Health & Medicine

Domestic violence victims in Sacramento’s black community live – and die – in a culture of silence

‘Now I just got memories and ashes,’ says mom of alleged domestic violence victim

Family and friends of Dajha Richards come together to remember Dajha and talk about the issue of domestic violence after her death. Her boyfriend, Damion Horton, allegedly shot her in south Sacramento in January 2019.
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Family and friends of Dajha Richards come together to remember Dajha and talk about the issue of domestic violence after her death. Her boyfriend, Damion Horton, allegedly shot her in south Sacramento in January 2019.

Less than a week before her death, Dajha Richards posted a message on Facebook saying her boyfriend was a “hot head,” but that she “loved dat boy to death.”

Six days later, Damion Horton allegedly showed up unannounced to Richards’ south Sacramento home and shot her in the chest. Richards’ 12-year-old brother was home with her. He heard the gunshot, called for help and pressed his hands to her wound. Her 4-month-old son was next to her when police arrived.

Richards, 19, died that morning.

Horton, 21, her boyfriend of three years, stands charged with her murder.

Richards’ death marked the first alleged domestic violence homicide in Sacramento County this year. It occurred on Jan. 8, after a particularly deadly year for domestic violence in Sacramento County, where 14 people were killed in 2018, eight of them children. Five victims were women of color.

Since 1987, more than 300 people have been killed in Sacramento County by someone who was considered an “intimate partner,” as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ten people were killed, on average, every year by someone who they were romantically involved with at the time or before, a Sacramento Bee analysis of state homicide data shows.

Women were nearly four times more likely to die at the hands of a former spouse or partner than men, and black women made up a disproportionate amount of victims when compared to the overall African American population. More than a quarter of victims were black.

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However, data show white and Hispanic victims use domestic violence resources far more often than black women, which experts attribute to a culture of silence on the issue of domestic violence in black communities.

“I feel like that’s because we haven’t created that sense of urgency like we do other subject matters,” said Berry Accius, a community activist and founder of She Could Be My Daughter, a domestic violence support program for black survivors. “We’ll see ourselves standing up for black males that get murdered by police officers and will be irate about it, but you don’t get that kind of results when it is the black young women.”

At the time of her death, Richards had 24 fresh bite marks and eight burn marks on her body, her mother, Ebony Douglas, said.

“Why would anyone do that to someone so precious?” she said, her eyes welling with tears.

Horton declined an interview with The Sacramento Bee for this story.

‘Full of life’

Richards is remembered by her family as “always smiling” and “full of life,” despite the hardship she endured in her life-long struggle with sickle cell anemia, a genetic disease that creates weak, crescent-shaped red blood cells that fail to supply oxygen to the body. The disease causes pain when weaker blood cells collect in blood vessels, blocking blood flow. People diagnosed with the disease have an increased risk of early death.

Richards spent much of her life at the hospital for treatments and blood transfusions, spending almost every birthday in a hospital room.

Richards was a “fighter,” family said, recalling she insisted on going to her senior prom the same day she awoke from a three-day medically induced coma. In the span of five hours, she found a dress and had her hair and makeup done, then posed for pictures with her family in the driveway. The photo of Richards standing in her red prom dress is on display in her grandmother’s living room, a remnant from her funeral.

She was a naturally happy person, her mother said, but her relationship with Horton changed her. Douglas sensed something was wrong with her daughter, but Richards never spoke of trouble.

“She was so secretive,” she said.

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Lorrie Johnson wears a necklace with a picture of her late granddaughter Dajha Richards, 19, Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019 in Sacramento. Renée C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com

Richards and Horton began dating when she was 16. At first, Horton seemed to be a nice and ambitious young man, but the “disguise” was soon thrown aside, said Andre Douglas, Richards’ stepfather.

“He can give you a whole speech about, you know, ‘I’m trying to do right and I want to marry Dajha, I want to have kids‘” he said. “Just give you the whole feeling of like Mr. America, like ‘I’m a great person,’ but behind closed doors he was like he was a real demon.”

Family members said they noticed scratches and marks on Richards’ neck and bruises on her back. They asked where she got them, but she brushed off their questions. Richards looked older beyond her 19 years. She showed signs of stress, Douglas said, and was dropping weight.

Many domestic violence victims bear the abuse in secret, experts say, concealing it from loved ones out of shame and embarrassment, and a fear of judgment. And in the black community, the conversation about abuse is rare.

“What makes a man abuse a woman? In the black community we don’t seem to want to talk about it,” Accius said. ”We first of all don’t want the pity party, I don’t believe, and then we just don’t want to be labeled.”

Accius explained the tradition of silence stems from a desire to not appear weak. It’s partly cultural too, he said, creating a cycle in which abusive behavior is modeled to younger generations and then normalized.

“These are learned but normal behaviors because I don’t think any child wakes up saying they want to abuse someone they love,” Accius said. “It becomes a thing where you see it so often, you hear it in our music, you start talking to your other friends and they don’t have good coping mechanisms. And those moments of aggression ... becomes like ‘I am going to show you I have power over you and the way I’m going to shut you up is I’m going to hurt you.’”

