Editor’s note: Information in this article is based on The Salt Lake Tribune’s unofficial count of reports from police and prosecutors, and only reflects homicides known to The Tribune at the time of publication. The Tribune will update its database with new information as it becomes available, but the text of this article won’t reflect those additions.
It all started one weekday after school in June, when a man rammed his truck into the car Memorez Rackley and her sons were riding in and started firing shots into it.
Among the immediate impacts, Rackley, 39, and her 6-year-old son, Jase, were dead. Rackley’s older son, Myles, and the daughter of the woman who was driving the Rackleys were injured. The man, Jeremy Patterson, who’d briefly dated Rackley, also died. He shot himself in the street.
In the aftermath of deaths so public, so sudden and so violent, it’s easy to pick apart the timeline and find instances of things gone wrong. In Rackley and her son’s case, there are many. Yet Rackley’s story, as horrific as it is, is not uncommon. Much of what happened that Tuesday is, unfortunately, typical.
Memorez and Jase Rackley are among at least 28 others who died because of domestic violence during the past year in Utah, according to an unofficial Salt Lake Tribune database, compiled using information from police and prosecutors.
Those deaths account for 44 percent of all murders in the state, where domestic-violence-related deaths consistently rank higher than the national average of approximately 30 percent, said Jenn Oxborrow, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.
Like so many others lost this year to domestic violence, the Rackleys’ death shook a family and community, but the tragedy also exposed the shortcomings of Utah’s domestic violence statute. Cases like the Rackleys’ don’t meet the state’s limited definition of domestic violence and, because of that, sometimes aren’t policed or prosecuted as aggressively.
That, coupled with limited funding sources for domestic violence outreach and resources, illustrates how a state known for healthy living, wholesome family values and a relatively low crime rate, can also be a place where the “most likely murder scenario is going to be perpetrated by someone you know and love,” Oxborrow said.
“That’s very scary.”
Love and murder in Utah
The Beehive State’s homicide rate — the number of homicides per 100,000 people — is 2, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from 2015. Other states with populations estimated at around 3 million, such as Iowa, Arkansas, Mississippi and Nevada, all rank higher.
The national homicide rate at that time was 5.7.
Despite the low number of murders, Utah’s percentage of domestic-violence-related homicides has hovered around 40 percent for nearly two decades, Oxborrow said.
Women are the most common target for domestic violence.
In 2017 in Utah, 11 of the 18 women who died in a domestic violence situation were killed by an intimate partner, compared to the 10 male victims of domestic violence-related homicides, whose deaths were mostly attributed to family violence.
Those statewide statistics hold true on the national level, where 1 in 3 female homicide victims is killed by an intimate partner, compared to 1 in 20 male victims who is killed by an intimate partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
When a partner has a gun — like Patterson did in Rackley’s case — the homicide risk in a domestic violence situation jumps by 500 percent, according to the national coalition’s data.
Rackley, like 14 other victims this year, was fatally shot.
Even Patterson’s suicide is unexceptional. Of all murder-suicides, the national coalition found 72 percent involve an intimate partner, and 94 percent of victims in those cases are women.
In Utah, murder-suicide cases comprised 44 percent of all domestic-violence-related deaths in 2017. Nine of those victims were women, compared to three male victims.
What went wrong
In the days leading up to Memorez and Jase Rackley’s deaths, she called Sandy Police to report Patterson’s stalking and threats, but initially she didn’t want to give officers his name.
She hadn’t even told her brother, Travis Clark, what was happening.
“If she would have said something to me, this whole situation would have been different,” Clark recently told The Tribune. “But she knew not to say nothing to me. She knew I would have killed him.”
That’s common in domestic violence — sometimes called private violence — cases, said Sgt. J.C. Holt, with the West Jordan Police Department.
Holt travels across Utah training law enforcement on how to deal with victims of domestic violence. For whatever reason, Holt said, people don’t want to talk about domestic violence, and it stays hidden.
That is, until the pressure builds and something gives, like it did in June in Sandy.
When one asks Clark what he thinks Sandy Police should have done differently in the days leading to his sister and nephew’s death, he says, “Everything.”
Clark and many other family members don’t think police did enough to keep Memorez and Jase Rackley safe, he said.
