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Report On Murder-Suicide Shows Gaps In Response

By ARIELLE LEVIN BECKER, alevinbecker@courant.com

6:23 AM EDT, May 25, 2010

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The first time he was arrested on charges of beating and kicking his wife, Selami Ozdemir was ordered into a family violence education program. Four months later, when he was arrested for hurting her again, Ozdemir posted bail, returned to his West Haven home and killed his wife, then himself.

It was three weeks before his first domestic violence class was to begin.

Because of a backlog in the program for first-time domestic violence offenders, defendants like Ozdemir can go months between being arrested and receiving domestic violence counseling, services and monitoring, a five-month investigation by the Ansonia-Milford state's attorney's office found.

A report on the case released Monday included several recommendations for changes, including increasing the number of slots in the family violence education program to minimize the wait time and increasing the supervision of domestic violence defendants while their cases are pending.

Ansonia-Milford State's Attorney Kevin D. Lawlor said that some recommendations might cost money, but that they could also produce savings in the long run if they can reduce the likelihood of domestic violence defendants reoffending.

"Justice shouldn't come with a price tag," Lawlor said. "We have a job to do."

The report detailed a host of problems in the case. Ozdemir, 41, and his wife, Shengyl Rasim, 25, had two children, and his first arrest, last September, included allegations that he knocked his wife against the crib where their 3-month-old slept. But none of the agencies involved alerted the Department of Children and Families after the first arrest; each appears to have assumed that someone else had, the report said. It recommended formalizing the procedures for notifying DCF in domestic violence cases that involve potential child endangerment.

After his second arrest, on Jan. 16, Ozdemir allegedly managed to get out of custody without putting up any money for his $25,000 bond or signing a contract or payment plan — allegations that the state Insurance Department is investigating, according to the report. The report suggested reforms to the bail bond industry designed to keep agents from allowing people to "get out of jail free."

The report also described the failure of 911 operators to relay key information to police who were at the family's home minutes before the murder-suicide.

Two officers had arrived after Rasim called police at 3:29 a.m., saying that she heard her husband banging on the door. When the officers arrived, Ozdemir was not there. Then, at 3:43 a.m., another woman called 911 and reported that Ozdemir was drunk and returning home. The woman expressed "grave concern" for the safety of Rasim and the police, the report said.

But the dispatchers did not tell the officers at the house that Ozdemir was coming. The officers left at 3:47 a.m.

About six minutes later, the dispatch center received another call from the house. On the line were the sounds of an argument and a baby crying. Then there were loud sounds that seemed to be gunshots.

Dispatchers told the officers to return to the home, but did not mention the gunshots. The tape recorded several more minutes of the baby's cries and the officers trying to enter through two locked doors.

West Haven police and fire departments — which both supervise the 911 system — are conducting an internal investigation into the handling of the calls, according to the report. The police department has modified and clarified its procedures for relaying information to responding officers, the report said.

On Monday, attorneys representing Rasim's estate and her children filed a notice of intent to sue the town of West Haven, the police officers and dispatchers involved in her case.

"This is probably the most preventable tragedy that I have ever witnessed in my career as a lawyer," Joel T. Faxon, whose firm, Stratton Faxon, represents Rasim's estate, said in a written statement.

Stratton said the lawyers plan to file a federal civil rights complaint and ask the U.S. attorney to investigate whether there was evidence of racial bias in the department's handling of the case. Rasim was from Turkey and did not speak English well. The state's attorney's report cites multiple instances in which language barriers presented problems, including during the 911 call shortly before Rasim was killed. The report noted that West Haven police can access translation services by telephone to communicate with 911 callers but did not use them with Rasim.

A call to the West Haven police department was not returned Monday.

Since the murder-suicide, the judicial branch has increased the number of family violence education classes, the report said.

It now takes between 60 and 65 days for a person ordered into the family violence program to begin sessions — better than before, but not ideal, said William Carbone, executive director of the state's court support-services division.

The program consists of 9-week group sessions that focus on educating defendants about the effects of violence on relationships, as well as interpersonal skills to develop violence-free relationships and an understanding of power and control dynamics, according to a report by the state judicial branch.

In the first three quarters of this fiscal year, 3,663 people were ordered into the program, and 172 groups were completed, with an average of 15 people per group, according to the judicial branch. Each group costs about $4,000 to run.

The report also recommended increasing the supervision of domestic violence defendants and suggested that one way to reduce recidivism would be to make court family resource counselors more involved in supervising them.

Family resource counselors typically handle both domestic violence and family court cases, and in the Ansonia-Milford judicial district, they have more than 100 domestic violence clients each. The report recommended letting some counselors work only on criminal cases and receive training on more closely monitoring defendants.

Carbone said he would not disagree with the recommendation, but said it is not possible to do now.

"That's a resource-driven recommendation," he said. "At the present time, the resources are not there to accomplish it."

Stephen R. Grant, director of family services for the judicial branch, noted that restraining orders are civil, not criminal, matters, and that some recent domestic violence murders occurred in families with no previous criminal cases.