Failure to protect: A system meant to support defendants often backfires on victims of domestic violence

Editor’s note: To protect the identity of the victim in this story, Steamboat Pilot & Today has used a pseudonym to identify the victim and the defendant. This story focuses on domestic violence.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — “What does it take in this county? For me to be killed before it matters?” Anne asked a law enforcement officer once.

“Pretty much,” he responded.

That conversation still echoes through Anne’s mind today — 15 years after she met Ryan, her ex-husband, whose abuse of Anne and her children resulted in a three-year sentence, which was shortened to six months due to COVID-19. The abuse also gave Anne a diagnosis of C-PTSD, a more severe form of PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder.

Anne first posed the question to the officer in 2018 as she watched the cycle unfold. Ryan would abuse her or her children, law enforcement would arrest him, he would appear in front of a judge, and the judge would issue him a personal recognizance, or PR, bond. This meant he was released from jail without paying a bond and with no supervision. If he did not appear in court, he was required to pay a bond amount, which varied with each new charge.

‘Red flags’ turned into abuse

Anne met Ryan in 2006. The “red flags” began quickly, she said, after having children with him. Each time Ryan mistreated her, she wrote down the incident on a notepad. But he would always apologize, and she would throw the notes away.

But eventually, the red flags turned into bright, flashing lights of abusive behavior.

“It very quickly got scarier than I ever thought it could be,” Anne said.

Ryan frequently abused her and her oldest daughter, who was 9 years old at the time. The types of abuse ranged from physical to emotional to sexual, and police reports confirmed the allegations. As the abuse progressed, Anne told her mother, an attorney, who advised her to seek a divorce and a protective order, which Anne did with the help of Advocates of Routt County, a local domestic violence nonprofit.

At that time, Anne believed the protective order barring Ryan from being within 100 yards of her home and her children’s school would keep them safe, but Ryan quickly found ways to defy the order.

According to police reports, on Feb. 7, 2018, Ryan told Anne’s neighbor he planned to see his three kids and then take his life. Anne’s neighbor called police to alert them of Ryan’s threats. Ryan then showed up on Anne’s doorstep, called her from a fake cell phone number using an app called Caller ID Faker and flickered her lights on and off, which she told officers terrified her.

Ryan had been served divorce papers and the civil protection order a month earlier on Jan. 4, 2018. Anne was told by police and others to “be careful, it’s only a piece of paper,” though she had no idea what those words meant at the time.

“I’d very soon find out,” Anne said. “What I’d hoped would become a needed time of relief after finally escaping the hell I’d lived in for over a decade, proved to be nothing but the opposite of that. The period I was entering became scarier than I could ever imagine.”

Over the next several weeks, Ryan repeatedly used Caller ID Faker, and according to police reports, called Anne more than 1,000 times. Ryan was arrested three times for phone harassment and stalking, and each time, he was let out on a PR bond.

At each proceeding, Ryan appeared before Routt County Judge James Garrecht, who said he could not comment on the cases, as the Judicial Canon of Ethics prevents judges from discussing specific cases.

“I would tell you his cases were complicated for a myriad of reasons and handled by different judges and prosecutors,” Garrecht said in an email.

The cases stayed in Routt County, but the Larimer County District Attorney’s Office ultimately prosecuted Ryan, because of a conflict of interest.

Each time Ryan was released, Anne grew more and more concerned for the safety of herself and her three children.

On Feb. 7, 2018, Anne’s worst nightmare turned into a reality.

As she and her three children — all younger than 10 at the time — were asleep, Ryan appeared outside Anne’s bedroom door at around 2 a.m., according to police records.

Anne’s dogs and neighbor alerted her to Ryan’s presence outside the sliding glass door of her bedroom, and then her neighbor, in a “grave voice I’d never heard before,” told Anne to grab her gun. She immediately left her sleeping son in bed to go to the kitchen and call 911.

Ultimately, Anne’s neighbor forced Ryan to leave, and law enforcement later found his vehicle in a snowbank. He was subsequently arrested for driving under the influence, domestic violence harassment, violation of a protective order, reckless driving and eluding a police officer, according to charges filed in Routt County Court.

Anne immediately had a security system and cameras installed at her home and obtained an emergency concealed carry permit from the Routt County Sheriff’s Office.

Ryan then appeared in Routt County Court and was issued another PR bond, and law enforcement officers advised Anne and her children to leave the area while Ryan was out of custody. They left for three weeks and returned when Anne was told Ryan would be checking himself into a rehabilitation facility for alcoholism, though he returned from rehab early, Anne said.

