A Utah man never hit his wife — until he tried to kill her. But how he treated her was a warning sign.

Unlike escalating physical violence, this pattern may never draw the attention of police — yet it puts victims at high risk, especially if they try to leave.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jennifer Andrus, a University of Utah professor and domestic violence expert, stands for a portrait at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. Andrus lost use of her right eye when her now ex-husband held her hostage and shot her multiple times.

Editor’s note • The following story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project with funding from The Alicia Patterson Foundation and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Jennifer Andrus didn’t have any bruises. She didn’t have black eyes, or other injuries to her face or head that are considered typical warning signs of domestic violence.

Yet she describes her marriage as torture.

Her husband would sometimes wake her up repeatedly in the night, she remembers, leaving her exhausted the next day. Other times he would ask her to cook chicken, she said, and when dinner was ready he would tell her he had asked for steak — then yell at her for hours.

“You can’t know how terrifying that is and how much it hurts,” said Andrus, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Utah, “unless it’s happened to you.”

The pattern changed in 2015 when she separated from her husband and got a protective order against him. Then he ambushed and tried to kill her, holding her hostage and repeatedly shooting her, causing her to lose one eye.

Advocates, health care workers, police, judges and others have traditionally looked for escalating physical injuries to recognize and intervene in intimate partner violence. But researchers are discovering that “coercive control” — when a person dominates their partner through psychological abuse, financial control and threats — can be a stronger predictor of homicide.

In violent relationships, a 2004 study found, the two factors critical to predicting a murder were whether the couple had recently separated, and if the abuser had been controlling. In those cases, the victims, predominantly women, were 900% more likely to be killed by their partner than if they were still together and the partner was not controlling.

In other cases, there can be an absence of significant violence until an abuser begins to lose control over a partner.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Since these abusers often don’t attract police attention through physical assault, they may dominate partners for years or decades, hidden in plain sight, said Dr. Jane Monckton-Smith, a former police officer in the United Kingdom and current professor of Public Protection at the University of Gloucestershire.

“Coercive control is the single biggest predictor of a domestic homicide,” she said. “Some use very violent tactics, some may use the threat of violence or maybe use violence once and never have to use it again. Some murderers I’ve looked at have gone through their whole life with not one police call.”

[Read more: Utah could look to these countries to outlaw “coercive control” in intimate relationships]

Utah Lt. Gov Deidre Henderson saw this in the relationship of her cousin, Amanda Mayne, with Mayne’s ex-husband. “He exerted coercive control for years over my cousin,” Henderson said in a recent interview, “and when she left him, that’s when things got bad and he murdered her and then killed himself.

In Utah, a task force is gathering data and making plans to further improve how the state responds to domestic violence. That could include better defining “coercive control” in state statutes, Henderson said.

“That sort of behavior is in the definition of domestic violence, but it’s not spelled out,” she said, “which is part of the problem.”

Spotting the pattern in Utah

To understand what precedes most the serious domestic violence crimes charged in Utah, the Utah Investigative Journalism Project analyzed filings from 2013 to 2023. The Project focused on the 71 cases where defendants were charged with attempted murder, murder and aggravated murder.

To uncover how often police interacted with them in the preceding three years, the Project then requested records from more than a dozen police departments, examining 234 reports with more than 1,000 total pages.

Among the findings:

• Most of the defendants had little to no interaction with police in the years leading up to their major crimes.

• The 71 defendants had, on average, only 1.6 previous interactions with law enforcement before their serious crime. For 28 of the defendants, there was no prior police interaction at all.

• Nearly a quarter of the individuals had protective orders filed against them prior to the major offense, a potential sign that a partner was taking steps to escape their control.

Court documents and police reports from many of these cases described controlling behaviors and violence following a separation.

• In September 2022, Ronald Pace was arrested for attempted murder of his estranged wife in Pleasant Grove. Emergency dispatchers listened as he beat her for five minutes with a pair of vice grips. He had allegedly violated protective orders in the preceding week; documents said he called her phone over 300 times despite a no-contact order. There were no police reports for violence prior to this period. He was sentenced to prison on charges reduced in a plea deal.

• In 2020, Marc Jon Schacht broke into the Eagle Mountain home of a woman who had recently split up with him. He told her that if he couldn’t have her, no one could, and threatened her, “I am going to cut both our throats and we can watch each other die.” The woman escaped. When police arrested Schacht they found he had brought to the house seven knives, a baton, weighted gloves and a stun device.

According to a police report, there had been no previous history of domestic violence, and the victim had broken off the relationship after he had become controlling and irrational. He was sentenced to prison on charges reduced in a plea deal.

• In 2015, Spencer Gerlach barged into his ex-wife’s Brigham City apartment and stabbed Keltsie Gerlach dozens of times, killing her. Her family described him as controlling during their relationship, saying that he would isolate her from loved ones and call and text her incessantly. He pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

Monckton-Smith said partners who wield “coercive control” typically enforce two edicts: “You will not make me jealous and you will obey the rules,” with the rules and their enforcement varying.

