Sandretto Fights For Victims of Domestic Violence
Kathryn Sandretto ’05 knows what it feels like to be hated. As a prosecutor in Lucas County who has devoted the last few years to putting abusers behind bars, she has felt the wrath of both the abusers – and the family members who have suffered at their hands.
When Sandretto and her team tried to intervene in the case of one abused woman by sending her abuser to an in-custody treatment facility, she called both Sandretto and the detective on the case the kinds of inflammatory words that could not even be used in an HBO movie. However, when the abuser faked an illness and then escaped from the hospital where he was being treated, the woman still made a crucial phone call to Sandretto that would ultimately save her life.
“She called me at work and left a message because she had been calling the police all night, saying, ‘He’s calling, he’s calling, he’s calling!’ And the treatment facility had not reacted to the escape the way a jail would have treated it. I understood how dangerous the situation was and because my detective also understood how dangerous it was, we got her immediately to a shelter. My detective, that morning, went to her house, and in the time span between when we got her to a shelter and when my detective finally got everybody in gear, reacting in the way that they needed to, her abuser had broken into her home.”
That woman, Sandretto said, “is alive today because I understood how big of a threat [her abuser] was, and the detective on the case, who was a special domestic violence detective, got the fugitive task force in gear to go after him. And he knew that we needed a unit to get to her house, put her in a car, and get her to a shelter, so that she wasn’t there when he went through the window to break into her home.”
It’s all in a day’s work for Sandretto. Growing up in Sylvania, Ohio, she initially dreamed of someday becoming a professional actor. She majored in theater as an undergraduate at Bradley University, in Peoria, Illinois, but after graduation, she had a change of heart.
“I decided I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life trying to pursue a career that I might not make it in, and have to be, essentially, a waitress for the rest of my life,” Sandretto, an assistant prosecutor in the Lucas County Prosecutor’s Office, said. “I thought that my public speaking skills would work well in litigation, and that has proven to be correct.”
Those public speaking skills have done more than help Sandretto succeed in litigation: They have helped save numerous lives in the Toledo, Ohio area over the last few years.
While in law school at Ohio State, Sandretto participated in the College’s Criminal Prosecution Clinic and Justice for Children Clinic and, through them, she nurtured a burgeoning passion for working with society’s most vulnerable members.
“Once I did the Criminal Prosecution Clinic, I knew for sure that I wanted to go into criminal law,” she said. “I would say the clinics are the best experience Ohio State has to offer. I absolutely loved them.”
Sandretto met her husband, Mark Sandretto ’05 on their first day of law school orientation, and, after graduation in 2005, they moved back to Toledo (where both grew up). He took a job as an associate at the firm Eastman & Smith Ltd., and she began her legal career as a municipal court prosecutor with the City of Toledo. There, for 18 months, she handled all levels of misdemeanors, including first offense domestic violence cases. In August of 2007, she was hired by Lucas County as an assistant prosecutor, handling juvenile misdemeanor and felony cases for a couple of years, and then moving from the juvenile division to the adult felony division of the department.
Then, on March 24, 2013, a 20-year-old South Toledo woman named Kaitlin Gerber was stalked and then murdered by her ex-boyfriend, Jashua Perz, on her way to work. Perz had previously been charged with domestic violence and violated a protective order. The murder-suicide (Prez was later found dead in a suspected suicide) generated national headlines and placed the Lucas County legal system under intense scrutiny.
In an editorial, the Youngstown Vindicator posed the question, “Are we doing enough to protect domestic violence victims, and if not, how can we do better?”
Sandretto thought much more could be done, and she proposed a novel idea to her supervisor, Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates – the creation of a new position within their department that handles only felony domestic violence cases.
“When the public is crying out for something to happen, that’s when you take your opportunity and you say, ‘Ok, this is my chance.’”
With the support of Bates, Sandretto was instrumental in establishing the Lucas County Prosecutor’s first-ever domestic crimes unit in August, 2013, and Sandretto was assigned to prosecute all felony domestic violence cases in common pleas court.
“[Bates] assigned a domestic violence advocate to work with me, specifically, and I handled all of the felony level domestic violence cases – and the related cases – that came through Lucas County,” Sandretto said. “These were cases in which the underlying threat of violence was based off of the intimacy of the relationship, such as menacing by stalking, some rape cases, felony domestic violence cases, burglaries in which the intimacy of the relationship (a home break-in after a relationship breaks up), and felonious assault cases.”
Felony domestic violence, she explained is when someone physically harms a family or household member. In contrast, felonious assault is when one person causes serious physical harm to another person. In Ohio, felonious assault is classified as F2, whereas domestic violence can never be classified higher than F3. Many domestic abuse cases are tried as felonious assault cases, given their severity.
Sandretto said that so far, her unit has about a 50 percent conviction rate; nationally, the felony domestic violence conviction rate is about 23 percent.
The job itself, Sandretto said, can be intense, but “the hardest aspect is constantly having people say to you, ‘Why don’t women show up [in court to prosecute their abusers]?’ And knowing there are a million reasons why women don’t show up.”
Because domestic violence is all about manipulation and control, the conversation has to stop being about, ‘Why does she return [to her abuser]? Why doesn’t she show up? Why doesn’t she do this?’ And it has to be about, ‘Why does he have this much control? Why do we allow abusers to have control? Why do we continue, as a society, to blame the victim for domestic violence?’”
This summer, after two years of “heart-wrenching, exhaustive work,” in Sandretto’s words, she decided to switch to a part-time position in the same department, which would allow her to spend more time with her two young children. Now, she works as a preliminary assistant prosecutor, deciding how to handle cases (including domestic violence cases) as they come into the system.
“There used to be a saying in the jail for domestic violence cases: ‘No face, no case.’ If you didn’t get the victim to show up, then your case would be dismissed, and the defendants all knew that,” Sandretto said.
“Over the last two years, the municipal court prosecutors and the felony court prosecutors have worked hard to do evidence-based prosecution, and have worked hard to ensure that victims feel safe, so that they can come into court and prosecute these cases. That message has changed within the jail, and the defendants are becoming more and more aware that we are going to do everything in our power to prosecute these cases to the best of our abilities.”