”

 

Wichita’s reputation

Joan Wagnon, a former Topeka mayor and director of the Topeka YWCA, which delivers services to abused women, said she was alarmed by inability of the Wichita Municipal Court and the Wichita City Council to connect dots linking an avalanche of domestic violence in Sedgwick County to lack of aggressive action to prevent, prosecute and counsel people guilty of physical, sexual or mental abuse of intimate partners.

“I’m just appalled to see what is coming out of Wichita Municipal Court,” Wagnon said. “They ought to be looking at the domestic violence figures. They’re much higher there. It should be a source of embarrassment that they’re not participating in a solution to the problem.”

She said little was accomplished if victims of domestic violence sought assistance from crisis centers, the police arrested perpetrators of domestic violence, city prosecutors filed misdemeanor charges and the court system made it easy for offenders to step back into bad behaviors.

“I think it’s arrogance,” Wagnon said. “They think they know more about this issue than others. It’s laziness. They’re just dragging their feet and not participating.”

Kathy Ray, executive director of the Crisis Center in Manhattan, said the challenge of domestic violence in Wichita was well known to providers. She worked 15 years with the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, which partners with two dozen aid organizations across Kansas.

She said Wichita’s track record argued for reform that included mandatory intervention program reviews of all domestic violence offenders, including first-time offenders. Failure to hold people accountable for calculated behavior — designed to make people afraid — is toxic to relationships, families and communities, she said.

“If there’s no consequences for behavior, the subtle message is they can get away with it,” Ray said.

Steve Halley, of the Family Peace Initiative in Topeka, said Wichita judges marched to the beat of their own drum. Strategies deployed in Wichita have implications for the state’s overall problem of domestic violence, he said, because about half a million people live in Sedgwick County.

“They’ve been kind of a thorn in the side of Kansas for a long time,” Halley said.

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, supports amending state law to mandate first-time domestic violence offenders undergo a batterer intervention assessment to determine if the court system should order extensive therapy to change dangerous behaviors. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

 

‘Get her things and leave’

Amy Whiteman, 36, was born in Winfield and raised in Burden. She was involved in cheerleading, band and volleyball. She worked at Winfield State Hospital before moving to Wichita.

Reginald Johnson left work early Aug. 20, 2007, based on suspicion Whiteman, his common-law wife, was being unfaithful in their relationship.

She said it wasn’t true, but Johnson took her car keys and cellular telephone. He said her belongings would be waiting for her in the front yard of their home. By the time Whiteman got there, he had placed a gun in a closet by the front door. Whiteman went inside the house with Johnson, and she assured a friend she would be all right. Johnson told his partner’s friend that he wasn’t a “monster.”

Eventually, court records say, Johnson said Whiteman confirmed her infidelity. He claimed to not remember retrieving the shotgun or discharging the weapon. He asserted he didn’t want to hurt her, but did want to convince her to “get her things and leave.”

He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with a chance at parole in 25 years.

 

Mounting evidence

The Wichita Police Department secured a grant to study what role the large number of parolees released into the city had on crime. The research was initiated to develop strategies for improving public safety, decreasing recidivism and effectively using resources.

Research by the Council of State Governments, a nonpartisan organization serving elected and appointed officials, found that one-third of all people released on parole in Kansas were set loose in Sedgwick County. But it was the incidence of domestic violence in Wichita that captured CSG’s attention, not the parolees.

CSG said Sedgwick County accounted for 32% of domestic violence cases in Kansas, 26% of domestic violence arrests in the state and 24% of Kansas’ domestic violence homicides in 2018. Sedgwick County is home to only 18% of the state’s population.

The 2021 report by CSG build consensus recommendations by working with the police department’s specialized domestic violence unit, batterer intervention providers, domestic violence crisis shelter staff and other community partners.

They concurred that the number of domestic violence and intimate partner abuse cases was indeed growing and the incidents were increasingly violent. The police department’s domestic violence unit was overworked trying to investigate the large number of cases. Rising demand for shelter space for domestic violence victims was straining capacity in Wichita. Court backlogs and COVID-19 closures translated into delays obtaining protection from abuse orders. In addition, there was evidence Batterer Intervention Program assessments were seldom ordered for first offense.

“BIP assessments are not consistently ordered by the courts,” the report said. “People who perpetuate domestic violence are often sentenced to anger management opposed to BIP. Some BIP models utilized in Wichita are not based on best practices.”

Wichita police officers were working to improve “lethality assessments” of alleged abusers, but it wasn’t clear that information was weighed by municipal court judges making decisions about perpetrators of domestic violence.

In addition, the report said, offenders should be sentenced to Batterer Intervention Program services certified by the attorney general’s office. CSG also urged the municipal court to stop referring abusers to anger management counseling.

Chief Gordon Ramsay, who leads the largest police department in Kansas, secured funding for a study that showed Wichita had one-third of the state’s domestic violence cases and one-fourth of domestic abuse homicides in 2018. (Screen capture from KAKE News in Wichita video)

 

‘Generous human being’

The conflicts that drove Lourdes Hernandez and Carlos Salas to get a divorce apparently flared at a southeast Wichita residence.

It was July 15, 2016, and the couple had recently ended their marriage. They were together to return personal belongings.

The Wichita Police Department declared the case a murder-homicide after concluding Salas shot Hernandez before turning the gun on himself.

Hernandez, a 47-year-old administrative assistant and mother of two children, passed away at a hospital. Salas died at the scene.

Leilani Salas, a daughter, said her mother was the “most loving, caring, generous human being.”

