Skating on Thin Ice

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Six dead women -- the body count so far this month for Colorado's victims of domestic violence -- weren't enough to lead local TV newscasts.

Patrick Roy's arrest early Sunday morning was, making the NHL's most winning goalie ever an unlikely, and unwilling, poster child for Domestic Violence Awareness Month. And since the only thing physically damaged during what Roy now calls a "distraction" were the master-bedroom doors in the Greenwood Village home that he shares with his wife, Michele, and their three children, the spin has already started that Roy's arrest, and all the subsequent coverage, is overkill.

But the spinners are twirling so fast, they've missed a crucial point: This overkill could help stop the killings.

That's not the media's intent, of course. A local celebrity -- one celebrated by Mayor Wellington Webb, who'd proclaimed last Friday Patrick Roy Day, and also by Governor Bill Owens, who'd had the bad luck to name the entire week ending October 26 as Patrick Roy Week (only one day left to buy those new bedroom-door hinges at the special Roy rate at your local Home Depot!) -- had been snagged. From hero to zero overnight -- that was a story. But oddly, that was also progress.

Eleven years ago, Roy would have rated only one of the two front-page photos he netted in the Rocky Mountain News this past week: Saturday's picture of him with his wife at the Pepsi Center's October 20 pre-game tribute marking Roy's 448th win. Eleven years ago, the News would have skipped Tuesday's front-page photo op, when Roy delivered his "distraction" statement after Monday's practice -- and after his appearance earlier that same day in Arapahoe County Court, where he entered no plea to a misdemeanor charge of criminal mischief related to domestic violence.

A decade ago, star athletes couldn't be batterers -- except on the field, where such behavior was well rewarded.

In late 1989, the Broncos were Super Bowl-bound. Wide receiver Vance Johnson was the most popular of the Three Amigos -- but he was no friend to the women in his private life. Even as the Broncos were racking up a winning season, Johnson was racking up a record for beating women ("Can You Beat This?" February 7, 1990). But that didn't rate mention in the "Super Bowl Diary" that Johnson penned for the News in the week leading up to the big game against the 49ers, in which he described everything from his impending marriage to his sensitive artwork to the Vance Pants he was marketing, which he recommended you buy a size smaller than you would normally wear. And even though word of his offsides activities had leaked to the news department, after a reporter researching a story on domestic violence found a copy of a 1988 Adams County restraining order warning the athlete to stay away from his estranged wife, the paper didn't report on Johnson's domestic-violence record until after the Super Bowl.

Which the Broncos lost.

You've come a long way, baby.

In the years since, Vance Johnson has written a book that deals with his abusive past. The Broncos have won two Super Bowls. And athletes no longer get a free ride from the media.

But the changes were a long time coming.

In the '70s, when it was still legal in many states for men to rape their wives, Colorado led the country in its efforts to fight domestic violence. In 1971, the first shelter in the nation for battered women -- although that term hadn't even been invented back then -- opened in Denver. The Women in Transition House was designed to help women get away from violent spouses. "We used the biggest locks we could find," remembers one founder. "Seven on each door."

In 1979, Denver psychologist Lenore Walker published The Battered Woman, identifying the post-traumatic stress disorder (also a term not in popular use at the time) affecting women who'd been locked into abusive relationships. Using Walker's work as well as groundbreaking research by others in the field, Denver's Domestic Violence Task Force created a protocol that the city adopted in late 1984, the most advanced tool yet for dealing with batterers, both male and female.

Five years later, the Colorado Legislature adopted much of that protocol in a new law that defined domestic violence -- not just as physical violence to a person, but violence to property as well as coercion and intimidation -- and mandated treatment for perpetrators. In 1994, legislators took that law a step further, adopting a package for the entire state that mirrored many of the procedures already followed in Denver and making an arrest mandatory in any case of suspected domestic violence.

So when Greenwood Village cops got a 911 call at 2:30 Sunday morning -- a 911 call that was then disconnected -- they had no choice but to go to the Roy home. The couple had been fighting -- arguing over in-laws -- and once police heard from Michele Roy that she was frightened of her husband, as an affidavit notes, and saw that Patrick Roy had broken down the bedroom doors, they had no choice but to make an arrest.

Had the address been different -- say, the worst neighborhood in Denver -- and the circumstances otherwise identical, the police would have done the same. That's the law.

The newspapers and TV stations would not. That's the media.

Although domestic violence attracts far more notice than it did a decade ago, most of the women who were killed by their mates this month didn't make the front pages. The exception was Sharon Garrison, whose body was found last week buried beneath her front yard outside of Breckenridge. But despite the fact that her husband, and now accused murderer, had a history of domestic violence, Sharon Garrison's disappearance barely caused a blip until her friends and family sounded the alarm.

That alarm should have been ringing a lot sooner. Threats of violence are a warning sign. All too often, the fights, and the angry words, and the broken doors, have escalated into far worse. That's why the legislature voted six years ago to make an arrest mandatory.

After tempers cool, the courts can sort out the situation -- with both parties still alive to testify.

It's possible that the situation at the Roy household was misinterpreted that night. Michele Roy isn't talking with investigators, according to the Arapahoe County District Attorney's Office -- a not-uncommon situation in domestic-violence cases. Patrick Roy has a lawyer, no doubt a good lawyer, who will see that the NHL's most winning goalie is treated more than fairly by the courts. Judging from the behavior of sports-team owners from the beginning of time (go, you gladiators), Roy won't get the deep freeze from the Avalanche, either. After all, he gets paid to be tough on the ice. And like the owners, sports fans have shown a remarkable ability to forgive athletes their off-field sins.

While he waits for justice to be done -- and Colorado's domestic-violence law requires that it be done quickly -- Roy can take a few tips from Pedro Astacio.

Last spring, shortly before the Colorado Rockies pitcher was to start off the first game of the season, his wife told police that he'd hit her in the face. Astacio's lawyers quickly worked out a deal that called for Astacio to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of third-degree assault involving domestic violence. But after they discovered that the no-jail deal jeopardized Astacio's INS status (federal law dictates that legal aliens working in this country be deported if they are convicted of certain crimes, including domestic violence), Astacio was allowed to withdraw his plea, proving that membership in the athletic elite still has its privileges. Now he's scheduled to go to trial November 15 on the original charge. Want to bet who'll be on the Rockies' roster next spring?

In the meantime, Roy, a non-immigrant in this country on a work visa, has more games to win. "Obviously, this is creating a distraction," he said Tuesday, "and my wish is that this distraction will be over soon."

The people pushing Domestic Violence Awareness Month surely wish the opposite. Thanks to Patrick Roy, Coloradans have never been so aware.

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