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Why did the system fail Star Murrah? Slain Vancouver mother denied protection order against husband

By , Columbian staff writer, and
, Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
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About 100 people gathered Saturday for a candlelight vigil for Monica "Star" Murrah, whose estranged husband is accused of fatally stabbing her Nov. 7 at her Arnada neighborhood home in Vancouver. Among those who memorialized Murrah as a "positive light," some who attended the vigil also shared their own experiences with domestic violence.
About 100 people gathered Saturday for a candlelight vigil for Monica "Star" Murrah, whose estranged husband is accused of fatally stabbing her Nov. 7 at her Arnada neighborhood home in Vancouver. Among those who memorialized Murrah as a "positive light," some who attended the vigil also shared their own experiences with domestic violence. (James Rexroad for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

As the sun set Saturday on the corner of East 24th and F streets in Vancouver’s Arnada neighborhood, friends, neighbors and supporters lit candles in memory of Monica “Star” Murrah.

The 45-year-old Vancouver woman was stabbed to death Nov. 7 inside her house in the 2400 block of F Street, according to the Vancouver Police Department. Her estranged husband, Michael Ryan Murrah, 45, is facing a charge of first-degree domestic violence murder in Clark County Superior Court in her slaying.

Neighbor Jeremy Qualls described Star Murrah as a loving mother who dedicated her life to her son. Police said the couple’s 8-year-old son was at home when his mother was attacked.

“Clearly, she was also a beloved member of this community,” Qualls said to the roughly 100 people who gathered Saturday.

Among those who memorialized Star Murrah as a “positive light,” some who attended the vigil also shared their own experiences with domestic violence. Others called for change in the legal processes that Star Murrah had turned to for help.

TO HELP

To donate to the GoFundMe for Star Murrah’s family, visit https://bit.ly/31Ja3Df.

But even as the crowd celebrated her life, loved ones, victim advocates and community members were left wondering: Why did the system fail her?

Protection order denied

Both Star and Michael Murrah had called Vancouver police for domestic disturbances at least four times between November 2017 and July 2020, police reports show.

Star Murrah was the only one to allege assault. In multiple court documents, she alleged her husband had abused prescribed opioids, as well as alcohol and marijuana, for years. Drugs caused “him to react violently,” she said.

On July 3, 2020, Star Murrah told police that following a verbal dispute a few days prior, she traveled to California to stay with family. She said she had also been in contact with domestic violence advocates, who recommended she stay in California and obtain a protection order against her husband, a police report shows.

She filed a petition for a temporary protection order five days later.

In her petition, Star Murrah wrote that she wanted to leave her husband. But he threatened to call police if she took their son, and to harm himself and tell police she did it.

“I fled because I fear for my emotional and physical well-being, as well as my son’s. Being in that home with (him) is not safe,” she wrote in her petition. Star Murrah described being bullied, intimidated and threatened. She wrote multiple times that she was afraid to return to their shared home.

Two friends and Star Murrah’s older sister provided character statements to the court and spoke of emotional, physical and mental abuse by Michael Murrah.

Two family members also wrote declarations stating they witnessed a verbal dispute between the couple shortly after their son was born. The family members said Star Murrah locked herself in a bedroom, and Michael Murrah grabbed a kitchen knife and threatened to die by suicide. The situation resolved without police being called.

Yet, the full protection order was denied Aug. 4, 2020. Superior Court Commissioner Carin Schienberg found a “preponderance of the evidence has not established there is domestic violence.”

Star Murrah filed for divorce 10 days later.

Vancouver police reports submitted by Michael Murrah in the protection order case show his wife called police at least twice. On Nov. 1, 2017, she reported that the couple were arguing and he pushed her to the ground. He claimed he pushed her away because she was about to assault him.

A police officer who went to the home wrote, “since neither party had any injury on their person, because their statements conflicted with one another as to the primary aggressor statements, and because there was no witness to the incident, I was unable to gather sufficient probable cause to arrest either Monica or Michael for assault.”

Both were given domestic violence information sheets, and Michael Murrah left the residence for the evening, the report states.

