Murder-suicide

Minneapolis police investigate an apparent murder-suicide at a home on Sunday, Dec. 1. Two boys were fatally shot outside the house. Officers later found a man and a woman dead inside. (Matt Sepic | MPR News file photo)

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minneapolis police investigated several deaths over the holiday weekend that all appear to be caused by former intimate partners.

Hennepin County prosecutors Monday charged Randall Jermaine Watkins, 41, with second-degree intentional murder in the Thanksgiving Day death of Raven Gant, 27. Investigators say Gant was shot with her 2-year-old daughter nearby. Court documents say she was trying to get away from Watkins after he allegedly beat her.

Days later, a man, a woman and their two children were all found dead of gunshot wounds. Police believe the deaths to be related to a domestic incident, but have not released identities or exact causes of death.

Nineteen people in Minnesota have died at the hands of an intimate partner so far this year. That's according to advocates who say the final number may be a bit higher because there are a few other killings they expect police to determine also fit into the category.

Liz Richards is executive director of Violence Free Minnesota, coalition of groups working to end abuse in relationships.

“We know it’s not just the physical violence that happens, but there are all kinds of other things that happen: intimidations, threats, controlling behaviors,” Richards said.

She said tens of thousands of people in Minnesota call groups like hers every year looking for help. The World Health Organization has called violence against women a violation of human rights.

Court documents suggest that the couple involved in the multiple homicide on Sunday had an amicable divorce. They agreed to joint custody of their two boys.

Kristine Lizdas, legal policy director at the Battered Women's Justice Project, said law enforcement and advocates use a danger assessment tool which includes questions such as: Has the physical violence increased in severity over the last year? Does the person threatening violence own a gun? Does he control most or all of your daily activities?

Lizdas said the time after a couple separates is known to be bad, especially if the court is involved. When the woman moves out to a shelter can also trigger violence, as could a divorce. That’s because domestic violence comes out of an effort to control the other person, and being separated is often seen as a threat to that effort to control.

“Separation indicates a challenge to coercive control, and violence and danger and risk can be amplified during that time,” Lizdas said.

Lizdas' organization has been working with family courts and other players to make sure they realize that certain court actions, like restraining orders, aren't the only ones that people need to be concerned about.

Advocates say there's more work to be done at a federal level, too. Funding for the Violence Against Women Act, a federal policy that dates back to 1994, has not been reauthorized yet.

If you are concerned about domestic violence, the 24-hour crisis line in Minnesota is (866) 223-1111.

MPR News reporter Matt Sepic contributed to this story.