Since their deaths, department officials have maintained its officers did what they could for Rackley, considering her case didn’t meet the state’s threshold for domestic violence.
The law includes only violence between spouses or people who live in the same home, excluding parent-child relationships, in its definition.
Sandy police Sgt. Jason Nielsen had said that Rackley didn’t want officers to arrest Patterson. If the case had been designated as domestic violence, they might have been obligated to arrest him. They also would have administered their domestic violence lethality assessment.
The survey screens victims to determine if they are at high risk for being killed. It asks questions like: Do you feel unsafe? Does your partner have access to firearms? Does your partner spy on you?
If victims answer yes to a certain number of questions, they are paired with an advocate to find protective resources.
The assessments are important because many victims don’t realize the danger they’re in, said Brian Parnell, domestic violence program administrator with the Department of Human Services.
“Women honestly don’t know that they’re in danger of being murdered,” he said.
Though Rackley would have met the criteria to be put in contact with an advocate, officers never gave her the test.
If she were alive to come to them for help today, things would be different.
Since the Rackleys’ deaths, the department has updated its lethality assessment and policies. Though the department didn’t switch to the Lethality Assessment Protocol recommended by the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, its new policies allow officers to administer the survey to people in intimate-partner relationships, not just people who meet the state’s standard for domestic violence, Nielsen said.
Sandy also added two new questions — Is your partner unemployed? Do you have children who aren’t your partner’s children? — and threw out a question about whether one’s partner has threatened suicide.
While Nielsen said the new guidelines weren’t directly in response to the Rackleys’ deaths, the fatal episode was “a talking point.”
Nielsen also doesn’t believe Rackley’s case reflected shortcoming in his department’s lethality assessment.
“What it did is, it brought the public eye to the fact that romantic partnership is not considered domestic violence,” he said.
Since this summer, Ned Searle, director of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice’s Office on Domestic and Sexual Violence, has been working with legislators to change that definition.
The work culminated in SB27, sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, and Rep. Romero Angela, D-Salt Lake City.
The bill, to be introduced in the 2018 general session, would amend the state domestic violence statute to include someone who “is or was in a consensual sexual relationship with the other party.”
Searle said if that measure passes, it will be harder for people like Rackley to fall through the cracks.
An underreported and underfunded problem
Although many factors contribute to the prevalence of domestic violence in Utah, Oxborrow said a lack of funding for victim resources is the most glaring issue.
Most of the money for domestic-violence-related programs come from federal funds, which state offices distribute, meaning there is technically no dedicated state funding for the cause.
For instance, Child and Family Services, a branch of Utah’s Department of Human Services, allocates about $1 million a year for shelter contracts, but that money is provided by the federal Family Violence Prevention and Services Act grant, Oxborrow said. Child and Family Services can retain about 5 percent of that to give to community-based victim service programs, like Utah Domestic Violence Coalition member programs.
In addition, Utah doesn’t stack a mandatory fee onto marriage licenses or use an excise tax on items such as alcohol, guns or divorces to fund domestic violence resources. Nevada garners about $3 million a year for those resources through a marriage license fee, Oxborrow said.
Oxborrow has seen that states that decreased their domestic violence rates have also adequately funded resources for victims.
As it stands now, the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition has 15 member programs serving 29 counties to do that kind of work.
That means a survivor of domestic violence in central Utah may have only one option for programs and services, and those resources are spread across five counties and 15,000 square miles, Oxborrow said. Fewer resources mean higher risk for victims in those rural areas.
“That’s my goal,” Oxborrow said, “to have one per county before I’m old and gray and retired. I really want to see that happen.”
While there are other domestic violence resources in those areas, they aren’t privy to strong confidentiality and privacy protections, like the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition member programs are, because they are funded, in part, through the Violence Against Women Act.
Those system-based programs are also more limited in the resources they provide. It could be the difference between a victim getting a motel room for a few days to be away from a perpetrator, or getting an apartment in your name.
“We are deeply grateful for [the system-based programs],” Oxborrow said, “but they help people navigate the criminal justice process. They help people file forms, but they don’t necessarily have the kinds of options that we have.”