 

Wichita community survey

The CGS assessment built upon a 2018 community survey that addressed the status of domestic and sexual violence in Wichita and Sedgwick County. A multidisciplinary team of experienced professionals was formed to consider the intersection of laws, policies, procedures and other influences that created holes in responses to domestic or sexual violence.

“It’s about time it becomes a priority for all of us in Wichita, Kansas,” said Kristi Barton Edwards, associate professor of criminal justice at Newman University and audit coordinator of the community assessment team.

The report said Sedgwick County’s emergency communications division had insufficient staff to deal with 911 call volumes. The Wichita Police Department didn’t have the personnel to respond to all requests for assistance. Not all officers had benefit of trauma-informed training, the report said.

The analysis said the city’s medical personnel lacked the education to identify and respond to victims of abuse, and they didn’t have access to a specific domestic violence screening tool.

The city’s accredited shelter options were limited. Catholic Charities’ Harbor House had 40 beds, while the Wichita Family Crisis Center had 22 beds.

“With no intermediate or secondary shelter options to assist survivors when they have become safe, stable and are waiting for housing,” the report said, “crisis beds stay filled longer, which, in turn, causes the agencies to turn away even more survivors.”

When city prosecutors declined to move ahead with a case, the report said, the decisions were inconsistently communicated to victims. Men and women were being placed at risk in municipal and district courtrooms while seeking protection orders from people in the buildings, the report said.

Kristi Barton Edwards, associate professor of criminal justice at Newman University, said a community survey identified strengths and weaknesses of Wichita’s approach to domestic and sexual violence. She urged the city to make a priority of both issues. (Screen capture City of Wichita/Kansas Reflector)

 

‘Life filled with love’

Rebecca Nimmo, an optician in Wichita, was the mother of two children.

The Wichita Police Department said she was found stabbed to death Jan. 20, 2021, on South Dodge Avenue. Investigators ruled it a domestic violence homicide.

“She lived a life filled with love for her family and friends,” her obituary said.

Her husband, Shawn Nimmo, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder by the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s office.

Linda Grisham-Bell, an acquaintance of Rebecca Nimmo, said she would always remember her as “one of the sweetest girls I have ever met. Her smiling face lit up the room.”

 

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Attorney general’s report

Long before Wichita’s introspective community evaluation of 2018 and the CSG assessment of 2021, the Kansas attorney general’s office conducted research in 2016 on recidivism of domestic abusers who completed a thorough intervention program.

The work involved six certified programs from urban and rural areas of Kansas. Each program provided names and completion dates for people who finished in 2012. The idea was to document how many fell back into domestic abuse or other criminal behavior after clearing the program’s hurdles.

Michelle McCormick, director of the victims’ services division in the office of Kansas attorney general, says a 2016 analysis of six-month Batterer Intervention Programs in Kansas showed 90% of completers didn’t get a new protection from abuse order for three years. (Screen capture Shawnee County District Attorney office/Kansas Reflector)

The report concluded 88% of those who finished a six-month Batterer Intervention Program hadn’t been charged with a crime against a person in three years. And 90% of completers didn’t have a new protection from abuse order filed against them in that time frame, the report said.

“It’s really clear the programs can be effective, but certain circumstances have to be in place,” said Michelle McCormick, director of the victims’ services division in the office of Attorney General Derek Schmidt. “You have to have the buy-in of the courts, of your prosecutor’s office, of your supervision officers. Everybody has to sort of work in coordination to make sure the person who is sent to the BIP, completes the BIP.”

The report’s findings were constrained because law enforcement agencies inevitably handled domestic violence cases differently, but the authors concluded “this should be a call to action to not only continue, but also increase investment in the domestic violence intervention field.”

The 2012 state law regarding intervention programs for batterers said the courts “may” order an assessment for a first offense of domestic battery. The law says the court “shall” order a BIP evaluation for a second offense. However, the issue was clouded by a line in the bill that said use of a Batterer Intervention Program could be sidestepped if “otherwise ordered by the court.”

“Judges have discretion, for sure, based on whatever information they’re considering to modify that requirement,” McCormick said. “I feel discretion is an important part of our system of courts.

“I also think the flip side of that is our whole culture in many ways misunderstands the dynamics of domestic violence. There isn’t enough education, training. There are too many myths. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about this social problem. Judges grow up in that culture as well. If you are a judge who isn’t as experienced in domestic violence dynamics or as trained, I think there could be some misunderstandings.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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Pilar Pedraza
Pilar Pedraza

Pilar Pedraza sees journalism as a public service, providing viewers with the information they need to lead their best lives. This is part of what led her into political reporting early on. She cut her political reporting teeth on the First in the Nation Caucuses in Iowa in the 90s. She won multiple awards for her election coverage in Des Moines. She's spent much of the last decade covering the latest developments in Kansas politics. In between elections she's covered everything from the Oklahoma City Bombing, the OJ Simpson Civil Trial, and the birth of the McCaughey Septuplets to the Capture of BTK and the Flight Safety Crash at Eisenhower Airport. With two decades of experience in broadcast news, Pilar has done just about every job there is in TV news. Her favorite, to date, is reporting and anchoring, especially covering politics and breaking news. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms in Michigan and Oklahoma, where her mother was a reporter, editor, and columnist and where she learned how to work with her local community. Pilar graduated from Iowa State University with a BA in Journalism and Spanish in 1996 and got her MA in History with an emphasis in 20th century politics at Pittsburg State University in 2019. She is fluent in multiple languages. In her scant free time, Pilar likes to hang out with her husband of 20+ years and their son, a recent graduate of Maize High School. She enjoys reading, quilting, cross stitching and petting her dog and three cats.

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