Little more than a week after a Homer rally urging respect, not violence, a domestic violence assault ended in the death of 24-year-old Aaron Michael Rael-Catholic of Homer. The incident occurred April 2, on McLay Road, about four miles out East End Road.
The State Medical Examiner’s office has determined Rael-Catholic died from a single gunshot wound to the head, according to an April 5 dispatch from the Alaska State Troopers.
“A civilian witness at the scene of the event on April 2, 2014, observed Rael-Catholic shoot himself with the State Troopers’ pistol during the struggle,” the dispatch, referring to a struggle between Rael-Catholic and the trooper.
The trooper involved in the incident has been identified as David G. Chaffin, a five-year veteran of the Alaska State Troopers. Chaffin is stationed at the Anchor Point Post.
Information provided by the troopers is that a report of a domestic violence assault in progress was received by the troopers at approximately 8:17 p.m. April 2.
“An adult female reported being assaulted by her ex-boyfriend at her residence in the area of East End Road in Homer,” said an April 2 dispatch issued following the incident.
The caller told troopers she was able to leave her residence in a private vehicle, and a trooper responded.
The adult male assailant, identified as Aaron Michael Real-Catholic, rammed the female victim’s vehicle with his vehicle.
“Rael-Catholic exited his vehicle and a struggle ensued between him and the Alaska State Trooper. During the trooper’s attempt to arrest the assailant, a deployment of both pepper spray and a taser were attempted,” troopers said.
The trooper and the suspect wrestled on the ground,” said the April 2 dispatch. “During this struggle, preliminary information is Rael-Catholic obtained possession of the State Troopers’ pistol and fatally shot himself.”
Christie Hill and her husband had just left the Homer Theatre at 8:10 p.m. and were headed home, when they turned onto McLay Road from East End Road. Hill said they saw a vehicle on its side. A second vehicle, a black SUV, appeared to have its front end against the underside of the overturned vehicle. Hill also saw “a trooper that looked like he had someone on the ground at gunpoint,” although she did not see the person on the ground. Neither did Hill recall seeing other individuals at the scene.
“With his other arm, it looked like he was waving us away,” said Hill of directions being given by the trooper.
Hill and her husband used an alternate route that led home. At the top of McLay Road they could see the activity at the scene of the incident.
“That’s when other cops showed up,” said Hill.
After returning home, Hill said she could hear sirens. Later in the evening, she returned to the top of McLay to see what was happening and from the size of the response thought, “Holy cow, something bad is going on.”
Phil Morris lives at the corner of East End and McLay roads and it was in his driveway where the overturned vehicle came to rest. Morris was unaware anything had occurred until after troopers had arrived.
“Three troopers were there, the ambulance had gotten there just then and city police were right there, too,” said Morris. “Basically, Homer Police Department was keeping people out of the way.”
Lt. Will Hutt of the Homer Police Department said Homer police had limited involvement.
“We showed up after the fact and basically directed traffic at the bottom of McLay Road,” said Hutt.
Directed by law enforcement to stay away from the area, Morris was able to observe the overturned vehicle, but unable to identify its make or model. He did not see a second vehicle, but did witness a female being led to an ambulance.
“I saw her back as they were escorting her into the ambulance. She was ambulatory,” he said.
From being that close to the incident, Morris said, “I am concerned at the level of risk these guys are in to get in that position. My heart goes out to everybody involved, but the trooper especially. This is a high risk occupation in this day and age.”
Aware of “a huge rumor mill” regarding the incident, trooper spokesperson Megan Peters said, “That’s why we have an investigation, so we can actually find out what happened.”
How long that investigation will take depends on the information gathered, including results from toxicology tests for all the parties involved, which can take four to eight weeks.
“Those are standard things we look at. Not that we expect to find anything. It’s just one of those things we have to check,” said Peters.
Unable to comment specifically about the April 2 incident, Jessica Lawmaster, executive director of South Peninsula Haven House, a local resource supporting and empowering people impacted by domestic violence and sexual assault, said it is “extremely common for violence to escalate whenever relationships are about to end or have ended.”
The most dangerous time for a victim in an abusive relationship is when she’s leaving.
“Actually, there is a 75 percent higher risk of dying when you’re leaving,” said Lawmaster. “I’m not implying that’s what happened in this situation, but it’s important for people to realize why people don’t leave, why they don’t end relationships.”
When abusive relationships end, the abuser often feels powerless and a need to assert control, said Lawmaster.
“It is not uncommon for violence to continue escalating even after the relationship ends.”
The March 27 “Choose Respect” rally in Homer was part of Gov. Sean Parnell’s initiative addressing domestic violence and sexual assault. Similar events were held the same day around the state. Sponsored locally by South Peninsula Haven House, the rally also launched Green Dot, an effort in Homer and four other Alaska communities to reduce domestic violence and sexual assault.
Green Dot refers to the idea of replacing red dots, indications of violence on a map with green dots, instances where violence has been averted through techniques such as interruption, distraction and intervention. Haven House defines a green dot as “any behavior, choice, word or attitude that promotes safety for everyone and communicates intolerance for violence.”
With regard to extreme violence in relationships, Lawmaster told the Homer News, “There are almost always warning signs leading up to it. Friends, family members, community members really just need to be aware of what’s going on around us, ask people how they are doing, role play in helping someone be safe before things escalate.”
Peters said the troopers had previous contact with Rael-Catholic.
On Sept. 27, 2013, Rael-Catholic pleaded guilty in Homer District Court to driving under the influence. In a judgment signed by Judge Margaret L. Murphy on Dec. 9, Rael-Catholic was fined $3,000 with $1,500 suspended, and ordered to pay a $50 initial jail surcharge, $100 suspended jail surcharge, $330 cost of imprisonment, complete a substance abuse treatment assessment, had his driver’s license revoked for 90 days and was placed on probation for one year.
Four days later, Dec. 13, Alaska State Troopers received a 911 call from a Homer woman that she and her boyfriend were involved in a “verbal altercation.” Troopers R. Chambers and D. Chaffin responded to the scene, arrested Real-Catholic and transported him to the Homer Jail. Real-Catholic pleaded guilty to one count of fourth-degree assault, domestic violence. Murphy sentenced him to a fine of $1,000 with $1,000 suspended, ordered him to serve 90 days with 85 suspended, perform 40 hours of community service that would satisfy the unsuspended jail time, pay $150 confinement facility surcharge with $100 suspended, provide a DNA sample upon request of an officer on behalf of the state of Alaska, serve one year on probation and have no contact with the victim without written consent filed with the court.
In March, Rael-Catholic was one of two people listed as defendants in a civil case involving forcible entry. That case had not been closed.
It is not uncommon for violent incidents to raise feelings of helplessness in those who know the individuals involved, according to Lawmaster.
“Realistically, there are things we can pick up on and support someone’s safety,” she said.
Haven House’s crisis line offers support for individuals concerned about someone in an abusive relationship, as well as those in abusive relationships.
“There’s a lot of planning that goes into leaving an abusive relationship. That’s something we do a lot on the crisis line,” said Lawmaster. “You don’t have to be a victim to call. If you’re wanting to help someone else, you can call the crisis line, too.”