Too Few Degrees of Separation: Domestic Violence in San Antonio

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Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

A long line of women waiting to share their experiences with domestic violence fills the aisle of the church at a town hall to address the pervasive problem of domestic violence in San Antonio on July 2.

The handwriting on the note taped to Christina Lea’s wall at the YWCA San Antonio on Castroville Road, with its loops and curls, is unmistakably feminine. Unfortunately, the reason why it’s still pinned to Lea’s wall two years later is because its author died a few days after she wrote it, just one of the 136 women in Texas, including 18 in Bexar County, who were killed by a male intimate partner in 2017.

Courtesy / Lily Casura

A handwritten note by Elizabeth Contreras is taped to Christina Lea’s wall at the YWCA San Antonio on Castroville Road.

Elizabeth Contreras was the new receptionist at YWCA, and she’d only been at her job for a few weeks, but she was already becoming well-loved by her coworkers. “She was just so fun,” says Lea, “and she was really a tough cookie. It’s hard to picture anyone taking advantage of her.”

Lea was on vacation in Sturgis, South Dakota when her cellphone started blowing up with concern from coworkers about the new receptionist. Had anyone heard from her? Did anyone know where she was? She hadn’t been to work in days and no one knew what was wrong. Lea, at a distance, wasn’t even in cell phone range to get the messages. But when she got back into range, she saw the flurry of activity and tried to get in touch with Contreras herself. There was no answer.

A few days later Contreras’ body was discovered, and her ex-husband, Guadalupe Contreras, was apprehended. He later confessed to her killing. Elizabeth Contreras left behind a young daughter.

Sadly, sometimes in San Antonio it feels like there’s only one degree of separation between us and a terrible story about domestic violence. And maybe that is part of the problem, that it’s just become part of the fabric here, part of the local landscape, to which we’ve all become adjusted.

Courtesy / Facebook

(From left) Elizabeth Sierra Contreras with her daughter Emma Lynn.

I met with Bexar County Commissioner Justin Rodriguez recently, and learned that his own sister-in-law was killed in a similar situation within the past few years. Republican Congressman Will Hurd, who was at the recent congressional town hall on domestic violence, attended with his sister, who is also a survivor. Domestic violence is so prevalent that one in three women in America will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. And while it’s hardly the point of this commentary, I too am a survivor.

This summer, I spent several months doing a deep dive into 100,000 domestic violence felony and misdemeanor cases in Bexar County over the past 10-20 years, depending on the offense, and learned a lot. Roger Enriquez, head of the Policy Studies Center at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and I co-authored two white papers on what we found.

I learned that we have a problem with repeat offenders, not just repeating within the criminal justice system, but committing multiple repeat offenses within domestic violence itself. There were a handful of felony multiple repeat offenders, with five and six domestic violence felonies apiece. All these offenders had committed multiple other offenses too, both felonies and misdemeanors. On the misdemeanor repeat offender side, there were almost 500 multiple repeat offenders, with six, seven, eight, even nine domestic violence offenses.

I also learned that many offenders travel at length through the criminal justice system, putting very little time between their offenses, which often escalate.

Related: Collaborative Effort Creates Commission on Domestic Violence

And that’s probably why a best practice is to intervene with education and training on better conflict resolution tools while someone is still in the misdemeanor phase, before they ever get to felony offenses.

Maybe that will really make a difference, especially if a low percentage of offenders are responsible for most of the crime – the 80/20 rule, as applied to domestic violence. Certainly there is reason to consider that. In the deep dive I did, about a third of the cases, whether misdemeanor or felonies, were repeat domestic violence offenses.

But there are also people who give no indication that they’re headed in a fatal direction – at least not through their history with the criminal justice system. In Contreras’ case, all that shows up in his paper trail is an arrest for petty theft when he was 20 years old. 

In another horrific recent case, a homicide-suicide on Belden Avenue, there were apparently multiple calls to law enforcement over the years, both by the perpetrator’s common-law wife and also by his neighbors, before the fatal incident. This time, a bystander neighbor was shot and killed, and the perpetrator set his house on fire before fatally shooting himself. The wife survived. And, while the charred remains of the house where this took place have since been bulldozed by the City, memories of the trauma that led up to this incident and took place that night are still fresh in neighbors’ minds.

YWCA San Antonio is part of a national network of 204 YWCAs, who share a common mission to “eliminate racism and empower women.” Addressing domestic violence and providing services to survivors fits squarely within this mission. On a per capita basis, across the nation, the number one service YWCAs provide is to domestic violence survivors – with more than half a million individuals helped in just the previous year.

Here in San Antonio, where we are undergoing an epidemic of domestic violence, the YWCA is engaged in searching for the role we should play in this. And that role will become apparent to us over time, as we continue to engage with this topic and with those who are affected by it.

In the meantime, as part of the YWCA’s “Week without Violence” campaign, we will be hosting a panel discussion on Thursday, Oct. 17 on teen dating violence – an important aspect of, and often also a precursor to, adult domestic violence.

In Texas, 75 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds have either experienced teen dating violence, or know another young person who has, according to the National Coalition against Domestic Violence in 2018.

Guadalupe Contreras goes on trial for our receptionist’s death in Bexar County District Court Wednesday. Sometimes it feels like things just come full circle.

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