Human stories behind the faces of murder victims

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Two women a week are killed by a current or former partner. Sarah Freeman talks to the Yorkshire campaigner determined to tell the full story behind those stark statistics.

Most are smiling. A few have clearly been caught off-guard enjoying a night out or relaxing on holiday. One or two are proudly cuddling a baby son or daughter.

In life, none of the women knew each other, but they have been united in death, killed by men, often in the most violent and terrifying circumstances.

“I do sometimes find it hard to look at those photographs,” says Karen Ingala Smith, who has just launched the Femicide Census: Profiles of Women Killed By Men. “The truth is they could be our mother, our sister, our friend. When you see their faces, you see a little glimpse of the life they once led.”

As chief executive of the domestic violence charity the Nia Project, Karen, from Huddersfield, is used to hearing about life’s horror stories. Over the last 25 years she has seen the very worst of what can happen when relationships break down and she always suspected that no one really knew the full picture about violent crime. Which is why in 2012 she began compiling her own grim roll call.

It began with the death of 20 year old Kirsty Treloar. That January, Kirsty had received a text from her boyfriend, Myles Williams. The pair had enjoyed what could best be described as a turbulent, on-off relationship, but Williams seemed determined to make amends. He messaged Kirsty “I ain’t going to hit u again and I won’t hit u 4 this yr next yr after that the next yr after that.”

Within 24 hours his ineloquent New Year resolution lay in tatters. Williams had broken into Kirsty’s family home and after stabbing her brother and sister, he dragged his girlfriend into the back of car. Stabbed 29 times, Kirsty was found dead two miles away, dumped in a wheelie bin.

There was more. That same New Year, Michael Atherton shot his partner Susan McGoldrick dead in County Durham. Before he turned the gun on himself, he also killed her sister Alison Turnbull and her 24-year-old daughter Tanya. Just 48 hours later in another part of the country, John McGrory used a dog lead to strangle his wife Marie.

“Every time I looked online or picked up a newspaper there seemed to be another woman who had been killed as a result of men’s violence,” says Karen, who admits that once she started counting those who died, she couldn’t stop.

In the first three days of that year, eight women in the UK died. Three were shot, two were stabbed, one was strangled and another was beaten to death. In many ways their stories had little in common – the eight were aged between 20 and 87 and the age of the men responsible for their deaths was similarly varied, ranging between 19 and 48.

While some knew their killers, others had seen their life ended by a complete stranger. And yet despite the difference, Karen believed that together they told an important story about the way we deal – or don’t – with violence against women.

“Once I had started, I felt a real responsibility to these women,” says Karen, whose grim tally has now reached more than 400. “Initially it was about trying to build up a detailed picture of domestic violence, but it was only a couple of months in that I realised it wasn’t going to be simple as that.”

The case which changed Karen’s thinking was that of Ahmad Otak, who fatally stabbed teenage friends Samantha Sykes and Kimberley Frank in a flat in Wakefield. Otak wasn’t related to either of the women, but he did have a relationship with Kimberley’s sister, Elisa. Known to carry a knife, he had repeatedly threatened to harm Elisa’s family if she ever left him. In February 2012, she did finally find the courage to walk away and when she did Otak, who had come to the UK from Afghanistan to claim asylum in 2007, made good on those threats.

The serious case review into the Kimberley Frank’s murder would later raise concerns about what it called the “lack of a co-ordinated agency response” and Karen believes that had it not been for a series of missed opportunities many of the woman who now feature on her website would still be alive today.

“That particular case didn’t fit the neat definition we like to have of domestic violence,” she says. “But it was very clear to me that here still was a man trying to exert control, power and coercion in a relationship. Their deaths made me realise that we had to extend our notion of what we think of as domestic violence.”

By the end of 2013, Karen, who pieced together information from newspaper and police reports, had collected the names of 126 women. The following year, the number of women killed as a result of male violence rose to 143. Last year it increased again to 150.

“I guess having worked in this field for so long that I am hard to shock, but what did surprise me was the number of women who have been killed by their sons,” she says. “It’s not something we want to talk about. Still now when I bring up the issue of women who are killed by their partners, in some quarters the response remains, ‘Ah yes, but what about the men who are killed by their wives and girlfriends?’

“Those cases do happen, but in the vast majority the woman is provoked after sustaining years of abuse. They tend to have been victims themselves before they turn to violence.”

Karen has developed the online Femicide Census with Women’s Aid, using data going back to 2009. The charity was keen to be involved in the project after its own research revealed a critical lack of support for women who have been victims of abuse. A survey conducted by Women’s Aid last year found that more than 74,000 women sought help in 2013-14 and on one single day 112 women and 84 children were turned away from refuges struggling to meet an increased demand.

“Femicide has been identified globally as a leading a cause of premature death for women yet there is limited research on the issue in Europe,” says a Women’s Aid spokesman. “The Global Study on Homicide in 2011 indicated that while there has been a decrease in homicides worldwide there has been an increase in the number of femicides. In the United Kingdom over the last 10 years on average two women are week are killed by their male partners or former partners. Frequently these murders have been premeditated and follow a pattern of violence and abuse that terrorise the victim.”

Those kind of stark statistics are regularly used in Government campaigns against domestic violence, but according to Karen there is often little substance behind the sentiments.

“Honestly, those facts are repeated so often, but generally without anyone appearing to get outraged or upset,” she says. “It’s like it’s an undeniable fact of life, but it’s not.

“That is what this project is really about. It’s saying, look these are not statistics, these are real women who have been killed and it is all our responsibility to do something about that.”

A few of the women on Karen’s list have made front page news; the deaths of most though have barely caused a ripple in the national media and as much as her project is about raising awareness of violence, it’s also about remembering the lives of each of those victims.

“Recently Calderdale Council produced a poster aimed at highlighting the risks of binge-drinking. It pictured a woman in a dishevelled state with a bruised forward, the warning ‘When you drink too much you lose control and put yourself at risk’,” says Karen. “That unfortunately is the kind of attitude we often find ourselves up against.

“There is no other crime in which victims are made to take responsibility and those attitudes need to change. I really hope that the Femicide Census will be one step towards our understanding of men’s violence against women and, more importantly, one step towards ending male violence against women.”

• To find out more go to kareningalasmith.com

Counting true cost of violence

1 in 4 women experience domestic violence over their lifetimes.

Domestic violence has a higher rate of repeat victimisation than any other crime.

Every minute police in the UK receive a domestic assistance call – yet only 35 per cent of domestic violence incidents are reported to the police.

On average, a woman is assaulted 35 times before her first call to the police.

Almost a third of domestic violence cases start or intensify during pregnancy.

In November 2009, Sylvia Walby of the University of Leeds estimated the total costs of domestic violence to be £15.7 billion a year.