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Tragic tales of domestic violence: Mother grieves twin daughters; abuser breaks the cycle

Priscilla Warmbo holds a photo of her daughters, Sarah and Charity Warmbo, who were both murdered as victims of domestic violence 13 years ago. - Jacinda Howard, The Mirror
Priscilla Warmbo holds a photo of her daughters, Sarah and Charity Warmbo, who were both murdered as victims of domestic violence 13 years ago.
— image credit: Jacinda Howard, The Mirror

Sarah Warmbo grew up in a loving atmosphere free of violence.

She was close to her family, especially her twin sister, Charity. Shortly before high school graduation, she began dating a man. Not long after, she gave birth to a baby boy. Like most people, Sarah experienced both wonderful and awful times in life.

Her story is one that reaches deep and touches each person who hears it. For this reason, Sarah's mom, Priscilla Warmbo, tells it frequently. She tells it because Sarah is unable to.

Sarah and Charity Warmbo were both murdered, victims of domestic violence, 13 years ago.

Warmbo and Phil White, a domestic violence victim and perpetrator, shared their stories Tuesday at Todd Beamer High School in Federal Way to increase awareness of domestic violence. The first half of the presentation mirrored a domestic violence victims panel. Abusers often attend a panel as part of sentencing. The second half of the event was a question and answer session with court, law and research professionals in the domestic violence field.

‘Daddy pow-powed mommy’

With a steady voice and photos in hand, Warmbo told her story. On June 13, 1997, Sarah and Charity Warmbo, ages 22, were found slain in their home. Sarah was desperately trying to escape an abusive relationship with her ex-boyfriend and son's father at the time. She was in a custody dispute regarding their 2-year-old son. She had filed multiple protection orders against the man and moved six times in a single month. Each time, Sarah's ex-boyfriend found her.

That day he broke into the twins' home through his son's window. He scooped up his toddler, placed the boy's hands on the cold metal of a gun, and went to find Sarah. He shot her in the head. He then shot her twin sister. When his child tried to flee the scene, he shot at him too, Priscilla Warmbo said.

Warmbo arrived at her daughters' home that morning not knowing they had been killed. Ambulances and police greeted her. So did her grandson.

"Daddy pow-powed mommy. Daddy pow-powed Charity. Daddy pow-powed me," the youngster kept repeating.

Despite counseling, neither Warmbo nor her grandson has fully recovered from the horrific event.

"It's been a real journey, not an easy one," said Warmbo, who lives on the Key Peninsula.

Learned behavior

White shed light on the roots of a domestic violence problem that started at an early age and progressed into adulthood. Domestic violence is a crime of power and control, he said. It is not rare for a victim to become a perpetrator.

White grew up in a Montana home bubbling over with abuse. His father abandoned the family when White was months old, causing the lot to move in with grandma. There, White was subjected to abuse from nearly every adult member of his family. His mother yelled, screamed and hit the children as well as her new husband. White's stepfather did the same. Shoes, broom handles, fists and harsh words were used to inflict pain. Even grandma took part. She was particularly fond of her crocheting needle.

"When it goes into your body, it hurts," said White, a Tacoma resident. "When it comes out, it hurts even worse because it takes a chunk of meat with it."

Growing up in an atmosphere of violence, White thought it was normal behavior. As an adult, he married, had two children and became an abuser. He yelled and screamed at his family. He repeated some of the same behaviors he witnessed as a child.

"We don't learn on our own; we learn from someone else," White said. "We are taught domestic violence."

White is a different man now. He chooses love, patience and understanding over control and violence.

Widespread problem

Domestic violence appears in all communities. Its impacts are far-reaching. In 2008, 30 percent of Federal Way's non-traffic criminal filings were domestic violence related, Judge David Larson said. In King County, one in three homicides are linked to domestic violence, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said. In Washington state, more than 7,000 cases per year involve a child who is being abused or who is exposed to domestic violence, Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna said.

The matter is difficult to understand and put an end to. Victims, out of fear, often return to their abusers. Many refuse to testify against their abuser in court. Judges, police and others struggle to understand the cycle of abuse and how it can be stopped, said Barbara Madsen, Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice.

At the state level, resources must be dedicated. The criminal justice system must be strengthened. Awareness must be increased, McKenna said. Education and prevention are essential, the experts said. But it will take more than just the work of state players.

"You have to have a coordinated community response," Madsen said.

Domestic violence resources

• Valley Cities Counseling and Consultation: (253) 939-4055; www.valleycities.org.

• Domestic Abuse Women's Network: (425) 656-4305; 24-hour crisis line, (425) 656-7867; 33525 Pacific Highway South, Suite A in Federal Way; www.dawnonline.org.

• Korean Women's Association: (253) 946-1995; www.kwaoutreach.org; 31218 Pacific Highway S., Suite A, Federal Way.

• YWCA of Seattle King County: (425) 226-1266; www.ywcaworks.org; 1010 S. 2nd St., Renton.

• City of Federal Way: domestic violence victim's court liaison: (253) 835-2563; www.cityoffederalway.com/Page.aspx?page=391.

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