Domestic violence homicides highlight holes in legal system

From left, Erik Daniels, Amber Blake and Paige Davis hold up candles during a candlelight vigil for the Schultz family Monday at Osceola Mills Community Park.
From left, Erik Daniels, Amber Blake and Paige Davis hold up candles during a candlelight vigil for the Schultz family Monday at Osceola Mills Community Park. psheehan@centredaily.com

In 2016, Pennsylvania lost 102 residents to domestic violence homicides.

Fifty-seven were shot, 25 stabbed, 11 beaten, five strangled, two suffocated, one burned and one pushed off a cliff, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“Communities by and large need to work with law enforcement and victim services to ask the hard questions. When there is a homicide, to say, ‘What, did the system break down here? Did it not work the way it was supposed to?’ Not to point fingers. Not to assign blame. But to figure out where the holes in the system (are),” said Anne Ard, Centre County Women’s Resource Center executive director.

That process is underway in Clearfield County — where, on Nov. 24, authorities say Cody Bush, 26, shot and killed ex-girlfriend Victoria Schultz, 21, and her mother, Beth Schultz, 47, and injured her sister, Jessica Schultz, 25, before killing himself shortly after.

About a month before the shooting, Bush was charged with misdemeanor stalking and summary harassment after secretly placing a GPS tracking device on Victoria Schultz’s car, according to court documents. He posted $25,000 monetary bail on Nov. 1.

According to records obtained by the Associated Press, the conditions of his bail required that he have no contact with Victoria Schultz and remain free of criminal activity, including intimidating or retaliating against witnesses or victims.

But on Nov. 22, state police at Clearfield were called to investigate a harassment incident at the Schultz home.

Clearfield County District Attorney William Shaw Jr. said Bush threatened Victoria Schultz and her family.

Whenever there’s an allegation that bail has been violated, there has to be a bail revocation hearing scheduled before a Court of Common Pleas judge at the courthouse, Shaw said, explaining why Bush wasn’t arrested on the spot on Nov. 22.

State police advised Victoria Schultz to get a protection-from-abuse order when they responded to that incident and she was granted a temporary PFA later that day, Shaw said.

Bush was served with the PFA order on Thanksgiving Day, and state police verified that Bush had no firearms in his possession at that time, according to a press release from the Clearfield County district attorney’s office.

Preliminary reports indicate that Bush stole the firearm that was used in the shooting, according to the release.

At a vigil for the victims on Monday, Osceola Mills Mayor Ida Reams said community members need to look out and be responsible for one another.

“Domestic violence (is) everybody’s business,” she said.

The investigation into the apparent double murder-suicide in Osceola Mills is ongoing, according to the press release from the DA’s office. It’s been assigned to the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Integrity and Professional Standards to verify that all policies and procedures were followed.

Shaw said in the release that these horrific tragedies are unacceptable, and increased efforts need to be put forth to prevent the senseless loss of life.

He encouraged community members to contact local legislators to advocate for stricter laws to prevent domestic violence.

Police need the legal authority to immediately detain someone suspected of violating a no-contact order or similar bail condition, among other things, Shaw said.

Part of what advocates for domestic violence prevention are struggling with and pushing for in the Pennsylvania legislature is amendments to the Protection from Abuse Act, Ard said.

The relationships that are specified under the PFA Act are intimate partners.

A PFA is a civil order in the court, Ard said, and unless it’s violated, there are no criminal charges necessarily associated with it.

PFAs can call for the surrender of weapons, but they don’t always. Typically, they include language that would mandate no contact, she said.

A victim can petition the court for a PFA by explaining what happened — a “preponderance of evidence” is needed — and if a judge thinks it sounds reasonable, the judge will grant a temporary PFA order, Ard said. Then there’s a hearing where both parties have the opportunity to present evidence.

If a PFA order is put in place, weapons can be confiscated, but the alleged abuser has 60 days to give them up, Ard said, which is a “huge loophole.”

In addition, she said, a person who has been ordered to surrender his or her weapons can give them to a sibling, best friend or neighbor — as long as they don’t live in the same house.

“We live in a community where people love to hunt and their weapons are very important to them — I totally get that,” Ard said. “But the reality is we have to have some common sense here. We have to have some common sense gun laws. And when someone poses a threat to somebody else to allow them to continue to have a weapon is just ridiculous. It makes no sense. And it makes all of us in our communities less safe.”

Pa. Senate Bill 501, currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee, aims to address these issues.

Kim Stolfer, Firearms Owners Against Crime chairman and co-founder, opposes the bill for various reasons.

There’s no justification to eliminate third-party safekeeping, he said.

In addition, he said the bill would lead to people’s constitutional rights being violated and due process concerns.

There needs to be safeguards against “frivolous” PFAs that are weaponized for people to get advantage in custody or child support cases, for example, he said.

In Centre County, there’s a mandatory arrest policy — so if someone violates a PFA order, he or she gets arrested, Ard said.

CCWRC has been working with police jurisdictions in Centre County to implement a policy of administering “lethality assessments” when police are called to a domestic violence incident, she said.

It’s a series of questions to see how dangerous a situation is, Ard said, and if the victim is in a situation that’s highly dangerous, then police can immediately call and link the victim up with services.

“That’s the most effective way to prevent a homicide,” she said.

State police treat every domestic violence call as carefully as possible — with the safety of victims and officers as top priorities, said Cpl. Adam Reed, a public information officer with state police.

Not every domestic incident law enforcement responds to is some kind of physical altercation, he said.

“It’s our goal as law enforcement to be able to act before an arrest needs to be made or act before somebody gets injured,” Reed said. “So, certainly if we can respond to that situation while it’s still verbal in nature, and diffuse it, that’s ideal.”

State police are able to do a records check on their in-car computers to see whether someone has an active PFA order against them, he said. If they run someone’s driver’s license information for arrest warrants, it will also query the PFA system.

But domestic violence calls are some of the most “volatile” that law enforcement handles on a regular basis, he said.

In 2016, there were 135 law enforcement officer fatalities nationwide, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Sixty-four of those officers were shot and killed, and the leading circumstance for firearms related deaths of officers was domestic incidents.

Trooper Landon Weaver, the 97th PSP trooper to die in the line of duty, was investigating a protection-from-abuse order when he was shot and killed in Huntingdon County on Dec. 30, 2016.

Sarah Rafacz: 814-231-4619, @SarahRafacz


Typically, according to Anne Ard, the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship can be when someone is trying to leave.

“It’s always hard to talk about that because we want people to feel like they can leave and be safe,” she said. “But one of the reasons that we have to talk about it is because leaving is a very dangerous time.

“When you understand that domestic ... and relationship violence are really about control — it’s about one person’s desire to control the other person. And at the time when they feel that control slipping is when a victim says ‘I’m leaving. I’m done with this. I’m out of this relationship.’ ”

Ard said it can be really helpful to talk to victim services before they try to leave because places like Centre County Women’s Resource Center can do safety planning with them.

Centre County Women’s Resource Center

24-hour hotline: 234-5050

Toll free: 877-234-5050

Website: ccwrc.org

Address: 140 W. Nittany Ave., State College

Community Action Inc. — Crossroads Project

Serving Clearfield and Jefferson counties

24-hour toll free hotline: 800-598-3998

Website: www.jccap.org/project.aspx?ProjectID=99