Most victim resources are reactive, though, with more funding, Oxborrow said her training could do more proactive outreach to show allies and potential victims what domestic violence looks like.
When the coalition can afford to send trainers into a community to talk about domestic violence, more people know about those issues, and they’re more likely to report signs to police or an advocate when they see them.
Oxborrow said that explains a jump in stalking cases filed in Salt Lake County from 2014 to 2017.
In 2014, 67 stalking cases were filed. The next year, that number increased by two.
Yet, in 2016, at the same time the state dedicated a a one-time grant for domestic violence shelters and lethality assessment training, the number of cases filed rose to 86, according to case data released to The Tribune through an open-records request.
The number leaped to 103 as of the end of November 2017.
“This is what happens, when, yes, you have funding, and, yes, you have high-quality training and have partners that are receptive to working together,” Oxborrow said. “We’re holding people more accountable and we’re improve safety.”
Though it seems the trainings have made an impact, domestic violence is still an underreported issue in Utah. With more funding, Oxborrow said she anticipates the number of filed domestic-violence-related cases will rise as more people — and police — learn the signs and risks of abusive relationships.
Holt said he has seen the impact trainings can have on communities, for civilians and officers.
More trainings and education on domestic violence “force it to rear its ugly head,” he said.
Though case statistics may reflect a growing issue, Holt said it’s more likely that people are just more aware of the issue and how to handle it.
Take policing, for instance, he said. Over his 17 years on the force, he’s seen a shift in how officers handle those types of cases.
“There’s definitely an increased effort on thorough investigation and criminal prosecution,” he said. “Before it may be viewed as the victim’s uncooperative, so there’s not much we can do here, and kind of considering it to be a family problem.”
Now officers — through trainings like Holt gives — are learning about the cycle of violence and why a victim might be hesitant about coming forward to anyone about their plight, much less a police officer.
Moving forward and finding meaning
Some say time heals all things, but Clark maintains the passing days and months since his sister and nephew’s deaths have only made the loss harder to bear. Every day is a reminder that the times spent with them are his last.
“I don’t expect people to understand what our family’s going through,” he said, “because it’s not anything I can explain.”
Clark has been coping by throwing himself into his work as a carpenter, but he said no amount of work can fill the void they left.
He also is more quick tempered than he used to be. He’s tried counseling, but so far he said it’s not working like he had hoped. He’s still sad, and he’s still angry.
The pain is amplified over the holidays. Thanksgiving, Clark said, “sucked.”
In the past, family members would go to Rackley’s house for dinner and to play games on Christmas. This year, Christmas wasn’t the same.
“She was the glue,” Clark said. “She held us together.”
In addition to being his little sister, Memorez Rackley was Clark’s confidante, he said. When anything big happened in his life, she was his first call. Like when he got a new job and decided to use the money to buy a new car. He remembers she was so happy he didn’t spend it on something frivolous.
Even when nothing big was happening, Clark said, he just liked to talk to his sister.
“We usually got a big laugh out of certain things,” he said. “I used to love to just call her to hear her laugh.”
Then there’s Jase, whom Clark affectionately calls Jasey. A self-described big kid, Clark said he and Jase used to bond over video games.
“He was just my ol’ buddy,” Clark said. “He was a pretty good kid.”
When he talks about his nephew, his voice cracks with emotion. Jase didn’t deserve what happened to him, Clark said. The 6-year-old had barely gotten the chance to live.
Myles, who recently had recovered from a brain arteriovenous malformation (similar to an aneurysm) when he was shot, is doing OK now, Clark said. The 12-year-old is back to playing soccer and is in counseling to overcome the trauma he experienced that day.
He still has a hard time when he’s confronted with violence, but Clark said Myles is trying to stay busy like his mom would have wanted.
Clark said he plans to sue the Sandy Police Department. He also hopes to start some kind of fund to help victims of domestic violence.
“It’s not for me,” he said of the potential lawsuit. “I want my nephews to have some kind of semblance that their mother didn’t die for nothing.”
WHERE TO GET HELP
Confidential and free resources are available through the Utah Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-897-LINK (5465).
For more information, visit udvc.org.
Correction: Dec. 31, 10:15 a.m.: This story has been updated. An earlier subheading misstated the percentage of homicides attributed to domestic violence.