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A woman holds up a sign and chants during The Butterfly Society March Against Domestic Violence in Baton Rouge on Friday, July 14, 2017. Dozens of women and men marched down Greenwell Springs Road despite the rain to protest domestic violence and abuse against women.

Advocate photo by CAROLINE OURSO

Miquel Angel Lopez stayed in his bedroom for more than 10 hours Sunday with the body of an ex-girlfriend he had stabbed to death, Baton Rouge police said.

He had slit 41-year-old Sara Hernandez’s throat after recently harassing and stalking her, Hernandez’s current boyfriend told police. He also said Lopez had previously strangled Hernandez — an indicator research shows greatly increases the chance of homicide.

Hernandez’s killing came amid a spate of violence that swept Baton Rouge the last weekend of July, and added to the parish’s growing number of domestic violence homicides this year.

So far this year, seven women, including Hernandez, have been killed in domestic violence, matching the total number of domestic violence homicides in 2016.

"We're horrified and concerned; it's reached epidemic proportions, not only in the state but in Baton Rouge, in the capital area,” said John Price, executive director of the Iris Center for Domestic Violence in Baton Rouge. 

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The year started in a way that seemed indicative of the tragic trend. On Jan. 1, Asha Davisboyfriend fatally shot her in her apartment, police said. And when any woman was killed in East Baton Rouge Parish after Davis, it was most likely their former or current intimate partners were involved in their deaths. So far this year, almost 70 percent of homicides of women were domestic violence killings.

Baton Rouge police have handled each of this year's seven cases of domestic violence killings, and interim Chief Jonny Dunnam said they are looking at ways to better address the issue, like assigning a detective specifically to handle such cases.

"Unfortunately domestic violence is something that's hard to gauge, something hard to prepare for,” Dunnam said.

But officers are also dealing with a surge in all homicides: July tied June for the bloodiest month of 2017 with 11 homicides, according to The Advocate staff reports. At the end of July, 50 people had been killed in the parish, up 16 deaths from 2016 at the same time.

District Attorney Hillar Moore said he’s been watching a national trend of increased homicides.

"It looks like the numbers of major and big cities are up all around the country,” Moore said. “But Baton Rouge is up this year for the first time …. This year is just an unusually high year.”

Moore and Dunnam said there has been an increase in drug-related homicides from past years, something they are working together to address. To deal with both overall homicides and domestic violence-related ones, it takes more patrols and detectives, which has been difficult for a police force that’s lacking manpower. The Baton Rouge Police Department has almost 60 vacancies.

"Whenever the police department loses those numbers, it takes away from the proactive patrols,” Moore said. 

Moore said he thinks the crime increases in both overall homicides and domestic violence also could stem from last August’s flood, citing the social disorganization theory, which explains that chaos, like a flood, puts an added weight on people that can have adverse effects.

Assistant District Attorney Melanie Fields said her office has seen in an increase in domestic abuse cases, beyond the homicides. She said the flood has often been anecdotally mentioned as a challenge for victims of such abuse.

"We have heard things like, some of them are having to live with their abusers because they were all displaced, even if they weren't all living together; we hear things like I still need him to come around because he's fixing our stuff; and we're hearing that even today,” Fields said. “The stress of that huge flood has caused … (people) to be dependent on their abusers."

Fields said her office has already received 1,400 cases of domestic abuse battery this year — which is about how many they handled in all of 2016.

The Iris Center for Domestic Violence is also feeling the weight of an increase, Price said, as their 24-hour shelter for victims has been at capacity for the last 60 days.

“In 2016, we had 247 unmet needs — individuals who came and sought safe house shelter that we were unable to provide…. We will exceed that in 2017,” Price said. “If we had more beds or we had a larger unit where we could find that service to people, I know that it could save lives.”

Twahna Harris, executive director of the Butterfly Society, a Baton Rouge anti-domestic violence advocacy organization, said despite the disheartening numbers of domestic violence deaths, she wants victims of such abuse to know there is a safety net, which includes her organization, the Iris Domestic Violence Center, the Sheriff’s Office, Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response (STAR) and the Baton Rouge Police.

"We stand united even while losing another woman's life, in pushing our message letting them know we're here for them,” said Harris. “That's the message we've got to continue to make: We are here for you. You're not alone in this. We're here to help in any way we can.

"Every opportunity that we're given, we're going to speak her name,” Harris said of all the domestic violence homicide victims this year and in the past. “Through speaking their names, we're still giving them life. Their name must live on…. Through doing that we're hoping to empower someone."

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.