Berryville, Arkansas — Two days before she died, Laura Aceves stood on the side of the road and frantically dialed the police for the last time.
It was early afternoon and the 21-year-old had finished her shift at the Berryville Tyson Foods plant, where she worked on an assembly line deboning chicken. Moments after pulling out of the parking lot, her car broke down. At the nearest service station, a mechanic identified the problem: Someone had poured bleach in her gas tank.
Laura knew who was responsible. Her abusive ex-boyfriend, Victor Acuna-Sanchez, was out on bail and had a history of destroying her stuff. “No one else would have done this,” she told police.
According to family members and court records, Laura spent the last year of her life being terrorized by Acuna-Sanchez. He allegedly beat her with a baseball bat, dragged her behind a car, strangled her until she blacked out on the floor and told her over and over how he would kill her if she ever left him.
At the time, Acuna-Sanchez, 18, was awaiting trial for charges stemming from two prior attacks on Laura, including a felony for aggravated assault. He was out on bail, under court order to have no contact with Laura and to check in with probation by phone each week.
At the gas station, Laura told police where she thought Acuna-Sanchez might be staying and pleaded for their help. An officer said he’d search for him, but came up empty-handed. That evening, Laura, who had three young children, posted a vague message on Facebook hinting at her troubles: It is gonna be a long night.
Less than 48 hours later, she was found in her apartment with a gunshot wound to the head. Her four-month-old son was crying by her side, coated in so much blood that EMTs thought he’d been shot too. Laura had an open casket funeral. No amount of makeup could conceal her black eyes.
A year and a half has passed since her murder. On a clear day in April, her mother, Laura Ponce, drives to her last apartment and stands in the driveway, holding back tears.
The apartment complex is on the outskirts of town, on a steep, twisting ridge in the Ozarks. In the spring, the shrubs lining the road flush with tiny purple flowers. It’s the road that leaves town, the path out of Carroll County.
“She was trying to get as far away as she could,” Ponce says. “It wasn’t enough.”
As with many women who are killed in domestic violence homicides, Laura’s death was foreshadowed by a documented trail of warning signs. But in this small town in rural Arkansas, those red flags went unheeded. Despite Acuna-Sanchez’s history of brutal attacks and repeated violations of his bail conditions, the justice system failed to keep him away from the woman he vowed to kill.
“Everybody knew she was in danger,” Ponce says. “A police officer came to my house and I told him everything in detail: How Victor beat her up, how he told us we were all going to be murdered, and that he had guns. Why couldn’t anyone stop him?”
Robert Hancock, a neighbor, spots Ponce through his window and comes outside to talk. He was home the night Laura died. His mother owns the 12-unit apartment complex, which is now for sale. They haven’t been able to rent Laura’s unit since her death. Everyone knows what happened there.
“You have to trust that God will take care of it, one way or another,” he says. “Are you a Christian -- do you believe in God?”
“I do,” Ponce says, her voice strained. “But I don’t believe in the justice of Berryville.”
Sheriff Bob Grudek, 71, sits in his office at the jail where Acuna-Sanchez is being held on capital murder charges and rattles off a list of small-town problems facing Carroll County.
Theft, mostly of farm equipment. People stripping copper wire off the chicken houses and selling it. Kids stealing their parents' prescription drugs. DUIs. Some methamphetamine. And a lot of domestic violence.
In the last decade, Arkansas has frequently been ranked as one of the 10 worst states in the nation when it comes to men killing women, according to annual reports by the Violence Policy Center. The ranking is based on FBI data on incidents in which a sole male offender kills a single female victim, a typical indicator of domestic homicide.
In Arkansas, the combination of lots and lots of guns and lax firearm laws contributes to the problem. Research has shown if a batterer has access to a gun, the victim is eight times more likely to be killed. According to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, in 2010 Arkansas had the third-worst gun murder rate for women in the nation.
In the aftermath of Laura’s gruesome murder, a blame game between the sheriff and prosecutor's office played out in the local press.
Acuna-Sanchez was out on bail at the time of Laura’s death, awaiting trial for earlier assaults against her. In the month leading up to her death, he repeatedly broke the conditions of his pretrial release, but faced few consequences.
