‘Stalking is a homicide in slow motion.’ Did West Chester police fail stalked, slain woman?

‘Stalking is a homicide in slow motion.’ Did West Chester police fail stalked, slain woman?


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Cincinnati Enquirer | Source URL

The police department charged with protecting Ellen Weik didn't.

That’s the opinion of several of her friends who began questioning the department not long after the woman’s bones were discovered last summer. Why, they ask, didn't police investigate Weik’s stalker more thoroughly when she was alive?  
 
Months before Weik disappeared, the 23-year-old woman reported to West Chester Township Police Department that she'd received harrowing messages from a person masking their identity. Someone was lurking outside, concealed behind a veil of darkness, capturing video of her and sending it to her, along with a peculiar allusion to 9/11.

The department's earlier response, like the majority of its responses to stalking reports, did not result in an arrest. 

Police told Weik to take self-defense classes.

She did, through the department’s S.A.F.E. program. Her mother joined her.

A friend said police told her to stay indoors at night.

She taped her curtains shut after sundown to block prying eyes.

They sent extra patrols twice to her house. 

None of that saved her.

Less than four months after contacting police, months of ever-heightening fear for Weik, she disappeared. Her body was found in late August in Liberty Township, near her ex-boyfriend’s house.

The man she’d begun to suspect was her stalker, Michael Strouse, pleaded guilty last month to stalking and killing Weik. Strouse, 30, faces up to life in prison and will be sentenced Wednesday in Butler County. 

West Chester Police Chief Joel Herzog said during a press conference after Strouse’s arrest that a rainbow had appeared near where officers discovered Weik’s remains. Officers were moved, considering it a symbol of thanks from Weik for “bringing her home," Herzog said.

Hannah Buchanan, Weik’s friend since childhood, saw it differently.

“She lived in absolute terror for months and they did nothing,” Buchanan said, “and then they have the audacity to pretend that her spirit is thankful to them?

"They were always saying, ‘We’re doing our job. We were doing what we were supposed to do,’” she continued. "And they were, but the thing was, that wasn’t enough.”

‘They didn’t make me feel any safer’

A few days after Weik first sought help from police, she reached out to Courtney Schauble. The two had first met at Lakota East High School but hadn’t spoken in years.

Weik wrote that someone was stalking her, stealing her peace of mind. Schauble asked if Weik had called police.

“Yes,” Weik wrote. “They … said they were going to ‘send extra patrol to my area.’ They didn’t make me feel any safer.”

Within five days of receiving Weik’s report, West Chester police dispatched an officer to her house on two occasions. Each time, the officer conducted a search. According to police records obtained by The Enquirer, the cumulative time spent on the searches: five minutes. 

Lt. David Tivin with West Chester police declined to comment when asked if Weik’s phone was analyzed before she disappeared in an effort to identify her stalker, citing Strouse's pending sentencing.

Tam Weik, Ellie's mother, said the family granted police access to their phone records. 

“With today's difficulties getting communication and rights, it took them quite some time to get information on where the messages were coming from," Tam Weik said.

She is unwilling to criticize police.

“When she had reported the stalking (in April), the police were very diligent in their efforts to locate the sender. However, the intricacies of today’s communications was holding them back. Not their efforts," she said.

Still, the department, over a five-year period ending in 2018, received 87 stalking reports. In a search of more than 100,000 Butler County criminal case records, The Enquirer found that just four men investigated by West Chester police were ultimately convicted of stalking over the same period.

No stalking convictions were obtained in 2017 or 2018.

West Chester police did file 13 stalking charges against adults, but the majority of those charges were modified, dismissed or, in one case, unresolved because the defendant fled the area. Three juveniles were also charged.

More than a third of the initial 87 stalking reports were closed due to investigative leads drying up. Twenty-five were cleared because prosecutors declined the case, victims chose not to cooperate or the case was transferred under what's known as a referral, which requires a victim to present their case before a magistrate, Tivin said.

The Butler County Prosecutor's Office did not respond to several requests for comment.

The number of stalking calls received by West Chester police may be higher. Weik's case was classified not as 'stalking' but as 'telecommunication harassment' before she was killed.

The department filed 131 telecommunication harassment reports over a one-year period ending in September 2018. They had made three arrests from those reports as of October 2018. 

Stalking as precursor to killing

Research shows stalking is a lethal risk factor, but one not as well understood among law enforcement as domestic violence or sexual abuse for myriad reasons, including a lack of stalking-related training for officers, said Jennifer Landhuis, the director of the Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center.

"We are at with stalking where we were with domestic violence 22 years ago when we started," Landhuis said.

A 2012 study conducted by several universities found that stalking preceded three out of four intimate-partner homicides in which a woman was the victim.