‘Say something’

On a Sunday night last month, dozens of black women gathered in a south Sacramento community center for a domestic violence workshop held in honor of Richards. Many women, spanning from teenagers to grandmothers, shared one harrowing story of abuse after another in an effort to get the issue of domestic abuse into the open.

One woman told the group of losing her mother and two children when her partner killed them after she had taken steps to get a restraining order. Another woman talked about telling her mother that her husband slammed her head into a counter; she said her mother asked, “What did you do to make him hit you?”

“If a person threatens to kill you, to not say something, you might as well say something because they are going to kill you any way,” Accius said to the group. “So say something. I’d rather say something then die, than be silent in death.”

Douglas and Richards’ grandmother, Lorrie Johnson – also survivors of abusive relationships – shared Richards’ story, urging people to speak about their relationships. And get out.

“I was in an abusive relationship for 10 years and Dajha saw some of the bruises on my body,” Johnson said. “We keep asking ourselves how did we miss that mark on Dajha? How did she hide this?”

“It’s not OK for a man to hit you, that’s not love,” Douglas said. “I told my baby that all the time.”

“I want to say, anybody are you in an abusive relationship? Please get out,” she said. “I don’t think I can ever get over my granddaughter’s death.”

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Dajha Richards’ family, step-father, Andre Douglas, left, mother, Ebony Douglas, center, and brother, Brian Richards, 13, comfort each other at a domestic violence victims support group for black women on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019 in Sacramento. Brian Richards was home when his sister Dajha was shot and killed and the family worries about the impact on him. Damion Horton, 21, her boyfriend and father of their infant son, was charged with the murder. Renée C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com

Oliver Williams, a social work professor at the University of Minnesota and domestic violence expert, said the prevalence of domestic violence in the black community has been ongoing for many years. It’s not a new issue. And getting out is far from easy.

“Whether you’re poor or whether you’re middle or upper class, one of the things is that you don’t want to be perceived as some type of statistic,” he said.

“I’ve heard women tell me this, they want to have something with their children and themselves where they are supported in an environment, but they also don’t want to contribute to the stereotype that exists about black women,” Williams said. “So they decide to stay in a situation until they are ready to be gone.”

Beth Hassett, CEO of WEAVE, the primary provider of domestic violence services in Sacramento County, said African Americans have traditionally been underrepresented in early intervention and prevention services “where it hasn’t escalated to the point that the family is all in crisis and people are in danger.” Black women are overrepresented in emergency shelter or crisis services mandated by Child Protective Services, Hassett said.

“(White victims) often look for that support where black young women don’t get that support, nor do they look for it because they don’t see people that look like them that they can trust,” Accius said.

Richards never filed a police report about Horton, Johnson and Douglas said.

For many domestic violence survivors, law enforcement is often the first line of intervention in an abusive relationship. But African Americans are less likely to call police to intervene in a dispute because they are fearful of harm coming to themselves and their partners and worried about judgment from their peers, Williams said.

“It’s really a no-brainer when making an arrest,” said Ed Obayashi, a Plumas County Sheriff’s deputy and domestic violence expert who worked as a public defender in San Diego County. “We know who the suspect is, and really the only other element you need is a physical injury, and any physical injury is a felony.”

But as a public defender, Obayashi said he saw many domestic violence suspects charged with felonies plead guilty to misdemeanors and released, some without completing court-mandated intervention programs they were supposed to attend at their own expense.

“It’s a case where oftentimes the cure is worse than the disease,” he said. “There’s a lot of reasons there’s no (911) call to begin with, and after someone has been to jail before they’re not likely to call again.”

Sacramento County Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Paul Durenberger, who heads the domestic violence prosecution team, said many difficult dynamics arise in prosecuting domestic violence cases. He said he understands why many victims get frustrated with the process.

“In the end, I think the frustrating part for victims is that they know that no matter whether it’s a felony or a misdemeanor ... they know that after a certain amount of time that person is getting out and coming back. In one way or another,” he said. “So you can say ‘well this relationship is over right, you’re not a convicted criminal.’ But if you have children with that person you’re going to have to deal. I mean anybody that’s been through a bad relationship knows you don’t just get rid of that person. That person hangs on forever.”

Horton was convicted of a felony for attempted robbery in 2016, according to court documents, and was barred from possessing a firearm. Yet, he allegedly used one to kill Richards.

It’s an issue that is frustrating for prosecutors, Durenberger said.

“You can pass laws all you want saying it’s illegal for somebody to have a firearm. If you’re a criminal, you don’t care,” he said. “Most of them, anyway. Especially guys, people that are into power and control. They look for any means they can to have power and control and so they’re going to go out and find a way to get a gun.”

Fleeing abuse

Richards alluded to pain in her social media posts, sharing videos of couples getting engaged and celebrity couples being affectionate, saying she longed for the same. Yet every time she broke up with Horton, she always took him back, family said.

