Are Women Safe In San Diego?

For many years, I was a domestic violence prosecutor in San Diego and maybe, that’s why I am sensing that San Diego may have a problem. Maybe not, but, I’m still asking the question. Are these incidents just an awful coincidence or is there a much larger problem in San Diego?

You tell me.

A woman is found hanging from her wealthy boyfriend’s balcony naked, bound and gagged and the San Diego Sheriff and medical examiner call it “suicide”. Would any woman let alone a missionary’s daughter kill herself and display her naked body in public? While a second independent autopsy indicated that she had four unexplained bumps on her head and her neck wasn’t broken or even fractured, the law enforcement’s response, case closed. Rebecca Zahau, rest in peace.

After being kidnapped, raped and strangled over a 3 day period, a woman reports the incident to the San Diego Police Department and her husband is arrested and booked into jail but, the District Attorney declines to prosecute and her husband is set free. Two weeks later the woman is found dead in the men’s bathroom at SD City College, where she was attending classes, after having been fatally and brutally stabbed by her husband. Apparently, the husband was just found this week in Tijuana, 16 months after the killing, and now the husband is charged with murder by the DA. Yet, could her death have been prevented? The arrest report in the kidnapping incident indicated physical injuries including the tell-tale signs of strangulation, “tiny red spots” (broken capillaries) on her face, as well as 20 prior incidents of abuse, and one prior domestic violence incident reported to the police. And, the husband’s arrest record would have also indicated that he had been arrested for choking his prior wife, all cases the DA declined to prosecute.

Yet, a local judge and the California Legislature saw it differently. The judge attempted to protect the woman when she granted the woman’s request for a restraining order after the kidnapping. And, in response to the woman’s death, it was the California Legislature that stepped up to provide more protection for women by passing the Diana Gonzalez Strangulation Act in 2011, which now allows juries to be told that the risk of death goes up 7 fold after the first choking incident and a conviction carries additional jail time. But, what good is the law when a DA declines to prosecute? The DA made a tragic mistake, but, when it comes to domestic violence, mistakes are deadly. The DA is currently running for mayor, you’d think someone would ask her how this happened, what changes have been made and how can she assure other victims who come forward that they will be believed and protected. Let’s hope this tragedy doesn’t discourage other victims from coming forward, obtaining restraining orders, and whatever help they need so that they can leave a violent relationship and stop the cycle of violence. Diana Gonzalez, rest in peace.

And, recently an 18-year veteran of the SDPD was just sentenced to 8.8 years in prison for multiple counts of sexual battery by restraint, soliciting sexual bribes and sexual assault and battery by a police officer involving 5 women whom he stopped for traffic violations. According to his sergeant who testified at his trial, the officer was “known to target women”, “display their beauty” and had a nickname the “Las Colinas (women’s jail) transport unit “. Yet, to this day, it doesn’t appear that there has been any investigation or discipline of any officer, including the sergeant, by the SDPD to determine who was aware that the officer targeted woman or knew of his nickname and did nothing. Instead, the City (taxpayers) are left with the bill for the damages and so far, one victim has filed a lawsuit alleging a “code of silence” in the police department while 10 other women are contemplating a lawsuit. Just last Friday, the sergeant retired after 26 years and only after an internal police investigation involving allegations that he got rid of 2 traffic tickets for 2 deputy district attorneys. Seriously, I’m not making this up. But, maybe, the Police Chief has his hands full given that 11 other officers have been charged with various criminal allegations including some involving women (rape, stalking, domestic violence) and some not (DUI, excessive force). Ladies, my apologies.

And, San Diego can also be “proud” of a certain judge in family court who has the national and first-ever distinction of ordering an ex-wife to pay alimony and attorney fees to ex-husband who was convicted and sentenced to 6 years in prison for sexually assaulting her. But, hey, the judge did stay the alimony while the ex-husband is in jail. Wow, nothing like having a financial obligation to your rapist hanging over your head for 6 years. I guess re-traumatizing the victim or having a basic understanding of the domestic violence dynamics of power and control, is not his judicial concern. And, the judge also has the distinction of being the only family court judge in San Diego to have a defendant transported from jail to attend each court hearing and undoubtedly, at the taxpayers expense. Wow, you’d think he’d get disciplined or recalled for such conduct. Crystal Harris, my apologies.

And, lastly, there are over 1200 untested rape kits at the San Diego Police Department. A rape kit is done on a rape victim to collect the rapist’s DNA (hair, blood, semen, etc.) which is used to identify and convict the rapist. And, in many instances, the San Diego Police Department doesn’t even test rape kits in cases of date-rape. What? Date-rapists don’t rape just once. They are predators and many times are involved in other crimes as well. They can’t afford to test every rape kit, the police claim. But, a rape victim is expected to submit to a 4-6 hour intrusive and humiliating exam to collect the DNA, which may or may not be tested and sit on a shelf somewhere. It reportedly costs $1000 to process a rape kit. San Diego Sheriff tests every rape kit. Recently, Los Angeles started testing their backlog of untested rape kits and has made over 400 positive hits to other cases. And, San Francisco passed an ordinance in 2010 requiring all rape kits to be tested. Even, fiscally ravaged Detroit is testing their backlog of 11,000 untested rape kits. Can San Diego afford not to gather critical evidence that may solve other crimes, monitor convicted rapists and add the collected DNA to the department of justice database to convict or connect perpetrators to other crimes? Besides, what message does it send to rapists? And, to the women you are hired to protect? Ladies, maybe, you don’t want to date in the city limits.

So, you tell me, are women safe in San Diego?

Simply my opinion, what say you?

(Update 9/10/2012: Coronado Police decline Dina Shacknai’s (6 yr old Max’s mother) request to re-open his “accidental death” case after independent forensic investigators have found evidence of homicide. Based on this new info, Dr. Phil just finished taping an interview with the Zahau family and Dina Shacknai to be aired in November. Full press release & story,

(Update: 7/3/2012: Senate Judiciary passes AB 1522 with an amendment.)

(Update 6/22/2012: Rebecca Zahau’s family has made a formal request in June 2012 to the California Attorney General to investigate the “suicide”. In April 2012, Crystal Harris’ bill, AB 1522, to prevent judges from awarding alimony to spouses convicted of sexual felonies, was passed unanimously by California State Assembly and is awaiting vote by Senate. And, see article on how the Detroit Prosecutor Kym Worthy is on a mission to process their backlog of rape kits and help other jurisdictions do the same, the Human Rights Watch Study on unprocessed rape kits and federal grants are available to help cities get it done.)

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