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Homicide cases pose challenges for investigators

Posted August 28, 2008

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— The U.S. Department of Justice reports that nearly a quarter of all murder victims nationwide are women – many of them mothers and many of them killed by men they knew.

North Carolina's murder rate for women ranks ninth in the U.S, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and the majority of those victims were killed by an intimate partner.

Determining whether a case is domestic in nature is not as easy as it might seem, however. WRAL News found evidence of that in four high-profile unsolved murder cases that have captured headlines in recent years:

  • Janet Abaroa, 25, was pregnant with her second child when someone stabbed her to death in the bedroom of her Durham home on April 26, 2005.
  • Michelle Young, also pregnant with her second child, was found dead in her Wake County home on Nov. 3, 2006, beaten to death.
  • The 10-year-old son of Rose Wynn, 53, a pastor's wife, found her beaten to death on the kitchen floor of her Raeford home on June 26.
  • On July 14, Nancy Cooper, a Cary mother reported missing two days earlier, was found dead at a construction site not far from her home.

In each case, authorities have not treated the crime as random violence. While investigators have looked closely at the victims' husbands – Raven Abaroa, Jason Young, Rev. Sam Wynn and Brad Cooper – they have not made any arrests or officially named any suspects.

For the most part, the husbands have said little publicly about their wives' deaths. Recently, in a television interview, Raven Abaroa denied killing his wife. Brad Cooper spoke at one news conference before his wife's body was found, thanking the public for its efforts in trying to find his wife. Through his attorney, he has denied responsibility for her death.

Homicide investigators say they typically look at the people closest to victims and work to eliminate them as suspects before they look at other people.

"Any time you have a woman that is murdered, the statistics would say, frequently, the woman does know the person who has assaulted them, and oftentimes that is the spouse of the person," said Adam Hartzell, director of Interact of Wake County, a nonprofit agency that provides safety, support and awareness training to victims of domestic violence.

Already this year, husbands or boyfriends are accused of killing 57 women in North Carolina, according to the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

"The most dangerous time for a woman that's in a domestic violence situation – a woman or man that's in a domestic violence situation – is when they make that determination that they're going to leave," Hartzell said."

According to civil court documents, Nancy Cooper was in the process of legally separating from her husband. In affidavits, friends stated Brad Cooper was emotionally abusive, unfaithful, cut off his wife financially and restricted her contact with friends and family.

Rose Wynn and her husband were already separated at the time of her death and, according to a search warrant, were arguing over how to divide their assets.

Search warrants indicate Jason Young, was having an extramarital affair, and there were financial strains in the marriage.

Janet Abaroa and Raven Abaroa had reconciled after a separation before she was killed. Investigators say the couple was also having financial difficulties.

"In a domestic case, (investigators are) going to be looking at financial problems," defense attorney and former federal prosecutor Dan Boyce said. "They're going to be looking at infidelity or strife in the marriage. But that, in and of itself, doesn't prove the crime."

Boyce says domestic homicides can be especially difficult to clear because DNA evidence is often useless. Although DNA is used to solve many homicides, a spouse's DNA will naturally be found in the home and on the victim.

"There may be a very plausible reason for an individual's DNA to appear or a fingerprint to appear in the house, on the car, even on the body," Boyce said.

Boyce says that although investigators only need probable cause to make an arrest, prosecutors want a case that is ready to go to trial.

"They're looking at a much higher burden," he said. "'Can I prove this beyond a reasonable doubt in front of a jury?'"

For that reason, retired Raleigh police homicide investigator Chris Morgan had to wait more than four years to arrest Ann Miller Kontz in the December 2004 arsenic poisoning death of her husband, pediatric AIDS researcher Eric Miller.

"There's no do-overs, there is no 'We'll take a second chance on that,'" Morgan said.

Morgan says the time it takes to build such a case can be excruciating, but says he believes the cases of Wynn, Cooper, Young and Abaroa will ultimately be solved.

"Good investigators all around the world come in every day, whether it's a year, two years, 10 years down the road, and they say, 'I'm still going to solve this case,’" he said.

24 Comments

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  • chance Aug 29, 2008

    SORRY LADIES ... I'm sure I'll get a lot of grief over this but I'm a divorced female and I have to somewhat agree with *1trhl* on this one. Too many women are too spiteful. They have gone through life being taken care of and believe they deserve that same lifestyle after divorce whether the man has to suffer or not. I've seen too many men get crushed due to this selfish mindset of some women. By no means do I believe they deserve to die but maybe somewhere in the back of their minds they do need to remember that this is a man they loved at one time and more often the father of their children. What kind of message are they sending to their children?

    And yes, my ex made more money than I did/do and I turned down alimony. I knew I was a big girl and could support myself just fine less some of the bells and whistles of the joint income.