“She would distance herself from him. Try to break up with him,” Andre Douglas said. “He would come with the sorry sob story to reel her back in because by that time, he already knew what he was dealing with, so he played with her mind and her heart. She was just too stuck. And she was really trying to detach from the whole situation. He felt that.”

Richards’ difficulties escalated during her pregnancy and after her son, Kash, was born last year. Her pregnancy was unplanned. Her doctors cautioned that her pregnancy would be risky and potentially dangerous to her health, but she wanted to keep the baby, Douglas said. She stopped taking medication that might harm the baby, leading to hospital trips nearly every day for treatment, she said.

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Dajha Richards’ son Kash Horton, 5-months old, is held by his grandmother Ebony Douglas on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019 in Sacramento. The toddler lost his mother to gun violence in their home Jan. 8, 2019. His father Damion Horton, 21, has been charged with the murder. Renée C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com

Horton, in fits of anger, would encourage her to get rid of the baby, Douglas said.

Richards went into labor a month before her due date and was admitted to UC Davis Medical Center in early September. While there, Horton showed up and argued with her, police records show. Officers were dispatched to the hospital and gave Richards instructions for getting a restraining order.

She never finished the paperwork out of fear of what Horton would do, Johnson said.

The tension escalated after that.

“One of my grandsons went on (Horton’s) Instagram and he was talking about what he was going to do to Dajha, to me and her mom,” Johnson said. “And he said he was going to kill us and then he also said that, ‘And when I go to jail and y’all know what I’m gonna be in jail for, and y’all can start putting money on my book.’ And I kept talking to Dajha. And she said, ‘Granny, you don’t know what he’s capable of doing.’ I said you just need to talk to me and let me know what he’s doing because you’re mine.”

“I would die for her,” she said.

Leaving a domestic violence situation is a dangerous time for women.

“You’re more likely to get killed when you’re leaving,” said Hassett of WEAVE.

“Leaving is a process, it’s not an act,” she said. “That’s the ultimate loss of control in a relationship that’s built on power and control. I mean, time and again we see people where there was zero physical abuse ever and just that simple act of leaving or saying she was going to leave is what triggers that violence.”

‘Memories and ashes’

On Jan. 8, Richards was getting ready at her house on Orchard Wood Circle. Kash turned 4 months old and Richards laid out his outfit on her pink bedspread for photos later that day. She talked about making eggs with her brother, Brian Richards, and called her mom, who was on her way to pick them up.

Then Horton was at the front door. He asked Richards to come into the garage so they could talk. Her brother told family members he heard a scuffle and then allegedly a gunshot.

Brian carried his sister to the living room and called 911. He kept talking to her, trying to keep her awake, Ebony Douglas said, and held the baby in front of her so she could see him.

Sheriff’s deputies arrived within three minutes of the 911 call, reporting Richards had a “gunshot wound to the chest” and that an officer was applying pressure to the wound, according to police radio communications obtained through online service Broadcastify. Richards can be heard talking in the background as a deputy relayed updates of her condition, her voice distressed and words inaudible.

By the time Ebony Douglas arrived at the house, Richards was gone.

Officers launched an hours-long manhunt for Horton, but were unable to locate him. Law enforcement officials released his name in connection with the crime the next day and he turned himself in.

He is currently awaiting his next court appearance April 26 in the Sacramento County Main Jail.

On a recent Sunday morning, Douglas began cleaning out her daughter’s room, boxing up her books and keepsakes. She still finds it difficult to be in the house where Richards no longer lives, she said.

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“Now I just got memories and ashes,” said Dajha Richards’ mom Ebony Douglas as she goes through her daughter’s belongings, Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019 in Sacramento. Richards was shot and killed in their garage a month earlier on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019. Her boyfriend Damion Horton, 21, was charged with her murder. Renée C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com

In the room she shared with her baby, Richards placed mementos of her life and accomplishments: a small Kings jersey from the summer she played basketball in elementary school – a sport she was told she wouldn’t be able to play because of her illness. Her high school graduation cap and stole, decorated with her name, are pinned to wall above Kash’s crib. Above the bed hangs a child-sized suit with Richards’ picture on it, a gift from the funeral, Ebony Douglas said.

A homemade “shield of faith” hangs by the door. Photos of her family are framed on the walls.

“I wish it was all a dream,” Douglas said. “That’s the longest I’ve ever been without talking to my child.”

“I just feel weird, like coming here and knowing she ain’t here,” she said. “Or me walking in the door coming to see them, and she asks me, ‘Mom, can I use the car?’ or ‘You got a dollar?’ I’m so used to hearing that all the time. Now I just got memories and ashes.”

If you or someone you know is in an unsafe relationship, help is available. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) for resources and support. For more information and resources, visit Sacramento Regional Family Justice Center at http://www.hopethriveshere.org/

Sacramento Bee data reporter Michael Finch II contributed to this story.
This article was produced as a project for the USC Center for Health Journalism’s California Fellowship.
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