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Partner violence raises many questions Kari Gorman's parents try to help others

The thoughts of Kari Gorman's parents are still filled with a lot of "what ifs."

What if Kari could have told them that she was having problems with her boyfriend?

What if the parents' divorce brought the young couple closer together?

What if they, and their daughter, had known more about how to reach out to domestic violence prevention experts?

Kari was shot to death by her boyfriend, Shawn Wolf, on July 26.

At age 18, the former Wilson High School student was the youngest homicide victim remembered last week in a "Silent Witness" vigil at Niagara University.

The Wednesday night vigil launched Domestic Violence Awareness Month in Niagara County, and Kari's likeness, in the form of a life-sized cutout, joined nine other likenesses as part of the "Silent Witness Project," a memorial honoring county women killed by their current or former spouses or partners.

Experts say those women suffered the most tragic consequences of domestic violence, but that thousands of other county residents endure other forms of abuse that make their daily lives hard to bear.

They do not need to suffer alone, the experts say, and can get help breaking out of the cycle of violence.

Kari's parents agreed to share their daughter's story with The Buffalo News as a way to warn other families and women about where such violence can lead -- and to encourage those people to reach out for help.

They are most interested in warning parents of other teen girls to be on the lookout for abusive behavior -- but experts also say domestic violence cases share many of the same warning signs, regardless of the ages of the abuser and the abused.

"Abuse crosses no boundaries," said Mary Brennan-Taylor, director of the YWCA of Niagara County. "The most common age range for abuse is 16 to 24, but there is no typical woman who is a victim. However, the one thing they all have in common is low self-esteem."

Here are some of the questions women in relationships should consider, according to Brennan-Taylor and others in the domestic violence prevention field:

*Does your partner tell you where to go and who you can and can't talk to?

*Is your partner extremely jealous?

*Are you afraid to break up?

*Does your partner call you names or make you feel stupid?

*Has your partner ever shoved, grabbed, hit, pinched, or kicked you, or held you down?

Brennan-Taylor said that abusers will use their jealousy to isolate women.

"It's not normal for someone to try and control you and treat you without respect," she said.

"We are always going to say, 'What if?' " said Kari's mother, Kim Davidson.

Davidson and Kari's father, James Gorman, said they both wished they had been aware months ago of hotline numbers that teens or concerned parents could call.

"A lot of parents don't know who to call and don't talk about this," Gorman said.

"Now," said Davidson, "if I can just make someone else aware . . ."

Kari had recently graduated from Wilson High School when she was killed by her boyfriend.

They had worked together at Johnston's Country Restaurant, where Wolf had recently quit as a cook.

She was shot on an early Saturday morning in Wolf's bedroom, following an argument. Wolf then went to the cemetery and took his own life near where his father was buried, Niagara County sheriff's deputies said. He was 19.

Davidson, who is divorced from Kari's father and was living in Florida at the time, said Kari was trying to break up with Wolf the night she was killed.

She said she later found out that Wolf came into the restaurant the night before the killing and told a co-worker he was looking for Kari, and that he wrote a note on a napkin saying that "they would be reading about it the next day."

"He was wandering around all night making plans," Davidson said sadly.

She said that she lived in Florida during Kari's senior year, but they would talk on the phone every day.

Looking back, Kari's mother said, there were some definite signs.

"I could see some changes in her, but some of that I associated with growing up," Davidson said.

Gorman agreed.

"It was really hard," he said. "They would argue one day and then be lovey dovey the next day."

>What can parents say?

Gorman said one thing was clear: Kari always tried to help people. "She'd be gone like a rocket to try and help. Shawn [who lost his father nine years prior] had other problems and I never heard about it. If I did, I could have done something."

"How much do say without pushing your child away? We were hoping it would burn itself out," Davidson said. "They only dated eight months. She didn't tell us things she told her friends. [Wolf] had threatened suicide. We never heard this. We think that teens don't have the same feelings that we have, but they do."

Davidson said it got to the point where Shawn controlled the hours Kari worked. If he didn't work, she didn't work. She said she felt that her daughter also changed her higher aspirations for going to a university with a pharmaceutical program so she could go to community college with her boyfriend.

Davidson said she became concerned when her daughter came to visit in February, and then after she met Wolf.

"I had a bad feeling, but I didn't know where to go with it," she said. "I had discussions with her and how [Wolf] had lost his father, but I told her that she may not be the person for him to go to."

She said Wolf also was very controlling while her daughter visited her in Florida.

"They managed to fight, even when he was 1,500 miles away," Davidson said. "He was always calling and texting, nonstop, all night long."

>Know where to turn

Teens need to know where they can get help when things are not right, Davidson said.

Brennan-Taylor said parents also need to play a role, and proceed with caution.

"You need to be aware of the changes in your children," she said, and call a domestic abuse hotline with concerns.

If something seems abnormal, Brennan-Taylor said, make the call.

Susan LaRose, Niagara County Domestic Violence coordinator, said that due to low self-esteem, teens who are in violent relationships are much more likely to engage in risky adult behaviors, including drug use. Some try suicide.

LaRose said the county's domestic violence program formed in 1994, after seven out of 12 homicides in the county that year were related to domestic violence. That was the year O.J. Simpson went on trial, accused of killing his ex-wife.

"Fortunately we had a very sensitive and proactive district attorney [Matthew J. Murphy III] and sheriff [Thomas Beilein] at the time," LaRose said.

She said there are an average of 3,200 reports of domestic violence in Niagara County every year -- and many more go unreported.

Like her parents, friends who spent time as cheerleaders with Kari said they have no answers for how this terrible tragedy could have happened.

"I don't think we could have ever expected this," Natalie Weidel said, "but I know we will never shut up about her. None of us will ever forget her."

e-mail: nfischer@buffnews.com

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