As a prosecutor for the city of Mesa, Stacey Good takes scores of domestic violence cases to trial every month.
Most of the cases of husbands punching wives and boyfriends knocking down girlfriends are quickly forgotten, but there’s one the prosecutor can’t shake: Viridiana Gonzalez-Saavedra.
Valley newspapers and TV stations reported the shocking stabbing of the pregnant, 28-year-old woman June 30, 2017. Her husband, Gustavo Lamar, was quickly arrested and charged with murder.
But those reports didn’t tell the back story Good knew all too well: It wasn’t the first time Lamar assaulted his wife.
“This is a case that kind of haunts me,” Good said.
Months before the murder, Lamar was arrested for domestic violence. As his trial approached, his wife “did not want to participate in the prosecution,” Good recalled. “She diminished his conduct, blaming herself for everything that happened. She started recanting her testimony.”
At the victim’s request, Good offered a plea deal to Lamar with a jail sentence suspended. “Within a year, he stabbed her to death – and her baby,” Good said.
“That one sticks with me,” the prosecutor said. “I wish I could have done more.”
In the hope that situations like that will be avoided, Good will speak at Mesa’s Domestic Violence Awareness Night at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26, at Pioneer Park downtown.
The event comes at a time when severe domestic violence in Mesa is increasing at an alarming pace.
In 2019, there were 119 aggravated assaults linked to domestic violence and four murders in Mesa.
Then came the pandemic.
Last year, the most serious cases of domestic violence nearly quadrupled, with 403 aggravated assaults in Mesa and eight women killed by their partners.
In the first nine months of 2021, seven homicides are linked to domestic violence, with 248 domestic violence aggravated assaults.
Among the conditions for aggravated assault, according to state law: resulting in serious physical injury, disfigurement, use of a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument or “If the person commits the assault while the victim is bound or otherwise physically restrained or while the victim’s capacity to resist is substantially impaired.”
Shelly Ward has a word for people who do things like that: “monsters.”
Ward is the Victim Services administrator with the Mesa Police Department’s Mesa Family Advocacy Center. The civilian branch works in tandem with investigators like Det. Karrie Flanigan.
Both of them blame the pandemic for the spike in domestic violence here.
“Victims of domestic violence tend to be isolated—the pandemic didn’t help that,” Ward said. “There are forces keeping you at home with the monster.”
Flanigan nodded in agreement.
“We’re seeing new victims. They’re not used to being home together so much,” Flanigan said.
Tuesday’s event is sponsored by the Mesa Family Advocacy Center, which brings together police, social workers, prosecuting attorneys, physicians and others to assist victims.
“Domestic violence can have a devastating impact on individuals and families in Mesa, and this event is intended to raise awareness of that impact and to help stop violence before it occurs,” Mayor John Giles said.
A candlelight vigil featuring purple candles will honor those lost to domestic violence.
Two survivors of domestic violence will speak at the event, as will Giles and Ward.
The theme of the event: If things are bad, get out. While you can.
“My hope is the door – this is the opportunity to change,” Ward said of the event.
Flanigan seconded that.
“I wish this will help people understand they don’t have to live with domestic violence in their relationship,” Flanigan said.
She added she hopes more awareness will help victims “see it, recognize it, say ‘I’m not going to have it.’ And then make a choice.”
It’s a complex, heart-breaking issue, Ward said.
“There’s a lot of reasons why people choose to stay in a relationship that’s abusive,” she noted. “Shame, guilt, obligations...There’s a lot of fear.”
Victims of even escalating levels of abuse cling to hope that things will get better.
“They want that person to go back to being that loving person – not the monster,” Ward said.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “Domestic violence is the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another.
“It includes physical violence, sexual violence, threats, economic, and emotional/psychological abuse. The frequency and severity of domestic violence varies dramatically.”
While the great majority of domestic violence is unreported, DV-related 911 calls are on the increase.
Domestic violence calls in the city “rose an extreme amount last summer,” Flanigan said. “It dipped at the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021. Now, it’s increasing again.”
And lately, she added, DV calls have been “more extreme,” with aggravated assaults rising sharply.
“Much more aggressive,” Ward agreed. “Much more violent than we’ve seen in a while.”
The civilian and investigative departments often work in tandem. Ward’s department provides supports while Flanigan digs into interviews and evidence finding.
“We do home visits together. Knock on doors to talk to victims,” Flanigan said.
Asked if there is a geographic trend, or if wealthy or working-class neighborhoods have more DV cases, Flanigan shook her head. “It does not matter,” the detective said.
“The thing about domestic violence,” Ward added, “is it crosses all boundaries: age, gender, socio-economic. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor.”
After 23 years as an officer responding to DV calls throughout the city, Flanigan decided to finish her career by digging deeper into the crimes and became a detective in March.
“The majority of victims are women. That’s just how it is,” she said. “I think they’re more comfortable talking to a woman.”
Flanigan and other DV detectives assist in obtaining and serving orders of protection, potentially providing surveillance and making arrests for violation of orders.
The Mesa Police Department also does referrals to Mesa social services provider A New Leaf, which has domestic violence programs “dedicated to providing trauma informed services to men, women and children in need of support and assistance to safely move forward in their lives.” (For more information, call 480-464-4648.)
Ward said this is the chance for a big-picture change: “What we’re doing is not just for the victims. We also want the community to be aware…We want the community to stand up and say, ‘We don’t do that here!’”
Teeth knocked out
Before talking to the Tribune, Good was pleased to hear a judge sentence a man to 180 days in jail for punching his wife, knocking out five teeth.
“He had two prior domestic violence convictions...it was time for him to do some serious jail time,” Good said.
The case was prosecuted as a misdemeanor as “we didn’t know about the broken teeth before today,” Good said.
But, she added, the Maricopa County prosecutor’s office is so backed up, only the most severe assaults are considered for felony prosecution.
At his misdemeanor trial, the abuser admitted guilt, Good said.
“He tried to show remorse. There were some tears shed by the defendant. But it’s hard to take apologies sincerely when it’s happened so many times before,” the prosecutor said.
“It is frustrating seeing these cases. I’m a passionate prosecutor. That case today, I was pretty riled up,” Good said. “But it’s gratifying knowing I help people. I know I helped that victim today. She’s got 120 days of safety where he can’t be showing up.”
As for Gustavo Lamar, last month he celebrated his 30th birthday in jail.
It has been more than four years since he was arrested and charged with killing his pregnant wife. After numerous motions by his attorney, he still awaits trial, which was recently rescheduled to July 22, 2022.
He remains an example to a Mesa prosecutor of what can happen: “As a domestic violence prosecutor, I know it’s common for a victim to go back to the abuser—the manipulation and power and control,” Good said. “It’s very common for victims to go back, that’s the nature of the crime.
“Unfortunately, it opens them up to more harm.”
Mesa Victim Services 480-644-2036.
Domestic Violence Hotline 480-890-3039 or 1-844-SAFEDVS.
Community Information and Referral 602-263-8856.
Empact Crisis Hotline 480-784-1500.
PREHAB Counselor at the Mesa Family Advocacy Center 480-644-4066.
CONTACS Shelter Hotline 800-799-7739.
Legal Advocacy Hotline 602 279-2900.
National DV Hotline 800-799-7233.
A New Leaf (DV assistance and shelters)
DV Shelter Overflow (when shelters are full) 480-890-3039.