When shots rang out in the quiet townhouse neighborhood behind the Lansdowne Town Center on Jan. 10 it was not evident that concerns about domestic violence would spur a year-long dialogue.
In that case, Investigators said Andre T. Howell, 40, shot and killed his wife Naomi, 39, and then took his own life, leaving their two daughters behind.
County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), who took office only a week earlier, knew the couple. “When something like this happens, the responsibility of the community is not to judge the family, but to come together and support the survivors and the loved ones,” she said days later. “I say to everyone, if you ever think that there could be something going on, don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions. I think sometimes just because we’re all trying to mind our business, we don’t want to impose or ask questions.”
Those sentiments were shared repeatedly throughout the year following instances of domestic violence of all types.
The next month, a fight between two half-brothers in Leesburg ended with a fatal stabbing. The attacker, Sergio Ramon Zuniga Robles, 34, is set to face trial on first-degree murder changes next month. Also in February, a Lansdowne woman was charged with domestic-related assault after stabbing a man in their Harbor Hills Terrace home. In April, a Purcellville pastor was stabbed by his son at their home. That same month, a 23-year-old woman was charged with a domestic shooting of a man at her Sterling home; she is now serving four years in prison. In July, two Loudoun deputies were charged with domestic assaults. In September, a 34-year-old Ashburn man allegedly shot his girlfriend during an argument at an Olympia Drive home in Brambleton; Alejandro Delbrey faces charges of malicious wounding, abduction and felony use of a firearm.
‘Start Doing Something’
On April 2, Christina Fisher was shot to death in her Leesburg townhouse. Her former boyfriend, the father of two of her children, was charged with first-degree murder. Darrick Lee Lewis faces life in prison with the case moving to trial next year.
The night following the shooting Shaneka Owens organized a community vigil. “You can’t believe the ‘sorrys’, over and over,” she said. “We can’t keep reacting to situations like this. We have to start doing something.”
The community did.
Less than a week later, the county government announced a program aimed at helping victims of abuse who are in danger of being murdered before it’s too late. Under the new model, called the Lethality Assessment Program, law enforcement officers will ask domestic assault victims an 11-question survey to assess the level of risk they may be in. If the victim is considered in serious danger, he or she is immediately connected with Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter. LAWS provides 24-hour support for victims, including counseling, legal representation and, if needed, shelter.
Leesburg Police started screening domestic abuse victims with the program in February and Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office started in March.
“A proven strategy in reducing homicide is the victim engaging with domestic violence services. Now, the most at-risk victims are reaching us much faster,” said Nicole Acosta, executive director of the Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter. “This particular program isn’t screening for whether she’s going to be assaulted again. It’s really to screen whether the victim is at risk of being murdered.”
The year’s third fatal domestic assault also prompted a community meeting where representatives of domestic abuse prevention groups, law enforcement, churches, the Loudoun County chapter of NAACP teamed up to raise awareness about domestic violence. Organizer Stephany DeBerry was a friend of the Howells and was shocked by their deaths. “We never saw it coming,” she said. “All I could think was how did this happen? How did it fall through the cracks?”
It was during that session that some of those on the front lines said much already is being done.
The Loudoun County Domestic Abuse Response Team (DART) is made up of “front line workers” from 10 agencies that focus on increasing offender accountability through law enforcement, the court system, and community services. “We as a county have tried to be proactive in regards to domestic violence,” Kaye Wallace, DART’s coordinator, said. She also noted that while it appears that domestic violence cases are up—because there have been more domestic-related homicides over the past few years—overall, domestic abuse calls have remained practically steady, even as the population has grown.
Several positions have been created in recent years to address the issue. Two county prosecutor positions are dedicated solely to domestic violence cases, and a Sheriff’s Office’s sergeant works full time to follow up after a domestic abuse-related arrest. This year, Senior Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Gigi Lawless was presented with the Virginia S. Duvall Distinguished Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Prosecutor Award in recognition of her work to improve the juvenile justice system and the prosecution of cases involving domestic violence, child abuse, child sexual assault and elder abuse.
Another domestic violence awareness event was held in August. The inaugural It Takes A Village information fair featured representatives from county and regional organizations who share their resources for combating domestic violence, and other interrelated issues. Derek Summers Jr., one of Fisher’s neighbors, organized the event. “I had to do something,” he said. “The best scenario is there is no more worst case scenario,” he said, meaning an end to domestic violence.
In the Courts
While the public struggled with ways to build a better safety net for domestic abuse victims, Loudoun’s judges and juries showed little tolerance for the attackers in the most severe cases.
Four deadly domestic cases made it to trial during 2016.
In February, a jury found Marco Corletto guilty of second-degree murder in the fatal stabbing of his estranged wife in Leesburg on May. 16, 2014. The 44-year-old man will serve 45 years in prison.
In April, Circuit Court Judge Burke F. McCahill handed down a life prison sentence for Minh Nguyen, who pleaded no contest to first-degree murder and other charges related to the 2014 fatal shooting of his ex-wife’s husband at her Ashburn home.
In May, Circuit Court Judge Jeanette Irby found Kelvin Forde guilty of first-degree murder in the March 11, 2014, shooting death of his wife, Ruby Forde, on a secluded Loudoun road. He faces a sentence of 20 years to life in prison when he is sentenced in March.
In May and June, attention was focused on the trial of Braulio M. Castillo, the millionaire businessman accused of sneaking into his estranged wife’s Ashburn home on March 19, 2014, strangling her and staging the scene to make it appear she had committed suicide. After five weeks of testimony the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder, breaking and entering and violating a protective order. Judge Stephen E. Sincavage sentenced him to life plus 16 years in prison.