Peter Walker was cooking in his downtown Colorado Springs home midafternoon on New Year’s Day 2020, when his housemate stuck a 2½-inch blade of a Leatherman multitool into his stomach. He was brought to the hospital, where he died of the stab wound about two hours later, an autopsy showed.
Matthew Morrow was killed Dec. 30, 2020, after he approached a driver he saw driving recklessly while walking home to his eastern Colorado Springs apartment, according to police accounts. The driver reportedly shot Morrow two times in the head, before driving away in his Volvo, dragging his body underneath.
In the 362 days in between the first and last homicides last year, 37 more people were fatally shot, stabbed and strangled in a year that saw a record 39 killing throughout Colorado Springs; in 2019 there were 24. Another nine people were killed in unincorporated areas of El Paso County in 2020, compared to six the previous year.
Denver, with 95, and Aurora, with 43, also had a record number of killings last year, increasing from 63 the previous year in Denver and 30 in Aurora in 2019.
In Colorado’s three largest cities, rising number of homicides — while attributed in part to the COVID-19 pandemic — tell a startlingly grim story of domestic violence, experts said.
More than a quarter of those who died in Colorado Springs were victims of domestic violence, police said, up from 17% in 2019 and 18% in 2018.
Law enforcement officials and domestic violence advocates said they saw not only more domestic violence calls, but also more severe abuse throughout 2020.
In Denver, according to Police Chief Paul Pazen, aggravated assaults tied to domestic violence jumped more than 40%, totaling more than 1,000 in 2020.
In Aurora, underlying factors are known in only 15 of the city's 43 homicides in 2020, according to an email from a Police Department spokesperson. Of that number, three were domestic-violence related.
“All of us have been experiencing stressors in our lives on a daily basis. But the added unknowns that the pandemic brought on all of us in March — with loss of jobs, children at home, inability to go about life as we know it — contributed more stress into our lives,” said Anne Markley, chief executive officer of TESSA, a Colorado Springs nonprofit that aids victims of domestic violence.
In a typical year, TESSA serves about 15,000 people, Markley said. In 2020, the organization helped between 22,000 and 23,000 people.
In 2019, the organization received an average of 800 calls a month to its hotline; in 2020, that number jumped to about 13,000 monthly calls.
“Those numbers are not going down. They are staying steady, if not going up,” Markley said.
Markley commended Gov. Jared Polis’ support of domestic violence victims through the pandemic, citing his public acknowledgement that those experiencing domestic violence could break stay-at-home orders to seek safety.
Though the nonprofit has one of the largest safe houses in the state, she said they are still limited on space, with only 32 beds.
Locally, Markley said her organization has a strong relationship with the Colorado Springs Police Department, El Paso County Sheriff’s Office and human service organizations throughout the city.
Lt. Jim Sokolik, a Colorado Springs police spokesman, said it was hard to point to what caused the rise in homicides in 2020 .
“These homicides aren’t necessarily driven by each other. They can be very distinct events,” Sokolik said.
He stressed the importance for those experiencing domestic violence to contact police as soon as possible so that police can connect them with appropriate resources.
Among the domestic violence victims in Colorado Springs were Tamara Dunn and Ann Scott, a mother and daughter who were killed by Scott’s estranged husband after Scott did seemingly everything she could to protect herself against the man who she said stalked, attacked and threatened her.
Scott, 29, called the police and petitioned for a protective order. Dunn spent nights with her at a north Colorado Springs apartment, sleeping with a butcher’s knife under her pillow.
But those efforts meant nothing when, family members said, Scott’s estranged husband stormed into her home in early March and fatally shot his wife and stabbed his mother-in-law 16 times.
In a two-week span in March, six people were killed in domestic-related violence, records show.
Months later came the death of Stella Vigil, a woman in her 70s, whose body was found next to her husband’s along a hiking trail in early October.
Their deaths — a murder-suicide pact born of despair — showed the tragic impact 2020 had on mental health.
