Newly formed biker group aims to raise awareness of domestic violence after two friends died of abuse

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Christa Lynn Luckenbach helps plant flags at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City, on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, to recognize the thousands of individuals in Utah who are impacted by domestic violence each year for the Stop the Violence Utah campaign.

A group of nearly 30 bikers wearing leather jackets and purple bandannas rode into Liberty Park on Saturday morning, revving their engines and parking their gleaming motorcycles in a patch of sunlight on the southeast side of the park.

Heads turned as they pulled in, but the group wasn’t there to show off their rides.

Instead, the newly formed Bikers Against Domestic Violence group drove from Farmington to Salt Lake City on Saturday to stake purple flags into the ground representing survivors of domestic violence, and to call attention to a form of abuse that has only worsened amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“When I was going through my situation, I knew about the YWCA,” said Tawnya McGrath, a member of the group who said she grew up in a household marked by domestic violence. “But I did not know about so many other resources that we’ve found just in the last month that are not really hidden, it’s just that they’re not talked about enough. It’s got to be talked about year round.”

The group formed last month, after members of the biker community lost two friends to domestic violence in the last year.

“It’s been pretty rough,” said the group’s founder, Santaquin resident Trevor Jaracz.

Several members say they’ve been involved with domestic violence advocacy over the years. But in dealing with their grief, the members saw a need to give people who may not seek traditional aid another avenue to get help.

In that spirit, Bikers Against Domestic Violence works to connect people to resources through its social media pages and also offers people a ride to safe places and even a bed to sleep in if they need to get away from their abuser.

“That way they don’t have to spend the money on a hotel room,” said McGrath, who donned a purple cape for Saturday’s ride. “Sometimes they don’t want the judgment from their family and friends. They just don’t want to hear about it. They just want to go somewhere safe.”

The group’s members stress that it’s not made up of “vigilantes” and that they work with law enforcement any time members show up to help a victim.

“We’re not going to go in, scare their abuser and rip them out of their home and drive off into the sunset. That’s not what we do,” McGrath said.

As they descended on Liberty Park to participate in YWCA Utah’s flag-planting event, organized as part of a statewide Domestic Violence Awareness Month, some of the bikers wore patches remembering 39-year-old Natalie Thurber, who was allegedly killed by her boyfriend, Micheal Tyson Nance, in February.

Nance, 31, has been charged with a count of aggravated murder, attempted criminal homicide, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated assault. He allegedly told officers he “lost it” during a fight with Thurber and choked her before shooting her, according to charging documents.

Thurber had called 911 and dispatchers said they could hear a woman say she was being held and that her boyfriend was trying to kill her. Police later learned she had also texted a friend saying, “help now, now! He’s trying to kill me.”

As the coronavirus pandemic has forced some victims to stay at home with their abusers and has escalated financial and emotional tensions because of lost income or illness, domestic violence shelters have reported a significant increase in requests for help.

Even as businesses have reopened and some children have returned to school, several service providers say the need for these resources hasn’t dropped.

The Safe Harbor domestic violence shelter in Davis County, where the Bikers Against Domestic Violence started their ride on Saturday, has seen close to a 110% spike in the number of people needing services during the COVID-19 outbreak. And it had to turn away more than 300 people in the last fiscal year, the Davis County Local Homeless Coordinating Committee told state homelessness leaders last month.

In the Bear River area, CAPSA and the New Hope Crisis Center for domestic violence victims have experienced a 60% and a 25% increase respectively in client numbers throughout the course of the pandemic.

Maddie Gardner, a spokesperson for YWCA Utah, said her organization is seeing spikes in demand, as well. And she noted that they come at the same time many providers have diminished their capacity in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“A big challenge of the pandemic is our capacity to serve is limited because we need to follow social distancing guidelines and make sure we are keeping our community safe," she said.

But while the pandemic has put a spotlight on domestic violence, and offered new challenges in helping survivors, Gardner said that it’s an issue that has existed long before the coronavirus pandemic forced people to stay at home. One in 3 women in Utah experiences domestic violence in her life, and approximately 1 in 7 men does as well, she said.

“In any given year there’s thousands and thousands of survivors that come to us to get services, to get help and seek safety from the abusive situations that they’re in,” Gardner noted.

And while many people think about domestic violence as physical abuse, she said it can also be emotional and financial abuse, in which someone withholds funds or limits access to bank accounts and thereby also limits a victim from getting the resources he or she needs.

While physical abuse is the most visible sign of domestic violence, Gardner said it’s “kind of the last step for a lot of people."

In alignment with the YWCA, Bikers Against Domestic Violence said one of its main goals is to encourage people to seek the help that they need — and to raise consciousness of the issue extending far beyond Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

“Our friend was killed in February. It’s more than an October thing,” McGrath said. “We want to make sure the awareness doesn’t just stop in October.”

Editor’s noteThose who are experiencing intimate partner violence, or know someone who is, are urged to call the Utah Domestic Violence Link Line, 1-800-897-LINK (5465), or the Utah Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis Line, 1-888-421-1100. For emergencies, call 911.