washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Metro > Articles From the A Section
Page 4 of 5  < Back     Next >

Violence Intersects Lives of Promise

A third occurred in rural enclaves like where Tabitha Jo Bell was killed in 1993 when she was seven months pregnant. She and her live-in boyfriend were arguing about how often he was going out when he picked up a shotgun and fired at her as she cooked dinner.

About 20 percent of women were killed in suburbs. Ana Diaz, 28, was shot in her car in Reston as 1998 at four months pregnant. Police said it appeared that her former boyfriend was angry that Diaz had moved on after their breakup, expecting a baby with another man. He killed her, then turned the gun on himself.

Shirlita Colon's mother, Tawana Colon, right, and sister, Tysha Colon, talk with Catina Edwards, left, at court in the District while awaiting the sentencing of Donte Allen in Shirlita's killing. (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

_____About This Series_____

The Toll: Researchers are just beginning to discover what has been a hidden risk of pregnancy: Pregnant women and new mothers are more likely to be victims of homicide than to die of any single natural cause, several statewide studies have shown.

The Victims: As public health experts focus new attention on homicide during pregnancy, the Washington region has become a focal point. Research rarely casts light on the lives of those who were slain or how violence entered their lives at such a pivotal time.

The Legacy: The tragedy of maternal homicide lingers in the lives of children left behind, some of them born as their mothers were dying. Older siblings sometimes witnessed the violence. The children often must be raised by their grandparents.

Video: Recovering at Ceeatta's House
Photo Gallery: The Missing Stories
Photo Gallery: Caring for a Lost Daughter's Son
Maternal Homicide in D.C. Area
_____From The Post_____
Mending Shattered Childhoods (The Washington Post, Dec 21, 2004)
Bittersweet Childhoods of Love and Loss (The Washington Post, Dec 21, 2004)
States Add Penalties For Death of Unborn (The Washington Post, Dec 20, 2004)
Many New or Expectant Mothers Die Violent Deaths (The Washington Post, Dec 19, 2004)
Researchers Stunned By Scope of Slayings (The Washington Post, Dec 19, 2004)
How the Series Was Reported (The Washington Post, Dec 19, 2004)
_____For Information or Help_____
National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE
D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 202-299-1181
Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, 301-352-4574
Virginians Against Domestic Violence, 804-377-0335
_____Message Boards_____
Post Your Comments

In Virginia, 12 of the 45 cases have gone unsolved -- among them, the death of Sherry Culp, who lived in Stafford County.

For Culp, pregnancy came both as a surprise and a new source of tension, but not because the baby's father had objections. Her family said the strain was with her ex-husband, whom she had divorced several years earlier, not long after she had an extramarital affair.

At 36, Culp lived with her fiance and had been trying to get joint custody of her two daughters, then 7 and 9. The timing of her pregnancy was not what she had planned. Money was tight, and she worked full time, and she was trying to demonstrate her stability for the court. She briefly wondered whether to continue the pregnancy, said her mother, Jane Young.

By the first days of 1998, however, she was several weeks from her due date and excited. She had prepared the baby's nursery and washed and folded baby clothes. Her green winter parka would no longer zip over her bulging midsection. Early labor pains had started. She expected to deliver early -- as she had with her daughters.

Her relationship with her ex-husband, Donald Culp, remained strained. He lived with another woman by then, but "there was still a lot of hatred," Sherry Culp's mother said. In court documents, a Brownie troop leader described an argument between the couple when Donald allegedly told Sherry she "would never have custody of the girls, and he would see her dead before she had another child."

One Friday, Culp spent the day training the worker who would replace her while she was on maternity leave from the Springfield electronics firm where she worked. She left later than usual, with a fellow employee, police said. They chatted at the front entrance to the buildings, then parted ways.

Culp went straight to her car, about 100 feet away.

A sudden snap of gunfire brought her co-workers heading toward her car. They spotted a man in a hooded sweat shirt walking away. When they got to Culp, they found her slumped behind the wheel. She was hit before she could get her key in the ignition -- shot twice in the head through the car window in what police suspected was a targeted killing.

Doctors performed an emergency Cesarean section and delivered 6-pound 6-ounce Kelsey Morgan Laughlin. Having gone too long without oxygen, Culp's daughter showed no brain activity and was disconnected from a respirator two days later.

The little girl was buried in her mother's arms. "Had she not gotten pregnant, she might be here today," said Jane Young, her mother. "That's what I live with every day. I really believe that Kelsey was the driving force behind this murder."

In 2002, police served a search warrant on Donald Culp's home outside Cleveland, where he moved after the slaying. Leads in the case -- being investigated as a murder-for-hire -- are still being pursued, said Detective Steve Milefsky of the Fairfax County Police Department.

Donald Culp's attorney, Jay Milano, has said that Culp had nothing to do with the homicide and that although relations had once been bitter between the Culps, they were getting along well at the time of Sherry's death. "There's no evidence that he killed his wife, because he didn't kill his wife," Milano told The Post in 2002. He did not return calls last week.

Embracing a New Life

In a society that issues warnings of every kind to pregnant women -- about drinking alcohol, about the side effects of aspirin and cough syrup -- the risk of homicide during pregnancy remains unstated and unclear, even as early research may indicates certain groups of women may be more vulnerable -- teenagers, for example.

In a 2002 analysis in Massachusetts, women ages 15 to 24 were three times more likely to die of homicide during pregnancy and postpartum months than their older counterparts.

The results were similar to a Maryland study in 2003 that found that black pregnant teenagers were most at risk.

"It's something we need to look into more," said author Cara Krulewitch, wondering: "Is there a vulnerability factor we don't know about? Is there a social factor?"

In a study of postpartum women in Georgia done by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mothers younger than 20 were almost three times as likely to be killed by homicide as their counterparts who had not recently been pregnant.

< Back  1 2 3 4 5    Next >

© 2004 The Washington Post Company