Just three weeks before she was killed, police arrested him for violating a no-contact order. Despite a record of escalating violence against Laura, he was released without bail the following day.
In a local newspaper, Grudek blamed Acuna-Sanchez’s release on gaps in communication between the prosecutor and the judge. Since he had violated the no-contact order, prosecutors could have asked the judge to hold him pending trial, but they didn’t.
Deputy prosecuting attorney Devon Closser said that was because they didn’t know about his most recent arrest. She told The Lovely County Citizen that there was no procedure in place to inform prosecutors when protective orders had been violated — and that the system could use "fine-tuning."
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Closser declined to discuss the case, but said it was “not unusual” for offenders to be released quickly if they were arrested simply for violating a no-contact order.
Records also show that Acuna-Sanchez wasn’t checking in with a probation officer, as he was ordered to do as a condition of bail, but no one noticed.
Grudek said he couldn’t comment on Acuna-Sanchez's case specifically. But he shared his perspective on the problem of domestic violence, which he said he formulated by watching Dr. Phil.
“This is a very serious social problem,” he said, speculating that the crime was related to the breakdown of the traditional family structure. “Maybe if our culture goes back to when we had different values ... I don’t remember when I was a kid hearing about any domestic violence.”
In fact, the opposite is true. Domestic violence has been on a steady decline in the U.S. for the past 20 years. Since the landmark Violence Against Women Act was passed in 1994, annual rates of domestic violence have plummeted by 64 percent. But the U.S. still has the highest rate of domestic violence homicide of any industrialized country.
Each day on average, three women are murdered by intimate partners — husbands and ex-husbands, boyfriends and estranged lovers. Compared to men, women are far more often murdered by someone they know. In 2010, 39 percent of U.S. female homicide victims were killed by an intimate partner. Just three percent of men suffered the same fate.
When asked how Carroll County could improve its handling of domestic violence cases, Grudek said he was unconvinced that a more proactive response — like setting high bail for serial abusers, or requiring GPS tracking for offenders who violate restraining orders — would make a substantial difference.
“The question you’re asking me is what’s wrong with the courts,” he said. “I’m asking you, what’s wrong with the women?”
Grudek said domestic violence prevention should focus on why women return to their abusers, and that it wasn’t “logical or responsible” to think the criminal justice system could solve the problem.
But across the country, many people are hopeful that it can play a pivotal role to help reduce domestic violence deaths.
While one in four women will be victims of domestic violence at some point in their lives, only a small fraction of cases turn lethal. The trick, many experts now believe, is identifying which women are at highest risk of death so they can be targeted for intervention.
Twenty-five years ago, Jacquelyn Campbell, now viewed as the country’s leading expert on domestic homicide, created a screening tool that helps police, court personnel and victim advocates identify the women who are at the greatest risk of being killed.
Victims of domestic abuse are asked 20 questions, including: Do you believe he is capable of killing you? Does he own a gun? Is he violently and constantly jealous of you?
“We now know enough about the risk factors that we need to assess perpetrators for risk of homicide,” Campbell said in an interview.
At the time of her death, Laura would have scored an 18 — in “extreme danger” — on Campbell’s lethality screening test, according to calculations by The Huffington Post. “The system might have worked best together to identify that perpetrator as high-risk and manage that case in a more proactive way,” Campbell said.
Jurisdictions in at least 33 states are now screening domestic violence victims, in a process dubbed “lethality assessment.” A number of different screening tools are in use, all stemming from Campbell’s seminal research in the 80s.
States that have adopted some form of lethality assessment are showing impressive progress. Over the past six years, an ambitious lethality assessment program in Maryland reduced its domestic violence homicide rate by 25 percent. A team in Newburyport, Massachusetts, has intervened in 129 high-risk cases since 2005 and has had zero homicides.
Last year, encouraged by these success stories, the U.S. Justice Department began funding 12 pilot programs across the country to train police in lethality assessment. In a speech announcing the initiative, Vice President Joe Biden hailed the approach.
