A sparse crowd turned up at All Saints Lutheran Church in Cottage Grove last month for a discussion on domestic violence.

The few who took the trouble to attend the Oct. 6 forum, organized as part of domestic violence awareness month, heard disturbing testimony about a crime that too often remains behind closed doors and drawn curtains - until it finally involves the police, the courts or coroner.

In her opening remarks, All Saints co-pastor Jules Erickson recalled one victim who died at the hands of her live-in partner.

“Just last Monday, I buried Ramona Turner,” Erickson said. “She was murdered by her significant other of 38 years.”

Authorities say Turner, 54, was shotgunned to death Sept. 17 as she sat on the couch in her Dayton’s Bluff home. Her partner, John Gordon Meisner was charged with second-degree intentional murder in her death. Meisner had been upset because he thought Turner was planning to leave him, relatives told police.

Erickson had been asked through an acquaintance to preside over Turner’s memorial service.

That case was in St. Paul, but still still an all-too familiar story to Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, who spoke of his frustration in prosecuting abuse cases, be they man on woman, child on parent or between same-sex couples.

In 2014 there were approximately 126 adult cases and 60 juvenile cases of gross misdemeanor or felony domestic assault charged by the Washington County Attorney’s Office. That is in addition to misdemeanor-level cases prosecuted by city attorneys in the county.

The forum featured remarks by Orput, Cottage Grove police Sgt. Randy McAlister and a representative from Tubman, a nonprofit that provides family crisis and support services to Washington County residents.

Among the messages was that building a domestic assault case can be challenging.

Orput said he has sometimes had to subpoena a battered woman for her own good, because she often made excuses for her abusers. Victims don’t have a say in whether or not their attacker committed a crime, he said.

“You cannot consent to have someone beat you up,” Orput said. 

Emotional abuse can be just as devastating as punching or kicking, he said. 

“I had one woman tell me, ‘The emotional abuse is so profound I wish he would hit me and get it over with,’” Orput said.

Domestic violence isn’t confined to low-income households, Orput said. He’s prosecuted doctors and lawyers. It can also involve violence between a child and a parent, roommates or same-sex couples.

Shame, fear or economic dependence often prevent women from leaving an abusive partner, Orput said. Sometimes, other family members will put pressure on them to stay silent. Some illegal immigrants may be afraid to come forward for fear of being deported.

Orput said he was not interested in reporting them to the immigration authorities. He also said that no-contact orders were for the most part effective, despite the more sensational murder cases in which a killer had violated a court order prohibiting contact. 

All the speakers urged the public to say something if they saw signs of domestic violence. Privacy is not an excuse, they said. By the time the abuse becomes serious enough to involve the law, the victim probably has been suffering for a long time. A black eye or a broken arm most likely is the culmination of escalating forms of abuse, such as name calling, implied threats or punching the wall.

Karin McCarthy, an assistant Washington County attorney, said changes in a friend or co-worker’s personality could indicate abuse. If a normally outgoing, confident individual suddenly becomes withdrawn, docile and makes excuses for getting home quickly, they may be in the thrall of a violent partner.

Warning signs in a potential abuser include ridiculing his or her partner, displays of jealousy, bossiness or possessiveness, controlling the household cash and forced sex.

McAlister is trained in a protocol known as the Lethality Assessment Program. It ranks a person’s risk of being murdered on a scale of 1-28. Police who respond to a domestic dispute call can use the lethality assessment to determine whether an individual is in danger. The police might recommend intervention services such as Tubman. 

The months following a woman’s decision to leave a significant other can be a particularly perilous time, experts say.

“We need to discuss safety measures,” McAlister said. “It’s something we, as police, probably don’t do enough of.”

Domestic abuse resources

For more information, contact the Washington County Attorney’s Office at 651-430-6115 or visit wcattorney.info.

Tubman Family Crisis & Support Center can help women, men, youth and families who have experienced relationship violence, elder abuse, addiction, sexual exploitation or other forms of trauma. For more information, call 612-825-0000 or visit tubman.org.