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Less pressure than it takes to crack an egg: The strangulation threat to domestic violence victims

 Victims of domestic violence whose partners attempt to strangle them are much more likely to be killed.
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Victims of domestic violence whose partners attempted to strangle them are much more likely to be killed.

It takes less pressure on the neck to knock out a victim of domestic violence than it does to crack an egg. And death can come very quickly.

Impeding someone’s breath or circulation can be a felony under Texas law. It can be hands on the neck, a pillow over the face, even a forearm pressed against the windpipe — all of those are considered attempted strangulation in domestic violence circles.

Jan Langbein from Genesis Women’s Shelter in Dallas says four pounds of compression on an airway can knock someone out in a few seconds. More than a minute can be fatal.

“It takes about five pounds of pressure to crack an egg,” Langbein said. “A man's handshake is anywhere between 80 and 100 pounds of pressure.”

She also said attempted strangulation shows a willingness to kill. Domestic violence victims who suffered that are much more likely to end up dead.

Kathryn Jacob heads SafeHaven, Tarrant County’s family violence center. She said victims of attempted strangulation are 800 times more likely to be killed — usually with a gun. That’s why police and health care workers need to be vigilant and look for signs — it can mean life or death.

Gabriella Gonzalez’ death fits that pattern.

Gonzalez’ boyfriend Harold Thompson was arrested in May for killing and shooting her multiple times at a Dallas gas station. She had traveled to Colorado for an abortion and had just returned.

A representative for Dallas police told KERA via email that they weren’t able to locate Thompson after the warrant had been issued and that the earlier phone call was part of the investigative process.

Langbein says Genesis has led training sessions at the Dallas Police Department to educate officers on attempted strangulation.

She says she isn’t surprised Thompson had attempted to strangle Gonzalez before he shot her.

“It wasn’t about an abortion,” she said. “It was about the fact he wanted her dead, period.”

SafeHaven recently teamed up with Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital in Fort Worth to prevent deaths like Gonzalez’. Jacob calls it the strangulation response team.

“Strangulation is definitely what we what we call the last warning sign before a homicide,” Jacob said. “So we thought, well, let's intervene.”

Now, if medical personnel at Harris hospital determine that a patient might be a victim of attempted strangulation, SafeHaven’s high risk team will respond – day or night.

It’s not easy to spot signs of an attempted strangulation. Cindy Burnette says less than half of victims have visible bruises. She’s a trauma nurse and the director of Texas Health’s sexual assault nurse examiners.

“This is a very deadly crime that doesn't leave any marks on the outside, but definitely has the ability to kill somebody in less than a minute,” she said.

Burnette listens for a raspier voice and asks victims if they’re having trouble swallowing or if their vision or hearing changed. She also checks for petechiae — those are little blood vessels that burst, usually in the eyes or mouth.

There’s also a risk of blood clots. Burnette says victims can have a stroke weeks after an attempted strangulation because of tension on the veins.

“If you have a water hose and you turn it on and you kick it off, what's going to happen eventually?” Burnette said. “Something’s going to bust.”

Burnette said victims don’t always know the danger they’re in after the fact. Many will describe attempted strangulation as choking. Christina Coultas, the CEO of Hope’s Door New Beginning, a domestic violence center in Collin County, said that doesn’t convey the seriousness of the injury.

“When we think about choking, we're thinking about food most often, or something that's been swallowed,” Coultas said. “And with strangulation, that's someone or something purposefully taking the air away from your body.”

That’s why it’s important health care workers, advocates, police and health care workers ask the right questions and share resources.

For victims like Gabriella Gonzalez, the difference can mean life or death.

Langbein said accountability is important. She said law enforcement should arrest abusers who attempt to strangle their victims if they’re still at the scene. But Coultas said the legal system can complicate that.

“If an instant arrest is not possible, it's not possible no matter what,” she said. “Even in murder cases, sometimes an instant arrest is not possible because there's certain legalities.”

SafeHaven 24/7 Domestic Violence Hotline: 1(877)- 701-7233

Genesis Women's Shelter & Support 24/7 Helpline: 214.946.HELP (4357)

Got a tip? Email Caroline Love at clove@kera.org.

Caroline Love is a Report For Americacorps member for KERA News.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gifttoday. Thank you.

Caroline Love covers Collin County for KERA and is a member of the Report for America corps. Previously, Caroline covered daily news at Houston Public Media. She has a master's degree from Northwestern University with an emphasis on investigative social justice journalism. During grad school, she reported three feature stories for KERA. She also has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Texas Christian University and interned with KERA's Think in 2019.