On July 3, 2020, Star Murrah also reported being assaulted on June 24 and June 26. She said Michael Murrah elbowed her during an argument over a “fruit picker” their son was playing with. She said his elbow didn’t leave a bruise, but she felt discomfort and fear. In the other incident, she said the couple argued inside their shared bathroom over hiring a yard service. She said that when Michael Murrah walked past her, he hit her with his shoulder, knocking her into the counter. He then grabbed her by the throat and pushed her backward, she said, causing her to nearly fall. She said she had no physical marks.

Michael Murrah denied assaulting his wife and her allegations of substance abuse.

Records show he twice called police about verbal disputes, in January 2018 and on June 28, 2020.

In all of the incidents, police never found probable cause that an assault had occurred. If they had and criminal charges were filed, a no-contact order would have been issued.

The Tiffany Hill Act

Star Murrah’s slaying comes just two years after Tiffany Hill, a former Marine sergeant, was fatally shot Nov. 26, 2019, in her minivan outside Sarah J. Anderson Elementary School in Hazel Dell.

After that murder, the state significantly strengthened protections for domestic violence victims with protection orders.

Hill’s estranged husband had been arrested Sept. 11, 2019, for domestic violence after violating a protection order. He was free on bail and blocked by court order from having contact with her. But he tracked Hill to the school, where he shot her and his mother-in-law, who survived her injuries, in front of the couple’s three children. He killed himself following a short police chase.

Senate Bill 5149, also known as the Tiffany Hill Act, was signed into law March 9, 2020, allowing judges to order electronic monitoring for domestic violence offenders who are released pending trial. It provides real-time alerts to the victim and police when the offender violates the distance provision of the protection order.

State Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, who championed the bill, said she’s had several women reach out to her about their protection orders being denied.

“It kind of baffles me as to why they aren’t getting these protection orders,” she said in a phone interview Friday. “This technology is working when they use it.”

It’s unclear if the law would have applied in Star Murrah’s case.

Wilson didn’t know the specifics of the case but said: “Had she gotten the protection order, had she been able to use the technology, she might be alive today. Clearly, she didn’t have that option.”

Domestic violence offenses accounted for nearly 13 percent of all crimes reported to police in Washington in 2020, according to data from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. Most result in prosecution. Of the 59,289 domestic violence offenses reported statewide last year, a prosecutor declined to prosecute 1,607, the data shows.

Seventy-one percent of domestic violence victims in the state last year were women, the agencies reported.

The data shows that 12,137 domestic violence incidents resulted in no injury.

According to a 2013 review of data obtained by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 31 percent of those killed in domestic violence incidents had sought protection orders, and 52 percent of those killed had contacted law enforcement.

Two people were killed in domestic violence homicides in Clark County in 2020, and the county saw five domestic violence homicides in 2019, according to data from the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Meeting legal standards

While police must establish probable cause to arrest someone for domestic violence, to issue a protection order the court needs to find a “preponderance of evidence,” which means that “more likely than not” domestic violence had occurred, Vancouver attorney Whitney Hawke said.

Hawke, of the law firm Wheeler Boyd, said some people seek protection orders when they believe they are experiencing domestic violence, but there might not be enough evidence for their abuser to be criminally charged.

Washington state law defines domestic violence as “Physical harm, bodily injury, assault, or the infliction of fear of imminent physical harm, bodily injury or assault, between family or household members.”

“A person can commit an act of domestic violence without ever touching or striking another person — it can be achieved through words, threats, stalking behavior, etc.,” Hawke said in an email.

Sgt. Deb Libbey, head of the Vancouver Police Department’s Domestic Violence Unit, said a protection order sets a legal boundary between the petitioner and respondent and can be valuable in holding an abusive person accountable. Violating a protection order is a criminal offense and allows police to take action, Libbey said.

What to do if you’re a victim of domestic violence?

The best thing a victim or potential victim of domestic violence can do is to seek help as early as possible — even before the situation escalates to physical violence, Vancouver police Sgt. Deb Libbey said.

