BANGOR, Maine — Amy Lake did everything she could to avoid the deadly rampage by her estranged husband Monday, according to domestic violence experts, but sometimes everything just isn’t enough.
Amy Lake’s actions over the past year followed almost perfectly the advice given to thousands of domestic violence victims throughout Maine and beyond. When Steven Lake held his family at gunpoint one year ago, Amy Lake reported the incident to police and then filed for a protection from abuse order against him. She moved herself and the couple’s children, Coty and Monica, out of the family home in Wellington and into a rented house in Dexter. She requested and received around-the-clock patrols in her neighborhood from the Dexter Police Department. She told friends and co-workers about the situation and asked them to contact authorities if they noticed anything amiss.
Some of those measures produced results Monday morning. It was a co-worker who called police after noticing Steven Lake’s vehicle in his estranged wife’s driveway. It was a Dexter police officer who lived up the street — and who had already checked the residence earlier in the day — who was the first responder.
Tragically, it was too late. Steven Lake killed Amy and their two children before turning a shotgun on himself.
“It seems as if Amy did everything right, but all of those things can’t control someone else’s behavior,” said Amanda Cost of the Bangor-based organization Spruce Run, which fights domestic violence. “If someone is determined to do something violent, a protection-from-abuse order or a well-thought-out safety plan aren’t going to stop them. As much as we try to put those things together, we can’t control another person’s behavior.”
Jill Barkley, a public awareness and prevention coordinator for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, said despite the tragic outcome it appears as if law enforcement agencies were doing all that they could to protect Amy Lake and her children.
“It’s hard to say what went wrong in this case,” said Barkley. “It sounds like a lot of things went right” but failed to prevent Monday’s tragedy. Taking appropriate measures but suffering an attack regardless “is a constant fear in a victim’s life,” she said.
Domestic violence assaults represented more than 45 percent of all assaults reported to Maine law enforcement agencies in 2009, according to data provided by the coalition. In 2010, the coalition received nearly 30,000 calls to its domestic violence hot line, which can be reached by dialing 866-834-4357. The Maine Department of Public Safety told the Bangor Daily News on Monday that counting Steven Lake’s victims, there have been six domestic violence-related killings in Maine this year, nine in 2010 and eight in 2009.
Some people, such as readers who have posted comments on the Bangor Daily News’ website, suggest that Monday’s tragedy was avoidable in light of Steven Lake’s history of threatening violence against his family.
“In this case [and probably others] the entire family, including the shooter, would [have] been better off if he had just not been granted $2,000 bail and [ordered to have] no contact with his children the last time this happened,” wrote a commenter called DJBrown. “Maybe judges and-or those who decide on bail need to consider that sometimes it’s just more humane to incarcerate a person for his or her own good as well as for the good of his or her victims.”
Piscataquis County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy reacted with anger Monday when asked to respond to comments like that one. He said everything possible was being done in the Lake family’s case, including frequent bail checks on Steven Lake, who was facing charges of criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon and domestic violence criminal threatening for allegedly holding his family at gunpoint in June 2010.
“My response is that there are hundreds of cases in this state pending right now where defendants are out on bail,” said Almy. “Everybody can look back and say the judge shouldn’t have let him out on bail, but there are lot of people just like him out there. It’s just not possible to put all of them in jail.”
State Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, announced in a press release Tuesday that he will introduce a bill during the second half of the legislative session that would stiffen bail conditions for people suspected of domestic assault. Fredette’s bill would require judges to weigh a defendant’s history of domestic violence and other violent acts when setting bail conditions.
“Our laws need to be changed to protect those who are at the risk of violence,” said Fredette, an attorney who practices in the Newport and Dexter areas. “While it is important to maintain the presumptions of innocence and the right of the accused to due process, we must also recognize that domestic violence is often related to murder cases in Maine.”
Almy said in his experience, people’s resolve against domestic violence seems to evaporate when they find themselves on a jury.
“There’s an extreme amount of victim-blaming in our society,” he said. “Sometimes the victims themselves back out and say, ‘It’s my fault.’ It’s not only about educating people, it’s about asking them to take a responsibility rather than just complain.”
For domestic violence workers in Maine, who engage in activities ranging from lobbying the Legislature to providing training for law enforcement officers, the only way to eliminate domestic violence completely is to instill in society the fact that it’s a societal problem, not a private one. Brian Namey, a spokesman for the National Network to End Domestic Violence in Washington, D.C., said Maine has strong laws on the books to combat domestic violence — including protection orders that include pets and a victim notification law that alerts a victim if the perpetrator tries to buy a firearm — but those laws won’t convince enough people to report domestic violence when they encounter it.
“People for too long have viewed domestic violence as a private family matter,” said Namey. “Domestic violence needs to come out of private homes and come into the public square.”
Several commenters on the BDN’s website have suggested that the situation might have ended differently if Amy Lake had a gun with which to protect herself. Domestic violence experts said that approach might be right for some people, but not all.
“Anything can be turned into a weapon against a domestic violence victim,” said Cost, the worker at Bangor’s Spruce Run. “I worry about giving people particular advice about what they should and shouldn’t have that might give them a false sense of security.”
Cathie Whittenburg of a group called States United to Prevent Gun Violence said the underlying cause of gun violence is access to guns.
“I would hope the restraining order information [on Steven Lake] was entered into the National Instant Background Check system and Lake would have been prevented from purchasing a gun through a licensed dealer,” she wrote in an email to the Bangor Daily News. “But in Maine, all one need do is pick up a copy of ‘Uncle Henry’s,’ choose your gun, show up with cash and avoid a background check.”
Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese, who is part of a statewide domestic homicide review panel, said how Steven Lake gained access to a firearm will be central in her group’s probe.
“It might be that Amy Lake did everything right,” said Marchese. “Then you have to examine what was being done to control the behavior of the defendant. We need to look at everything to do with his behavior, including why did he have access to guns.”