“Stalking is a homicide in slow motion,” said Patrick Brady, an assistant professor of criminology with the University of West Georgia who is studying the investigation and prosecution of stalking.

Brady said Ohio's stalking statute is another barrier. It requires prosecutors to show an offender knowingly instilled fear or distress in stalking victims. Other states require only proving that a reasonable person would have felt those emotions.

According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, more than half of women killed by an intimate partner previously reported being stalked to law enforcement.

Tivin, the West Chester lieutenant, said the department has tried to learn from the Weik case. He emphasized the importance of dividing labor, incorporating various units to turn information into intelligence.

"Cases today, and this case in particular," he said, "are so complex."

More: How to protect yourself from a stalker or cyberstalker

'She looked defeated'

Before disappearing last summer, Weik came to suspect Strouse.

In early July, she confided in her neighbors, Rhonda Busam and Dave Poynter, that she feared him.

“She said, ‘If I ever come up missing, it would be my ex-boyfriend with dreadlocks,’” Poynter said.

She told Elyse Kautz, another friend, that she'd blocked two of Strouse's Facebook accounts.

As she tried to shut out this man who posted drawings of serial killers on social media, Weik sought a sense of security in others' company.

Tanja Vinegar said her 23-year-old son, Khalil, visited Weik when she felt fearful, to comfort her. When she was taken, she says he felt like he'd failed her.

Buchanan, Weik's childhood friend, said she could sense Weik's discomfort in May and June. Weik asked more often than usual to visit Buchanan in the Dayton area. She seemed nervous.

When she became tight-lipped about the subject of her stalker, Buchanan grasped the severity of the situation. Weik normally told her friend most everything.

Hours before the disappearance, Isaiah Godoy visited Weik at her house. She was alone; her mother was out of town.

In Weik’s backyard, they smoked and lounged on a hammock. Weik turned to Godoy, her friend since high school, and divulged that she hadn’t been outside after dark in some time.

Then she asked him to spend the night. The request surprised Godoy. He'd never slept over.

Godoy ultimately declined, explaining he didn’t want his gripes about his current tooth pain to ruin her night.

“She looked defeated,” Godoy said. “I feel like she knew what was going to happen.”

A short time later – it's unclear exactly when – Weik disappeared. She was last heard from on July 29, police say. Three days later, on Aug. 1, she was reported missing.

The same day, West Chester police spent about 70 minutes at a house on Bluffs Drive – Strouse's home. Tucked away in a cul-de-sac, the house stands across Millikin Road from the property where Weik's remains, wrapped in a blue-and-white blanket, were discovered.

Weeks passed between that initial visit to Strouse's house and the discovery of Weik's remains, on Aug. 24. One day later, Strouse was charged with murder. 

The case of Katelyn Markham 

Strouse's arrest sparked renewed hope that a Butler County cold case may be solved.
In 2011, Katelyn Markham disappeared. The Fairfield woman's remains were later discovered near an Indiana creek.

Samantha Meurer, who described Markham as her best friend, said the two met while studying at the now-closed Art Institute of Ohio - Cincinnati.

Before disappearing, Markham told Meurer that a man was making her uncomfortable, showing up uninvited to see her.

Markham promised to confront the man about it at Meurer's insistence.

After Strouse's arrest, Fairfield police asked at least two people about possible links between Strouse and Markham.

John Carter, Markham's fiancé when she disappeared, said Fairfield police asked him if Markham knew Strouse.

Authorities also asked "throughout the investigation" if Markham had ever spoken of a stalker, Carter said.

Fairfield police spoke in September with Carrissa Day, a 30-year-old Covington woman who attended high school with Strouse.

Day was asked whether she had old phone numbers for Strouse, dating back to the period of Markham's disappearance. They also asked her if Strouse attended the Art Institute, she said.

Strouse has not been charged in connection to the Markham case.

Doug Day, a Fairfield police spokesman, referred questions to Indiana State Police, writing it is handling the Markham investigation.

But Sgt. Stephen Wheeles with the Indiana State Police said the case is "primarily being investigated by authorities in Ohio. ... I'm not sure why they (Fairfield police) would refer you to me."

Neither provided a clarification by press time.

Weik family speaks

Tam Weik, Ellie's mother, implored stalking victims to contact law enforcement for help.

She said West Chester police followed up with her daughter after taking the initial report in April, and they "never stopped searching for the person who was doing this."

The day before she disappeared, Ellie Weik and her mother gardened together.

Now, every morning after waking up, Tam Weik greets a photo of her daughter.
"Good morning, Ellie. I love you," Tam Weik will often say. Sometimes, she wears Ellie's tie-dye clothing and jewelry made by her daughter, including a blue-and-white necklace with a white crystal pendant.

"We keep her close," she said. "She shouldn't be gone."

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