“Lives are being saved — we know how to do it,” Biden said. “We know what risk factors put someone in greater danger of being killed by the person they love — and that also means we have the opportunity to step in and try to prevent these murders.”
Legislators in Oklahoma recently passed a bill requiring police to screen victims with an 11-question checklist to determine if they are at high risk of being killed or severely assaulted. Once a woman is determined to be at high risk, police inform her about the danger she is in, encourage her to seek help and connect her with key resources.
In neighboring Arkansas, police are not currently being trained to screen women using lethality assessment. When asked about the value of identifying high-risk victims, Grudek said he would use a screening tool if the state introduced it, but expressed skepticism.
“It doesn’t make any difference what kind of training officers get. You can tell that person they are at risk. But they will keep going back,” he said. “Women continue to live in that environment. Why don’t you do a study on why victims go back to these abusers? Why do they do that?”
There are many complex reasons why women stay with abusive partners. Leaving can be economically impossible, as well as dangerous. Research has shown that women are at greatest risk of homicide at the point of separation or after leaving a violent partner.
Fixating on that question — why doesn’t the woman just leave — reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about the realities of domestic abuse, said Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
“So often, when people say, ‘Why didn’t she just leave?’ the reality is that she did leave, or tried to,” Gandy said. “Often she has reached out for help repeatedly, to the police, to the courts, sometimes to friends or family. Often she has a protective order and he assaults her anyway.”
Blaming the victim for not leaving indicates ignorance about the power and control that is an integral part of domestic abuse, she said.
“If these kinds of police attitudes are common — the idea that it’s really the victim’s fault for being in that situation — then it would certainly deter a victim from seeking police help or protection,” she said. “These kinds of attitudes are one of the reasons that abusers feel they can do whatever they want, and not have to answer for their violence.”
Linda Tyler, a former state representative who fought to strengthen domestic violence laws in Arkansas, said that police, prosecutors and judges across the state aren’t adequately educated about domestic violence and don’t do a good enough job protecting victims from abusers.
“We consistently have no-contact orders violated, and victims subsequently assaulted or killed,” she said in an interview.
In 2009, she spearheaded a bill that gives judges the power to put GPS tracking on offenders who violate restraining orders. Keeping tabs on domestic abusers during the pretrial period has shown to be effective -- a 2012 study found that when offenders out on bail are made to wear GPS trackers, they rarely try to contact their victims.
As Tyler traveled the state seeking support for the bill, she was dismayed by what she found.
“There were so many cases, over and over, where law enforcement just didn’t believe the victim,” she said. “I had prosecutors tell me that women made this stuff up. It’s unfortunately still an environment of -- I’m a husband and I think I have the right to beat my wife, if that’s what I feel like I need to do. That goes with marital privileges.”
Her bill passed but has not been embraced by Arkansas’ judges. She said she knew of only three counties out of 75 that have used GPS tracking in response to the bill.
“I’m frustrated that it’s not used more often,” she said. “It may not be the only tool to use to curb domestic violence, but it is at least a tool and we seem to have so few of them, so we should really consider using it more than we do.”
Tyler said more training is urgently needed for police, prosecutors and judges, as is increased data gathering on domestic violence.
“We don’t effectively collect data on a statewide basis that allows us to compare performance from one jurisdiction to the other,” she said. “We should identify the areas where we have significant issues of violations of protective orders and hold those jurisdictions accountable, or at the very least make the information public so that the voters are informed. As you know, we do elect our county prosecutors, judges and sheriff.”
Laura was two years older than Acuna-Sanchez, and the two didn’t move in the same circles. But Berryville is a small place. In 2011, at a friend’s birthday party, they connected and started dating.
She was 19 and had two kids from a previous relationship. He was just 17. Within days, they were a couple.
From the very beginning, Ponce said, Acuna-Sanchez was violent. As is often the case with batterers, his methods of abuse went far beyond physical beatings. Ponce described a harrowing cycle of harassment, where he would brutally assault Laura, steal or destroy her belongings — a form of economic abuse — and threaten to kill her and her kids if she left him.
“He beat her on a weekly basis,” Ponce said. “She suffered like you wouldn’t imagine. Daytime, nighttime. It was a living hell.”
