Myesha Davis had finally mustered the courage to leave her fiancé, whose increasingly controlling behavior made her rethink the relationship, her family members said.

She spent hours with her aunt Saturday night, the two women planning their futures together. They planned to enroll in trucking school and coordinate work schedules to help each other with child care.

Davis, 27, wanted more independence after her fiancé, Vinnie Mackie Jr., said he thought "her place was in the house," according to her aunt.

Less than 24 hours later, Mackie armed himself with a gun and shot Davis to death inside their apartment Sunday evening. Then, he ended his own life.

Their four children — the oldest just 8 years old — saw everything.

"There I was, not knowing that tomorrow wasn't promised for her," her aunt Tiffany Davis said. "I wish I would have just kept her with me."

The shooting was among three murder-suicides that unfolded last weekend across the Baton Rouge region, including one in Hammond. Three more deadly domestic violence shootings followed, all within a week. East Baton Rouge Parish has recorded more than two dozen such killings so far this year — a record rate of violence keeping pace with an unprecedented overall murder rate.

Many experts highlight ongoing fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. But pinpointing an exact cause is near impossible, and the problem extends far beyond Baton Rouge. In some surrounding parishes, concerns about increased domestic violence are exacerbated by the impacts of Hurricane Ida.

"Instead of asking why the victim stays in an abusive relationship, we should be looking at the barriers to leaving," East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said. "COVID-19 aggravated these barriers — income, family support, affordable housing and daycare, isolation, and maybe most important, mental health."

'The most unforgiveable thing'

After the pandemic hit, Davis watched her world shrink.

She and Mackie both lost their jobs, and she helped him launch a heating and air conditioning business. He started working long hours, becoming the sole breadwinner and leaving her often overwhelmed with child care, especially after she gave birth to their youngest in July.

Even when schools and day cares began reopening, she worried about sending the kids back and risking COVID exposure.

Family members said they believe Mackie became more controlling during the pandemic, though they never suspected physical violence in the relationship. They said he would get upset when Davis spent too much time with her relatives.

Still, Davis hesitated to leave, unsure how she would support her children without him. But her family offered the reassurance she needed: She was strong and capable, they told her, with a bunch of people standing behind her.

Relatives said Davis had recently told Mackie she was serious about breaking up — something she had brought up several months earlier, then agreed to reconcile after he proposed.

When police responded to the crime scene the night of Oct. 24, officers found her engagement ring sitting on a box of ammunition in the kitchen, relatives said.

The shooting was reported to authorities only after a friend called Davis that evening and one of the children answered, informing the caller that mom and dad were dead, according to family members.

Davis had three children with Mackie, and the couple was raising his son from another relationship, too. Her surviving relatives have taken them in since her death.

While the younger ones are probably too little to remember their mom, the older siblings will grow up with horrific scenes from her last moments seared into their memories.

"We have no clue how long they were in that apartment, with their mother's brains blown out," Tiffany Davis said. "That's the most unforgivable thing to me."

'One of the most difficult issues'

So far this year, 33 lives have been lost to domestic violence across East Baton Rouge, according to data provided by the district attorney — with still over two months left in 2021.

The parish recorded 19 in all of 2020.

Moore said about 20% of the 13,000 or so cases his office handles annually involve some form of domestic violence, showing how prevalent such crimes were even before the recent spike.

Other jurisdictions, including the Florida Parishes, have seen a similar uptick.

Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard said domestic violence reports are projected to rise for the third consecutive year in 2021.

"It's one of the most difficult issues we deal with," 21st Judicial District Attorney Scott Perrilloux said. "It's not any one particular demographic or economic status. It doesn't really seem to matter."

Victims in rural areas often have the hardest time getting help because of transportation challenges and limited legal services, among other issues, said Nnenna Minimah, executive director of Southeast Advocates for Family Empowerment. Her organization serves a wide swath of eastern Louisiana, including the Florida parishes.

Despite those barriers, Minimah said Hurricane Ida seemed to push some survivors trapped in abusive relationships to their breaking point, finally prompting them to reach out for help. She said even though Livingston has a higher population, most of the requests to her organization come from Tangipahoa.

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A familiar pattern unfolded after the storm, said Mariah Wineski, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

First came radio silence as the power grid failed, causing an initial dip in hotline calls — and then a huge spike in reports as communication systems came back online, she said.

