She looks like the girl next door, like someone you want to meet. And yet she looks somehow vulnerable and in need of protection.

The news photos of Gabby Petito are heartbreaking. Her story is even more disturbing because there were signs visible to even the casual bystander, and certainly to the police who stopped her and her boyfriend, that there was something seriously wrong in the relationship.

Her death has been ruled as a homicide, but as I write this her boyfriend, the man police call a person of interest, is still missing and no arrest has been made.

And yet, after decades of reporting on domestic violence, I have a feeling in my gut about what happened.

Why do some men murder the women they love?

That question has haunted me for almost 35 years since I first went to work for the Cherokee Tribune as a news reporter.

The first murder I covered in Cherokee County was in 1988. I got a tip one Sunday afternoon that a violent crime had taken place off Kellogg Creek Road, so I headed to the scene.

When I got there I learned that police had found two young women, sisters, both shot to death.

One of the sisters was holding her 1-year-old daughter who had been shot as well but was still alive.

They appeared to have been there for at least a day or two.

The story that unfolded from that moment as detectives began their investigation became one that would play out numerous times in my career. In fact, I never covered a murder in Cherokee County that was not the result of domestic violence.

It was the story of a woman caught in a violent relationship who was trying to escape from her abuser.

Like most of those murders I covered, the defendant and his wife were in the middle of a bitter, contested divorce.

The man, Elbert Weakley, was angry with, and had threatened, his wife and her sister because of a dispute about his visitation rights with his two children. He had talked about killing his wife.

The victims were shot with the same weapon the defendant later claimed was stolen from him the day of the crimes. Detectives found evidence at the scene indicating Weakley was involved.

The afternoon the women were discovered, the suspect went to the crime scene with a friend and showed no surprise on seeing the back door broken and the cable television and telephone lines cut, on being told his wife and sister-in-law had been murdered, or on seeing that his sister-in-law’s baby had been shot.

After a long, tense trial in the courtroom of the old white marble courthouse, Weakley was convicted for the murders and for aggravated assault of the 1-year-old child,. He received consecutive life sentences for the murders plus a consecutive 20-year sentence for assault.

I learned a lot during those long months. First, that at that time there were few resources for women in a potentially violent relationship.

Second, that something like this could happen to anyone. I had never really been aware of the extremes of violence that could occur in a marriage or relationship. I had no personal knowledge, and at that time it was not something that made many headlines.

Of course, in the years since, strides have been made in resources such as the Cherokee Family Violence Center and its Executive Director Meg Rogers. Police are now trained, and laws are in place to better protect women who try to report abuse.

But still, women are abused and killed by the men they love.

In fact, about 40 percent of all female murder victims (and just 6 percent of male murder victims) die at the hands of a former or present spouse or lover.

According to Psychology Today, complex conditions of risk, many of which are part of Romantic ideology, can lead to a man murdering the woman he loves.

Some include that the man perceives the woman to be his whole world, so any separation from her entails a loss of his identity. The man’s life lacks other reasons for living.

His traditional perception of masculinity, which dictates the male has full power, runs counter to his dependency upon his wife, evidence of his weakness and humiliation. His personal behavior is rigid and uncompromising.

The man’s prevailing beliefs about love appear to justify the sacrifice of his wife. The ideology behind love provides legitimacy for terrible crimes.

All of those played out in the murders I covered over the years.

I certainly don’t have the answers, but one thing the latest news story has reminded me is that it is important to take action if we suspect a woman’s life may depend on it.

Rebecca Johnston is a lifelong Cherokee County resident and former managing editor of The Cherokee Tribune.

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