One woman she interviewed, she said, had a partner who might scream at her, throw things at her or worse if he felt her breath was too loud. “She wakes up in the morning and the first thing she has to do is moderate her breathing,” Monckton-Smith said. “Now, that’s control, isn’t it?”

She said she also sees signs of coercive control in a recent Utah tragedy — Michael Haight’s methodical murders of his five children, his estranged wife and his mother-in-law with a .40 caliber pistol on the night of Jan. 4, 2023. He then died by suicide in their Enoch home.

(Tina Brown) Tausha Haight is surrounded by her five children in an undated photograph. Tausha, her mother and the children were fatally shot by her husband, Michael Haight on Jan. 4, 2023, before he died by suicide, officials said.

Witnesses painted a picture of an oppressive husband, though not a physically violent one. A neighbor told police that when she and Tausha Haight would text each other, Tausha would always respond in “short, positive messages, in the event that [Haight] was monitoring her messages.” Tausha warned another neighbor about listening devices, a police report said, so she would turn the water on in the sink and they would “speak in low voices.”

One neighbor knew the couple when they were newly married and said Tausha complained that she had to wash and reuse plastic bags and cut baby wipes in half to save money, and “if [Haight] caught her doing anything different, she was in a lot of trouble.”

Monckton-Smith said these controlling relationships can quickly become fatal when the abuser senses their power is slipping, although their demeanor or behavior may temporarily change.

Tausha had filed for divorce in the days leading up to the murders. But after years of vicious arguing, Haight reacted nonchalantly, reports said, when Tausha finally told him he had to be out of the house.

Haight’s behaviors and a note he left behind — attacking Tausha — show that he had rules about loyalty, Monckton-Smith said, and keeping up appearances. “Our family will look good. You will not criticize me,” she said. “ ... It’s a very powerful rule.”

‘Pervasive and always-there abuse’

Andrus wasn’t staying in her Millcreek area home when her husband tried to kill her.

She had stopped by with a friend to feed her dogs when Valentin Dulla Santarromana ambushed them, shooting her friend repeatedly and leaving her paralyzed.

(Alex Gallivan | Special to The Tribune) Unified Police apprehend Valentin Dulla Santarromana, at far left, after Santarromana barricaded himself in a home in 2015 and shot and wounded his estranged wife, whom he had been holding hostage.

He pistol-whipped Andrus and took her hostage inside the house, dragging her into the basement laundry room, where she was sexually assaulted and trapped for over three hours. Throughout the ordeal, Andrus said, she was pleading, lying and doing whatever it took to stay alive. Eventually, she heard police entering and called for help.

That’s when she was hit — it felt like she had been bashed in the back of the head with a lead pipe. She made a run for it up the stairs, she said, ran past the SWAT team and out of the house.

It was only then she realized her head injury was actually a gunshot wound and that she no longer had an eye. He shot her several times, hitting her in an arm, a leg and the right side of her head. He later pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted murder and other charges, and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

”It was in the papers,” she said of being shot. But no one reported on or saw “the sort of hidden-behind-the-scenes, pervasive and always-there abuse; that doesn’t get into the limelight.”

Andrus has been specializing in narratives of domestic violence since then, and is astonished by how often women don’t realize they have experienced interpersonal violence — which isn’t always physical. “I had at least three women sit down and say, ‘I don’t know if you want my story because he didn’t ever hit me,’” she said.

Women who experienced violence said it paled compared to the emotional damage, she added. “Almost everybody in my data who was both [physically and emotionally abused] said that they would take a black eye anytime,” she said, “but the things he said will never leave my head.”

Through Henderson’s advocacy, the Utah Legislature mandated a new lethality assessment protocol in 2023 that police officers must now use to interview individuals who report domestic violence.

Henderson noted the protocol requires police to ask a person reporting domestic violence if their partner is “controlling.” And new efforts have been made, she said, to train officers to know that domestic violence “is not necessarily physical.”

Still, Andrus worries that law enforcement can only do so much about behavior that is not technically against the law.

Henderson said the domestic violence task force is now evaluating new data from the protocols to try and understand the full scope of the problem.

“Hopefully, this task force will be analyzing it in a holistic way,” Henderson said. “So that we can start having conversations on what we can do next.”

Editor’s note • Those who are experiencing intimate partner violence, or know someone who is, can call the Utah Domestic Violence Link Line, 1-800-897-LINK (5465), or the statewide sexual assault line run by the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault at 801-736-4356 and in Spanish: Línea de Apoyo de Violencia Sexual las 24 Horas de Utah: 801-924-0860.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shauna Mayne embraces Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson after appearing before the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Henderson and Mayne spoke in support of a Senate bill beefing up how the state combats domestic violence. Mayne's daughter Amanda was murdered in 2022. At left is Mayne's sister Brenda Hulse Burr.