  • tiblet Aug 29, 2008

    I don't think it's the reality of what a divorce could do to them financially that causes men to murder as much as it is the husband and wife, TOGETHER, choosing to live above their means and ending up in a debt situation that becomes desperate, which plays a huge role in the failure of the marriage, which ultimately ends in tragedy when one person, usually the husband, snaps. And yes, there is almost always infidelity in the mix too...which just leads to more feelings of betrayal, resentment and mistrust.

    I still think failure to live within one's means is the way most of these tragedies start...and then it just snowballs.

  • 1trhl Aug 29, 2008

    I'm not defending the men. It's a terrible thing. I think we all ask ourselves "How could someone kill the mother of their children, why would someone choose murder rather than divorce?" I was merely providing a theory/explanation as to why we see this trend. It is what it is. I'm sure others have their own theories as to why these sort of things happen.

  • FullOfId Aug 29, 2008

    1trhl - Are you seriously arguing that men getting screwed over in a divorce could push a man to kill his wife? What do you propose NC shold do about that. The man gets everything and the wife get's little to nothing just so the husband won't kill his wife?

  • Topsail Girl Aug 29, 2008

    1trhl - I'm not trying to be a smart tail here. First - it doesn't matter how much money a woman makes or does not make. NO ONE deserves to be brutally beaten to death. Make excuses for men all you want. Second - if you're going to use Ann Miller as an example at least get your facts straight. Ann Miller DID NOT want a divorce - she was a sociopath that thought she was smarter than investigators. She killed Eric to see if she could. She used men to do her dirty work when possible. She had multiple affairs, one while she was pregnant with her daughter Cloe. She never loved Eric - only herself. There is a huge difference. Had she not become intrigued with murder she would still be living with Eric and having affairs most likely. Deril Willard got caught in her web as did Eric.End the end she ultimately killed Derill too. A pity she couldn't be charged as being responsible for his suicide because she certainly was responsible!!!

  • haggis basher Aug 29, 2008

    "Someone knows something out there or heard something"
    Apart from the killers there is a good chance that know one saw or heard anything. In any case eye witness evidence is usually so unreliable that its virtually worthless unless they were really close to the action and knew the people involved. The human mind is not designed as a tape recorder and even if it was it only would record what the person 'thought" they saw and worse tends to change what they remember over time as they think they get more information. Ie they see a tall man in a white SUV, afterwards they see a picture of a suspect and his specific SUV then the mind fills in the blanks and they remember seeing that man and that SUV......and would swear to it in court. Thats why the cops love forensic and video evidence.

  • 1trhl Aug 29, 2008

    Now, what if the tables were turned and the woman was the primary wage earner? Do you remember the case of Ann Miller who poisoned her husband with arsenic. She was employed by a private pharmaceutical company and her husband was a post-doc at a local university. I guarantee her income was more than double her husband's income. She was sleeping around with all kinds of people. She decided to kill her husband rather than divorce...probably for similar reasons these men are killing their wives. Think about it!

  • 1trhl Aug 29, 2008

    I would like to start off by saying that the murders of these women are horrible. However, I would think that these sort of things would not happen as often if men weren't screwed over as much in a divorce. Quite often the man is making most of the household income if not all of the income. And when marriages such as these are going through "tough times", I'm sure the women are making threats about how much they are going to take in alimony, equity in the home, savings, and their husband's 401K. The men have a lot to lose, not to mention a major reduction in lifestyle, in which they worked extremely hard to obtain. Remember, NC is a no fault state, and each spouse is entitled to half of everything, and the lower wage earner will collect alimony, regardless of whether or not the spouse has been cheating or doing whatever. So, I could see how a man might become confused and somehow get the crazy notion that getting away with murder could be a better option.

  • chance Aug 29, 2008

    WCNC is right. I believe the police are highly trained in this area. The common thread with these women is they were upper middle class women and, most often, they don't want people to know about abuse. They're concern is that it will effect the "appearance" of their lifestyle and reputation or they believe they are educated enough to handle it themselves.

  • Topsail Girl Aug 29, 2008

    Didn't see anything about the woman who was killed filling USA Today newstands. Did I miss news about her killer being arrested/convicted?
    colliedave

    Colliedave,

    Jenna was not killed by her husband. There is not even a suspect in her case. This story is about husband's being suspects. Kevin is not a suspect in Jenna murder.

    Jeepin - I'm sorry for your loss. I was not a friend of Janets but of Michelle Young. I'm sorry for your pain as I know how you feel. I want justsice for ALL of these women and I follow these cases closely. We have to keep the faith that one day some one wll give the police the clues they need to finally arrest these suspects.

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