Gerber murder sheds light on handling of stalking casesWritten by Brigitta Burks | News Editor | BBurks@toledofreepress.com
More than 6 million people are stalked per year in the United States, according to the Stalking Resource Center. One of those people was Kaitlin Gerber, who was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend Jashua Perz on March 24.
While driving, Gerber, 20, called police to report that Perz was shooting at her from his car. He murdered her in the parking lot of Southland Shopping Center and later committed suicide in his home after a standoff with police. Perz had previous trouble with the law, including an incident where he kidnapped and assaulted Gerber for more than four hours in September.
Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates said, “What everyone is doing is looking at everything that happened because this was such a terrible thing. It happened right under our noses on a Sunday morning.”
She later added, “I don’t know how we help people who are stalked other than tell them we’ll do everything we can, but sometimes everything we can do isn’t enough.”
Rebecca Facey, a local advocate for domestic violence victims, said Gerber is an example of someone who did everything “right” when it came to protecting herself.
“This is an example of a woman who uprooted her entire life, moved, changed her number, relocated, did everything that even the most extreme cases weren’t doing and it wasn’t enough,” Facey said.
“The typical response is usually to criticize the woman. You know, ‘Why didn’t she protect herself? Why didn’t she get away? Why didn’t she protect the children?’ This is an example of a woman who did everything she could. She went to multiple courts. She got her protection order. She called the police as this was happening. She left her family’s home to protect them because she knew he was after her.”
‘Did all she could’
Laura Gerhardinger, a friend of Gerber’s, agreed.
“It is clear that Kaitlin did all she could legally to protect herself, but in the end it wasn’t enough,” she wrote in an email.
Facey stressed that the one to blame is the perpetrator.
“The issue is Perz. … He was the one acting out in incredibly illegal and unbelievable ways and he’s the one we can control as a society. He’s the one breaking laws we put in place.”
In Ohio, menacing by stalking is a misdemeanor of the first degree. That can be bumped up to a felony of the fourth degree if certain criteria, like previous offenses or stalking a minor, are met.
Michelle Garcia, director of the Stalking Resource Center, said her organization published a model code for states on dealing with stalking in 2007.
“Our recommendation is that it should minimally be a felony,” she said, adding that stalking has only been considered a crime for about 20 years in most areas.
“When we look at how our system responds to it, we are still playing catch-up,” she said, stressing that the law is just the first step in dealing with stopping stalking in our society.
Teaching schoolchildren about dating violence is another way to curb future incidents, Garcia and Bates said.
“If we start doing healthy relationship education in an age-appropriate way starting very early in schools, we could see a decrease of things like stalking,” Garcia said, adding that there also needs to be a change in the way stalking is portrayed in popular culture.
“Most often stalking is portrayed as being romantic or a joke or minimized in a number of ways.”
Need for training
Facey also said there needs to be a move toward educating people, noting, “It is about not focusing entirely on girls not being victims, but focusing on boys not being abusers.”
“It’s those awful texts, ‘Where are you? What are you doing? Who are you with? Why didn’t you call me?’ And that’s the stuff we need to be teaching young people — that it’s none of your f****** business and she’ll call you when she’s ready.”
Facey and Garcia both said stalking can take several different forms, but it is often between ex-partners. According to the Stalking Resource Center, one in six women and one in 19 men have experienced stalking victimization. Sixty-six percent of female victims and 41 percent of male victims were stalked by a current or former intimate partner.
Garcia emphasized a need for training for those who respond to stalking.
“There has to be this ongoing training [for responders to stalking] and that tends to be one area that’s lacking,” she said.
Sgt. Joe Heffernan, public information officer for the Toledo Police Department, said training updates on dealing with domestic violence are often included in the continuing education required for all Toledo officers.
When asked when is it time to call in law enforcement, he said, “Anytime you feel threatened, you can make a police report and you can request to have a protection order.”
An officer can attach a request for a protection order to an affidavit when responding to an incident if he or she feels it’s necessary. “So if the person has been arrested then the judge on the spot will determine if the protection order is warranted or not,” he said.
Otherwise, a victim can speak to a police officer to file a report, which can then be taken to the prosecutor’s office, Heffernan said. The prosecutor’s office can then decide whether to file criminal charges and also potentially issue a protective order. If a person violates a protective order, it’s an automatic arrest, Heffernan said.
However, the first violation of a protection order is a misdemeanor. The second is a felony, Bates said.
Garcia said, “[Protection orders] are absolutely one tool that are available to victims and in most cases, they’re not a complete answer.”
Most dangerous time
The most dangerous time for a domestic violence or stalking victim is once he or she has broken off the relationship and filed for protection, Heffernan said. However, he added, “It’s still often times a very necessary step.”
He advocated planning ahead with someone who is trained to deal with domestic violence victims like police, the Victims/Witness Assistance program or the YWCA. He also recommended watching for warning signs like anger issues in the beginning of a relationship.
Documenting stalking incidents is also crucial to building a case, Garcia said. There is a PDF for logging incidents available at www.victimsofcrime.org/our-programs/stalking-resource-center. Safe intervention by bystanders is also crucial, she and Bates said.
Garcia also said it’s become rare to hear about a stalking case that doesn’t involve technology.
Facey said that society shouldn’t restrict what young women can or can’t do online, but rather needs to educate perpetrators about proper use of technology.
“Why is it ‘Girls, don’t do that,’ instead of, ‘Boys, don’t spend all Saturday creeping your ex-girlfriend’s Facebook page and then getting ideas of where to ambush her?’”
Facey recommended that the Toledo Municipal Court start a dedicated docket for domestic violence cases.
“[Perz] is a guy who’s literally seen every single judge in Toledo Municipal Court. What a benefit if we had one concentrated system looking at this particular person and saying, ‘You’re a really high risk.’”
Facey added, “On your first offense, for whatever the crime, you’re generally treated more leniently by the court, but I think in terms of domestic violence, we need the exact opposite response.”
Bates said more specialization by the justice system and law enforcement would be a positive thing, but that funds are limited.
Need for evidence
There were nearly 1,600 domestic violence cases seen by Toledo Municipal Court in 2011, according to a report released in May 2012 by Independent Advocates, a group on hiatus that Facey ran. Of those cases, 79 percent were dismissed or reduced to lesser charges.
“Homicide is a very real possibility when dealing with all domestic violence cases regardless of whether they’re misdemeanor cases or not. … [The cases] come into our lowest courts and get shuffled around and dismissed like crazy and amended beyond belief,” Facey said.
Heffernan said that last year, domestic violence was the No. 1 driver of homicides.
Bates said victims are often reluctant to go forward with prosecution and if there isn’t additional evidence, this can make prosecution difficult.
“If we don’t have [evidence] and we have a victim who is unwilling or reluctant to testify, it really does tie our hands,” she said, adding that a lack of evidence is another reason charges can be reduced.
Even if stalking doesn’t end in violence, it can have other effects, Facey and Garcia said.
“We can recognize a text saying, ‘I’m going to kill you if you don’t A, B, C or D’ is a terrible, horrifying thing, but a text saying, ‘Where are you? Who are you with? What are you doing?’ may not seem as threatening, but I think they’re ultimately going for the same goal, which is control,” Facey said.
Gerhardinger, who sang in a praise band with Gerber, remembered her as an “altogether a wonderful friend.”
“I’ve noticed in college, that almost everyone is or knows someone affected by these crimes. It sticks to you and becomes close to the heart.”