In a note, included in an autopsy report, the couple wrote: “We find our world in a state of chaos with no hope for the future all brought on by a dysfunctional government …”. It continued: “now the use of coronavirus to create a world of fear through our country … creating a world filled with stress, anxiety, and most of all fear of the future!!! A world that isn’t worth living.”
James “Greg” Anderson, 62, died after his wife shot him several times in their Rockrimmon home, according to court documents. Amee Karin Anderson told police she awoke in bed in the early hours of the morning after hearing “fidgeting” and then screams from her husband on the other side of the bed.
When she turned on the lights, she said she found her husband bleeding from the neck with a large hunting knife in his hand, documents stated.
She said her husband was yelling and “blaming the coronavirus and stating he was not going to live through it," documents stated.
Though she claimed self-defense, she was charged with first-degree murder after deliberation.
In Manitou Springs, Wendy Cupit was killed by her husband in June. He told police he stabbed her with a kitchen knife in “a fit of rage,” according to court documents.
Denver and Aurora
Denver Police Chief Pazen said domestic violence along with child abuse and suicide concerned him from the beginning of the pandemic. Since the risks are often noticed and reported by someone outside the home, Pazen said stay-at-home orders and school closures reduced opportunities to intervene.
“With many of those types of reporting mechanisms being unavailable to us based on stay-at- home orders and school not (being) in person, we were very concerned,” he said.
Pazen said the need to limit in-person interactions because of the pandemic has hampered outreach and follow-up to prevent domestic violence.
Margaret Abrams, the executive director of the Rose Andom Center in Denver, which connects domestic violence survivors with resources such as shelters and legal representation, said in an email the center saw a drop in its numbers of intakes and contacts for connections with other services in April, May and June. Since August, those numbers have been at and above the center's 2019 numbers.
The center provided intake and case management services to 989 people in 2020.
Abrams speculated that the numbers of people reaching out to the Rose Andom Center fell in the spring because “victims … didn't feel able to reach out for help until things reached a really critical level, and where their safety was really at risk.”
She said limits on in-person contact had diminished the center's ability to track its clients.
Abrams said the Rose Andom Center’s staff had 1,085 intakes in 2019 for assessing new clients’ needs, and had a total of 2,031 people come in about 4,211 times to access services.
Anne Kelly, a chief deputy district attorney in Boulder County, who reviews all of the 20th Judicial District’s domestic violence cases, didn’t mince words in saying she considers her job to be homicide prevention.
Kelly said studies have linked natural disasters and economic insecurity to increases in domestic violence. The correlation seems to have to do with increased stress in a household.
“That's one of the risk factors for fatality that we look at when we do lethality assessments on our cases — whether or not there's unemployment and housing insecurity in that relationship. That increases the risk of fatality,” she said.
The district attorneys for Denver and Colorado’s 18th Judicial District, which includes part of Aurora, declined interviews for this story.
Kelly said efforts to keep jail populations down during the pandemic has also created a new urgency for prosecutors to review domestic violence cases after an initial arrest to make a judgment about the immediate danger to the victim, and to decide whether to argue for stricter bail terms, such as a cash bond, instead of just a personal recognizance bond.
When someone is arrested for a domestic violence incident, the clock is ticking before their bond hearing by the next afternoon, because the brief period when a suspect is in jail is a safe time for their victim to get out of their household and take steps to protect themselves, such as pursuing a protection order, Kelly said.
A deadly year for the nation
National crime rates show that Colorado wasn’t the only state to see an uptick in homicides.
According to NPR, at year’s end, Chicago police reported more than 750 murders — marking an increase of more than 50% compared to 2019. There were 437 homicides in New York City by Dec. 20, nearly 40% more than the year prior and, in Los Angeles, there was a 30% increase from 2019 with 322 homicides.
New Orleans-based data consultant Jeff Asher analyzed crime rates in more than 50 cities. Using data through September, he saw a 36.7% increase in murder rates, he said in a tweet.
He anticipated that the rise would be the largest one-year increase in murder in the nation’s history and it has been more than half a century since the country saw a year-to-year homicide rate that jumped nearly 13%, he wrote.