Nevada has the dubious distinction as the No. 1 place in America where more women are murdered by men than any other state. Restraining orders are supposed to help women get away from abusive partners, but their track record is paper thin.
(Feb. 5) -- To 18-year-old Ariel Armstrong, her family was perfect. Almost perfect:
"We were the perfect family: me, my mom, my brothers. We were -- just without him," Ariel said.
But on Oct. 25, 2001, the lives of Bonita Armstrong and her children were shattered forever. That night, police say Bonita's estranged husband, Richard Armstrong, came to his family's front door with murder on his mind.
A shooting rampage ended with Bonita and her boyfriend dead, and two children wounded. Richard Armstrong now stands accused of the crimes.
"That was his punishment for us not coming back," Ariel said.
She and her 16-year-old brother, Sir Lawrence, say their mother put up with years of verbal and physical abuse.
"That was her," Ariel explained. "She was forgiving, real nice you know? She treated everybody like that."
Months before the shooting, Bonita separated from her husband taking the couple's four children with her.
"What we wanted was what she wanted," Sir Lawrence said. "We just wanted to get away, to be safe, to feel comfortable in our own house."
Two days before the shootings, Bonita applied for a temporary protective order against Armstrong. She reported two episodes of harassment on Oct. 21, plus a death threat Armstrong made against her in August.
"She went to get the restraining order to let him know she meant business," Ariel said.
Clark County receives 400 applications a month for temporary protective orders. About 70 percent of those are granted on the spot. Bonita's wasn't.
Frank Sullivan, the commissioner who reviewed her application, set a hearing date instead.
"The best indicator of future violence is a past history of violence, and I didn't see that history of past violence in their 19-plus-year history relationship," Sullivan said.
"Bonita Armstrong's children believe a TPO might have stopped Richard Armstrong from coming to their apartment that horrible night, but local officials say many of the most severe cases of domestic violence involve victims who had protective orders.
Abbi Silver, who oversees the domestic violence unit for the District Attorney's office, says the biggest problem she see is the penalties for violating the orders amount to a proverbial slap on the wrist. She suggests upping the penalties for violating TPO include bail for a first offense, and increasing charges to felony stalking on a second violation.
"With restraining orders, there's actually no hold on the defendant," Silver said. "They can be released within 24 hours of being arrested and go right back to the victim's home, and we do see that all the time."
Some victims like this Las Vegas woman know that reality too well: "He'd follow me, or I'd see him driving through my parking lot, and I would call the police and they couldn't do anything because he wasn't stopped."
The woman's ex-husband violated a protective order dozens of times. Metro had a warrant for his arrest when the man kidnapped his wife and baby outside a local daycare center: 911 operators recorded a series of telephone calls from witnesses in the parking lot:
911 Operator: "She was screaming and trying to get out?
Cell Phone Caller: "Yeah. It looked like there were children in the car, and she was screaming for help."
The woman remembers the kidnapping vividly: "I was kicking him and fighting him off, and I will never forget my little girl's screaming out. She was horrified."
Silver prosecuted the case. "She was smart enough to talk him out of it by saying she was going to get back together with him. He brought her back to Las Vegas and was apprehended. She's very, very lucky."
Domestic violence experts say restraining orders aren't protective shields. They see them as one tool in what often becomes a long process for women to leave abusive relationships. This woman says hers helped police, prosecutors, and even her employer know she was serious about leaving her abusive husband.
"It was the only thing that kept me from losing my job because he called my job at least 100 times a day," she says.
Studies show as many as two-thirds of protection orders are obeyed, but no one can predict which cases will erupt into actual homicides.
"A third of all our murder cases are domestic-related," Silver says. "It is a huge problem in our society, huge."
And the children of Bonita Armstrong wish their mother's call for help had been heard.
"They probably didn't think it was that serious since he didn't have like a criminal record or any other charges against him," Ariel says. "They're probably feeling real bad about it now."
A new study found other holes in the restraining order process, too. A sampling of court hearings in Nevada found that only 40 percent of TPOs that are granted in the state actually get served because deputies can't find accused batterers. If the orders aren't served, they can't be violated. The study was conducted by the Nevada Network Against Domestic Violence, in cooperation with the state attorney general's office and the Nevada Supreme Court.
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