(Photo by John F. Russell)

Scarier than I’d imagined’

In February 2018, Anne and her neighbor began receiving phone calls from a blocked phone number, then from a series of phone numbers she did not recognize. The calls were often late at night or before a large event, Anne said.

“His fixation of me never stopped,” Anne said. “Him repeatedly getting out was really hard to understand with other people saying they don’t understand why this is allowed.”

Ryan was sentenced to three years in Correctional Alternative Placement Services in Craig, though he was let out two-and-a half years early due to COVID-19, about which Anne said she was not alerted.

During the last three years, Ryan has been arrested seven times, four of which resulted in a PR or cash surety bond, according to records from the Routt County Court. With the cash surety bond, Ryan was required to pay a fine immediately but was still let out of custody.

The PR bond process

When defendants in Colorado appear in court, the judge has several options: issue them a cash surety bond requiring them to pay money in order to leave jail, keep them in custody without bond or issue them a PR bond, which means they do not need to pay unless they fail to appear for court.

The PR bond, several law enforcement experts said, was created with good intent to make the bond system more equitable for lower-income defendants.

“The bond system legally, almost by design if not intent, discriminates against low income people, which is completely unacceptable,” said Matt Karzen, district attorney for Colorado’s 14th Judicial District, which includes Routt County. “That doesn’t change the fact that there are certain people, who when they’re arrested, they get out right away.”

The system meant to protect defendants has sometimes backfired on victims, Karzen added.

“A paper restraining order doesn’t stop a knife blade or a gun,” he said.

In Routt County, 336 domestic violence cases in 2020 resulted in the defendant being issued a PR bond, according to data obtained by Steamboat Pilot & Today from the Colorado State Court Administrator’s Office. Karzen estimated that number accounted for almost every domestic violence charge in 2020. Karzen attributed the high number of PR bonds to jails wanting to keep populations low due to COVID-19.

“When you take away the monetary bond but you don’t replace it with a well-thought-out alternative, then everyone just starts getting out, and there have been some bad outcomes,” Karzen said. “I have seen the scenario hundreds of times where someone gets arrested for domestic violence, they get out and they’re arrested again within days.”

However, statewide domestic violence experts said Routt County’s high number of PR bonds for domestic violence defendants may be unique to Routt County.

“There are tools available to the prosecutor and judge not to give out a PR bond and that happens in a lot of places as judges have other options,” said Lydia Waligrowski, public policy director at Violence Free Colorado. “There are tools to address that. Why they chose not to is a completely different question.”

Waligrowski pointed to a lack of training as one possible reason.

“Our judges are appointed from a wide array of backgrounds, and a lot of them don’t necessarily have training on domestic violence issues,” Waligrowski said. “They need to be able to look at this from a research-based perspective.”

Lack of accountability for defendants

Because of its rural nature and small size, Routt County does not have a pretrial services system that many communities on the Front Range do. In such a system, defendants are placed with a services officer and are supervised as they move through the system. Defendants in cases involving victims usually receive an ankle monitor to ensure they do not go near the victim, which experts said could have helped in Anne’s case, as well as those like hers.

“Right now in our community, when someone gets a PR bond, there is nothing really holding them accountable,” said Lisel Petis, executive director at Advocates of Routt County and a former prosecutor in Moffat and Weld counties. “The fact that we don’t have pre-trial services here is really concerning for victims.”

Waligrowski said it would be a “false equivalency” to claim victims in larger metro areas are safer than those in rural areas.

“If you have multiple arrests with the same victim, that is an opportunity for judges and prosecutors to recognize escalation and figure out another solution,” Waligrowski said.

While Petis said she could not speak to specific cases, Petis and Karzen said an ankle monitor could have made a difference in cases similar to Anne’s, where a defendant was arrested and then returned to harass the victim.

“Being able to track someone is huge,” Karzen said. “If you see someone moving towards the victim, you can mitigate whatever is about to happen. The system owes it to the community it serves to undertake a reality-based analysis on how do we balance public safety and individual liberty and the presumption of innocence.”

Karzen also said a system of preventative detention, in which a defendant with violent history is not let out on a bond, is essential to protecting victims.

“Unless someone like (Ryan) can demonstrate that they can be trusted or supervised, they should have to stay in custody,” Karzen said. “There is this directive to move away from a monetary-based bonding system, but at the same time, they’re not going to tell us how else we should go about this.”

Anne said she shared her story to shine a light on what she believes is a serious issue.

“It’s more than just one judge. I’m just hoping there can be awareness brought to this system — a system that doesn’t keep victims safe.”

SOURCE: Steamboat Pilot & Today / September 2, 2021 / Author: Alison Berg

To reach Alison Berg, call 970-871-4229 or email [email protected].

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