Just last week, a man shot his wife to death at their Hammond home, then barricaded himself inside. Law enforcement later found Anthony Davis dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His wife, Heidi Davis, was a mother of two and registered nurse at North Oaks Hospital.

"She was truly one to light up a room and was known to be full of life," her obituary says. 

Law enforcement officials have not released a motive for the case, but court records show Heidi had filed for divorce in August.

The deadly attack unfolded about a month after another murder-suicide in St. Francisville, where a man stalked his estranged wife for weeks before killing them both.

Marshall Rayburn had recently been released on bond and assigned a GPS ankle monitor after being accused of repeatedly drugging and raping his wife during their 15-year marriage. Family members and local officials blamed the monitoring company for failing to properly supervise him.

West Feliciana Sheriff Brian Spillman said officials are rethinking their ankle monitor system after it failed so spectacularly. He said the murder-suicide came amid an increase in domestic violence calls overall.

"We're watching this trend, and if anything, we're being more careful and more meticulous in these investigations," he said.

Spillman said his office is getting deputies specialized training to handle these kinds of sensitive situations that can be challenging for law enforcement, especially when victims are afraid to cooperate.

'It just keeps coming'

One possible explanation for the recent eruption of domestic violence focuses on the accumulation of chaotic national news events that have dominated discourse over the last couple years, from the presidential election and pandemic, to racial justice protests and mask mandates.

"They have a tendency to destabilize systems and decrease trust in systems," Wineski said. She described a general sense of chaos resulting from the "fraying of community ties" that can create the right environment for violence to flourish.

Watching the rise in domestic homicides has been incredibly frustrating because of all the resources being poured into educating people on the issue, said John Price, executive director of IRIS Domestic Violence Center in Baton Rouge.

Twahna Harris, founder of The Butterfly Society in Baton Rouge, has felt the strain acutely. She spends countless hours comforting victims and their families.

"You put out one fire, and here's another; you put that one out and here's another," she said. "It just keeps coming."

She also pushed back on the idea that the pandemic is the primary driver of the ongoing spike in violence. She said blaming the pandemic starts to sound like giving abusers a pass.

But as the body count continues to rise, Harris finds herself wondering what her organization could do differently to stop the violence. What are they missing?

Domestic abuse is all about power and control, she said, and it can be difficult to spot the subtle indicators: the frequent phone calls, minor physical violence played off as a joke, gradual isolation from loved ones.

Even when a victim decides to leave, Harris said the consequences can be fatal: "Walking away is the deadliest time in a relationship."

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Twahna Harris, executive director of the Butterfly Society, a domestic violence awareness and support group, speaks next to the Southern University Student Union, Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, before a balloon release for SU student Shayla James, who was shot and killed by her boyfriend last week, and other victims of somestic violence. Kristie Perry, an assistant professor of social research and advisor to the SU group My Sister's Keeper, is at left.

Those words came into sharp focus as Harris embraced the mother and grandmother of Shayla James, a Southern University sophomore killed by her boyfriend last week in her Burbank Drive apartment after she expressed a desire to see someone else.

Relatives, friends and classmates gathered on Southern campus and released purple and white balloons in her honor. Purple is the official color for National Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October; it was also Shayla's favorite.

"Ms. James made the decision to walk away from her situation because she wanted better," Harris said, standing tall in her purple high-heeled pumps. "She knew she deserved better. And her life was stolen from her. How selfish of him."

James, 19, planned to become an elementary school teacher after graduating from college. She left behind three younger sisters, who lost a magnificent role model and confidante, their mother said.

"Every time I talk about her, I get chills, like my baby is wrapping her arms around me," Shondreka James said. "I have another angel sitting on my shoulder."

Shayla was fiercely independent and unflappable, disinclined to stress about much of anything, her mom said. She was a great student, the first in her immediate family to attend college. She had friends all over the country.

The man who took her life, Kenyon Walker, gave them no reason to suspect his capacity for violence, relatives said. The two had been dating for several months. "He ruined two families, mine and his," Shondreka James said. 

"But I want to focus on remembering the 19 years we had with Shayla," she continued. "It's hard to explain your hurt without crying, but you don't want your tears to be your story."

Those experiencing domestic abuse can contact the statewide Louisiana Domestic Violence Hotline at (888) 411-1333 or The National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233.


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.