People can begin by contacting an advocate, such as a domestic violence hotline or a mental health counselor, Libbey said. Those resources could help address some common contributing causes, such as undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues or substance abuse.

YWCA Clark County’s SafeChoice program provides advocacy services to those experiencing domestic violence.

“At YWCA Clark County, we believe that safety is a fundamental right,” the agency said in a Facebook post about Monica “Star” Murrah. “Everyone deserves to live in a safe and nonviolent environment, no matter what.”

Those looking to speak with an advocate can visit YWCA’s office at 3609 Main St., between 9 a.m. and noon Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays or Fridays or call 360-696-0167. People can also call the agency’s 24-hour crisis hotline at 1-800-626-8137.

Hawke said that as a domestic violence offense, violating a protection order would also be considered a mandatory arrest.

Angela Rogness, program manager for the Protection Order Advocacy Program in King County, said preponderance of evidence is “not a super-high threshold.” However, some court commissioners stray from the victim’s petition, she said, and want to see outside evidence. When that happens, some commissioners can give undue weight to police reports and whether there was an arrest or charges — leading them to believe there is no domestic violence happening, Rogness said.

A recording of the Murrahs’ Aug. 4, 2020, protection order hearing, obtained by The Columbian, shows that Schienberg relied, in part, on police reports and the officers not finding probable cause for assault.

Schienberg last week declined to comment on her decision.

Jake Fawcett with the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence said that even if someone is charged with a criminal domestic violence offense and a victim is granted a no-contact order, some might still seek out a civil protection order in case a criminal charge is dismissed or negotiated to a non-domestic violence-related charge.

“Domestic violence protection orders are intended to be a quick and accessible way for victims to get protection for themselves and their children,” Fawcett said.

New law

A new state law aims to further simplify the protection order petition process for victims of domestic violence.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law House Bill 1320, which intends to improve the accessibility, efficiency and efficacy of protection orders by consolidating several previously separate protection orders. The law takes effect in July 2022.

As it stands, the definition for the domestic violence statute is narrow, Rogness said. But HB 1320 contains a prong that could allow for the definition to be expanded, to include coercive control — other types of abuse that impact a victim’s autonomy and day-to-day decision-making, such as manipulation through finances or child custody.

However, advocates fear a poor definition could be used to further victimize survivors.

“Victim organizations want to be really careful because it could be disastrous for survivors,” Rogness said.

Remembering Star

When a protection order is denied, Fawcett said, that can send a dangerous message to victims that the courts won’t protect them. He said it can also signal to abusers that what they’re doing is OK.

Rogness said denying a protection order can make survivors doubt the process and question whether they should call police or go to the courts in the future.

“There’s this perception these orders are really easy to get, and that’s just not true,” she said. “There’s this perception this is a woman’s state, and if allegations are grounded in reality, (a protection order) is a slam dunk, and it’s not true.”

In King County, 37 percent of domestic violence protection orders filed eventually result in a full order being granted, Rogness said, “far less than the general public probably realizes.”

“She did all of the right things, which is terrible,” Rogness said of Star Murrah’s outcome.

Felicia Guerchon will remember Star Murrah as someone who cared about those around her — her son most of all.

“He was the apple of her eye,” Guerchon said in a phone interview Friday. “She was such a loving, affectionate mother.”

Guerchon met Star Murrah through a moms’ group in Portland. Their sons were the same age.

Although she hadn’t seen Star Murrah for about three years — since the family had moved to Vancouver — Guerchon said she was hard to forget because of the way she connected with those around her.

“She always had such an open and positive presence,” she said. “She was always asking, ‘How are you doing?’ And she really listened.”

The moms in the group knew that the relationship between Star and Michael Murrah was strained, but Guerchon said she had no idea Star Murrah felt that she was in danger.

Now, she calls Star Murrah’s death a tragedy and said it’s hard not to look back on whether she missed any signs or could’ve helped her.

“What I wish people would understand is this is a real person; this is a real mother and a real child who got hurt,” Guerchon said. “This could be anyone. She’s not just some statistic.”

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