Acuna-Sanchez had a reputation around town for violent behavior.
According to a woman who went to high school with him, he “wasn’t ever afraid to fight.” In a court-ordered mental health evaluation, he told a psychiatrist that he fought in school constantly, starting in elementary school, where he was eventually expelled. At 11, he said he was ordered to receive mental health treatment due to “anger problems.” He said his father hit him a lot, “hard enough to where you’re bleeding,” and his mother married a string of violent men who beat her in front of him.
A woman who witnessed the relationship and who asked to remain anonymous said Acuna-Sanchez was deeply controlling. “Laura acted like she always had to do what he wanted and if she didn’t, there’d be hell to pay,” she said. “Sometimes they were happy but most of the time she was scared of him.”
In one case, Laura fled to her mother after an assault and asked her for a copy of her passport. Acuna-Sanchez had destroyed the original by burning it in the kitchen sink, along with her social security card and birth certificate.
“She had her hair over her eyes. I grabbed her, tipped her face up — all purple,” Ponce said. “I screamed and said I was going to call the cops. She said, ‘Please, no mama, he will kill us all.’”
In March 2012, less than a year after they started dating, Laura became pregnant with Acuna-Sanchez’s child. She filed a restraining order soon after.
"I have tried to leave him before, but he always finds me and makes my life miserable by taking my things or my mom's things until I get back with him,” she wrote in the restraining order. “He told me he wouldn't leave me alone."
Researchers are split on how effective restraining orders are at protecting victims. At the most basic level, they serve as documentation of misbehavior that can be used to arrest offenders. But they are often ignored — abusers violate restraining orders an estimated 40 percent of the time — and there's no way to track how many domestic abuse homicide victims had restraining orders against their killers at their time of death.
Even after filing a restraining order, Laura struggled to separate from Acuna-Sanchez. The two briefly rekindled their relationship, though Ponce describes Laura’s participation as involuntary.
“I don’t like to call it ‘dating,’” she said. “Laura did not want to continue the relationship. He was forcing her to be with him. If she didn’t do what he said, she had to pay.”
Each time she tried to leave him, he would intimidate her with threats, beat her and destroy her belongings. “She was so exhausted,” Ponce said. “Every time he would ruin her things, and she had to start over. She didn’t have much money.”
At the court hearing to make the restraining order permanent, Laura declined to pursue it and the petition was dismissed.
But after Laura gave birth to their baby boy, Jordan, the abuse accelerated.
A week after Jordan was born, on Sept. 1, police responded to a 911 call at Laura’s house. She told police that Acuna-Sanchez had hit her in the face, then smashed her car with a hammer and destroyed the baby’s car seat by tearing all the stuffing out.
He was arrested for domestic battery that day. On Sept. 4, he was released on bail with a protective order to have no contact with Laura. But two days later, Acuna-Sanchez returned to her apartment.
In the police report, Laura said she heard a noise outside and opened the door to peek out. Acuna-Sanchez pushed his way in and tried to kiss her. When she refused, she told police, he tackled her to the ground and strangled her. She blacked out. When she regained consciousness, she said, her newborn baby was lying by her side and Acuna-Sanchez had fled, stealing her cell phone and car keys. When police arrived, “she was crying and holding her two-week-old child,” the officer wrote.
It took over a month for Acuna-Sanchez to be arrested. It is not clear why police did not apprehend him earlier.
On Oct. 3, he was arrested and charged with aggravated assault on a family member, a felony, and with violating the no-contact order. This time he was held in jail for a month. On November 15, he was granted bail, and told he wasn't allowed to contact Laura. He was also ordered to call the probation office two times a week.
But due to an apparent error at the courthouse, the probation office was never notified that Acuna-Sanchez was on probation and therefore required to stay in close contact with an officer. He never once called in.
In a letter sent to prosecutors, Kent Villines, assistant area manager of the Arkansas Department of Community Correction, confirmed the Berryville office had been unaware of the order. “I checked with all the personnel … and no one knew anything about this situation,” he wrote, “therefore Victor Acuna has not been checking in with this office at any time.”
