NIAGARA FALLS – After her death, friends of Elizabeth Wilson struggled with this question:
Now, as the weeks have gone by, those same friends and associates of the slain Niagara Falls woman are asking themselves another important question:
What can be done to make sure domestic violence doesn’t take another life?
“This girl was a prisoner in her own life. This was straight domestic violence. She may be gone, but we are not going to let her be silenced,” said Anthony J. Santa Maria Jr., Wilson’s longtime friend. “There is strength in numbers. If I can save one other girl, one mother, one family, Betsy will not be forgotten.”
“I want to tell people this is unacceptable.”
Wilson, 31, was one of at least three people in and around Niagara County who were homicide victims in cases related to domestic violence in the last few weeks.
The others were a woman who was fatally beaten by a boyfriend March 4 after a quarrel in Orleans County and a man who was killed Feb. 7 by a girlfriend following a quarrel in their North Tonawanda apartment.
Counselors and law enforcement officials who work daily with victims of domestic violence said the tragic cases have lessons to offer.
Perhaps the most important is that there are many signs of potentially dangerous behavior – and those signs may not involve physical violence.
“If a woman is even wondering if she is in a domestic violence situation, chances are she is,” said Mary Brennan-Taylor, vice president of programs at the YWCA of Niagara.
Wilson, known as Betsy to her friends, was killed in her 29th Street home in Niagara Falls by Peter G. Daniels, 37, according to Niagara Falls police detectives.
Police said Daniels, with whom Wilson had an on-again, off-again relationship for three years, lived across the street from her with his parents.
Just before 8 p.m. Feb. 25, he came into Wilson’s house, strangled her and then cut her throat with a hunting knife, according to police. He went back to his parents’ house for a short time, spoke with his mother and then went back to Wilson’s house and put a shotgun to his head, taking his own life.
Daniels, who had a son, had served as a sergeant in the Army and had been stationed in Afghanistan. He had a degree in criminal justice, had held a job in security and was a member of the Army Reserve. He had also been a champion bodybuilder, reportedly eschewing chemical enhancement in favor of a natural training regimen.
Wilson, a former resident of Bath in Steuben County, was a talented graphic artist and had a bachelor’s degree with honors from Houghton College. She had been working as a research and development supervisor for Notable Corp. in Amherst and had her own computer graphic design business. She was a member of a Bible study group at the Chapel in Getzville.
Police reported that they had never received any reports of domestic violence and that neither Wilson nor Daniels had an arrest history. Detectives who searched Daniels’ house said they found no signs of any type of drug use.
But friends who spoke with The Buffalo News said Wilson’s outgoing, bubbly behavior had changed.
They said Daniels had forbidden her to wear makeup, heels, nail polish and dresses. He tried to force her to quit her membership in a health club, the friends recalled, because he didn’t want her to work out in front of other people.
He also seemed to call her constantly on the phone, they said.
“It was total mind control,” Santa Maria said.
When Wilson broke off her relationship with him, his behavior got worse.
“This guy was going through her garbage. He was stalking her. She was coming home from work [after they had broken up], and he was sitting in the living room,” said Santa Maria and other friends. But Santa Maria said Wilson did not report these incidents to authorities.
They said Wilson had recently lost weight, and little by little was starting to wear makeup and nail polish. She had recently put her house on the market. There was a “For Sale” sign in front of her house on the day of the killing, Santa Maria noted.
“Controlling behaviors are red flags,” said Lisa M. Baehre, Niagara County assistant district attorney. “There’s a consistent pattern of trying to thwart the other person from leaving and making them take you back. That last time when I go to leave and that plan doesn’t work, that’s when [the suspect] loses complete control and they kill. It is as clear as day on these cases – almost every single homicide I’ve had has the same behavior. It’s the desperation.”
Baehre said abuse is easy to figure out when someone is being beaten. But, she said, cases that are about control have alarmed her even more.
“That controlling behavior is most alarming to me as a prosecutor, and what spikes that all the more is when they are planning to leave,” Baehre said of victims. “And they don’t realize they are in a lethal situation.”
Brennan-Taylor encouraged people who are trying to leave a dangerously controlling partner to reach out to any police agency or an emergency hotline for help and to work out a safety plan for leaving, which can be “vital” in such situations.
“You don’t want to make a break without that safety plan. So many victims in Niagara County are fatally beaten at the time they attempted to leave,” said Brennan-Taylor.
She said the YWCA of Niagara offers a safe house in eastern Niagara County so that family members are not put in jeopardy.
Kathy Stack, a domestic violence detective in Niagara Falls, also encouraged victims to unplug from cellphones and social media so situations can cool down after a breakup.
Digital technology, such as cellphones with GPS and Facebook, can make it even harder to escape from abusers and stalkers.
Katey Joyce, director of Haven House, a program of Child and Family Services that offers shelter to victims of domestic violence, said that victims often feel isolated and that they should be encouraged to seek help from organizations such as hers.
“Many friends and loved ones are left with a myriad of emotions that are just so complex,” she said. “We want this to be preventable. We want people to know they are not alone.”
She encouraged women to use the hotline number to reach out to a counselor with questions before circumstances spin out of control.
“Let’s make it our mission to end this type of tragedy in our community,” Joyce said.
Friends of Wilson will be asking for donations in her name to be made to Haven House at Child and Family Services, 330 Delaware Ave., Buffalo, NY 14202, and the YWCA of Niagara, 32 Cottage St., Lockport, NY 14094. Future events will also be planned in her name to raise money for other women who are victims of domestic violence.
Those in immediate danger should call 911. Professional counselors are available to talk in Niagara County at 433-6716, or in Erie County at 862-HELP (862-4357) or if they need shelter in Erie County at 884-6000.