Villines told The Huffington Post that it was the prosecutor’s responsibility to send over the order, and that it was “rare” for an order to fall through the cracks. “Usually, with this system we have set up, things don’t disappear, but sometimes they do,” he said.
In early December, Acuna-Sanchez was arrested for violating the no-contact order once more, after police spotted him in a car with Laura. The next day, Berryville District Judge Scott Jackson released him on his personal recognizance; no bail. That was the last time he was in police custody while Laura was still alive.
At Christmas, Ponce said, Laura told Acuna-Sanchez that she was leaving town. She had been saving money and was planning to rent an apartment in Missouri with her best friend.
“That was her biggest mistake, telling him,” Ponce said. “He wasn’t going to just let her go.”
Laura didn’t make it to the New Year.
On New Year's Eve, 2011, police found her dying on the floor of her apartment. Hours later, they arrested Acuna-Sanchez at his mother’s house. He was found hiding in the shower, armed with a 22-caliber handgun. In the pocket of his overalls were 39 bullets and the key to Laura’s apartment.
He is now awaiting trial on capital murder charges. If convicted, he will face death or life imprisonment without parole.
On a Saturday night in early April, locals gather outside the courthouse for a memorial for Laura.
Little has changed in Carroll County since her death. As far as Ponce can tell, there’s been no real effort to reform how domestic violence cases are handled. And there's been no acknowledgement that anything went wrong.
“The only thing I’ve been told is the system needs 'fine-tuning,'" Ponce says. “Nothing is different.”
She says she's dejected by the lack of progress and alarmed that no steps have been taken to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again. That’s her biggest fear. Ponce organized the memorial -- plastering the town with posters and posting an ad in the local newspaper -- hoping to raise awareness about domestic violence in the community. She doesn’t want Laura’s death to be for nothing. It has to mean something.
At dusk, she pulls up in a minivan with Laura’s three kids in tow. After Laura’s death, she abruptly became the caretaker of a newborn, as well as Laura’s two school-aged children.
“I had no baby clothes,” Ponce recalls. Now, her life revolves around the kiddos, as she calls them.
Jordan, who will be 2 in August, still wakes up screaming most nights. Christopher, Laura’s other son, is 6. And then there’s Josie, her only daughter, who is 8.
All three are in therapy over their mother’s brutal death. Research has shown that kids who grow up witnessing domestic violence suffer lasting emotional effects and are more likely to have behavioral problems.
The kids sit on the ground and wait quietly for the memorial to start. The crowd is mostly Latino, but there are at least a dozen Caucasians in the crowd of around 40. Kids outnumber adults two to one.
Someone hands out purple ribbons. An oversized sketch of Laura, donated by a local artist, is displayed on an easel. Pamphlets about domestic violence support are scattered across a table.
There is no shelter for battered women in all of Carroll County. The director of the closest shelter, The Sanctuary, located 30 miles away in Harrison, speaks to the crowd about their services: temporary accommodation, a 24-hour crisis line, support groups and assistance with protective orders and court advocacy. The director of community outreach translates afterwards in Spanish.
Ponce chokes up when it’s her turn to take the microphone.
“I want to turn Laura’s tragedy into a way to help other people,” she says. “If anyone is in that situation, do not wait. A restraining order is just a piece of paper. Leave, get into a shelter, move out, don’t wait.”
Her point is clear -- Women won’t get help here. The only recourse is to flee. She offers to drive them.
Ponce directs her harshest words toward the local justice system, which she says failed her family.
“They have to do their jobs more seriously and they need to communicate,” she says. “I’m just going to keep fighting and fighting until I see justice served.”
Josie, Laura’s firstborn, tries not to cry. She prefers to remember the good times with her mom. They used to bake cookies together and play in the park. And whenever her mom got sad, she’d play “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” and the two would dance around and everything would be better.
She stays very still while her grandmother talks. She listens.
When the 21 balloons are released -– one for each year of Laura’s life -– Josie cranes her head upward and watches the purple spheres become smaller and smaller in the distance, until they are just little dots and then nothing at all.
Lead photo provided by Laura Ponce. Other photography by Melissa Jeltsen. Photo editing/design by Phillip Nessen. Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.