ST. PAUL — A procession of vehicles adorned with purple ribbons bearing the names of 28 people killed last year in domestic violence situations in Minnesota traveled through downtown St. Paul to the state Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 26.

Along the way, they rolled down their windows to listen to each of the names read on Frogtown Community Radio.

In the time of the coronavirus pandemic, the shape of the 10th annual remembrance for domestic violence victims in Minnesota took a different form. And the challenges of the pandemic were also top of mind as people talked about those who were killed and the support systems needed going forward.

“We know that victim survivors of relationship violence are exceptionally isolated during the pandemic, have often been living in close quarters with abusive partners and have been forced to navigate the complexities of parenting, job loss, economic fallout and traumatic stress during a time of crisis and uncertainty,” Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said during an online memorial. “Over the past year, we’ve seen the devastating intersections between health and safety play out in numerous ways in Minnesota’s intimate partner homicides.”

The 28 people who were remembered on Tuesday included 19 alleged to have been killed by a former or current intimate partner, three children who were mortally wounded alongside their mothers, and six people who were bystanders or intervening in domestic assault, according to Violence Free Minnesota.

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Photographs compiled by Violence Free Minnesota of people who died in 2020 in domestic violence situations. (Courtesy of Violence Free Minnesota)
Photographs compiled by Violence Free Minnesota of people who died in 2020 in domestic violence situations. (Courtesy of Violence Free Minnesota)

There were an average of 23 domestic violence-related homicides a year in Minnesota in the preceding five years, based on Violence Free Minnesota statistics.

Violence Free Minnesota focuses on the details of the homicides “to raise questions and work toward systemic change,” said Becky Smith, the organization’s communications director. Of the 28 people killed last year:

  • Four of the women were pregnant.
  • Three were children who were 2 or under.
  • At least 31 children were left without a parent, of which 16 were minors.
  • Several of the people had ended their relationship or were in the process of leaving.
  • Half were shot.

Each had a story beyond their homicide: Loretta Billman, 62, of Grand Lake Township, was an avid boater. Julio Cesar Guadalupe Rodriguez, 15, of Austin, would offer jokes with a mischievous grin. Ashli Johnson, 29, of St. Paul, worked hard to keep the people in her life connected.

Although a public health crisis like COVID-19 doesn’t cause relationship violence, the effects of the pandemic can’t be ignored, Malcolm said.

The husband of Maria Fernanda Bliss Pew, 28, pleaded guilty to strangling her in their Maple Grove home in May.

“After escalating, controlling and possessive behavior and after several arguments about the pandemic, her family has stated that the increasing isolation caused by the COVID pandemic placed her at greater risk,” Malcolm said.

In the 2021 budget that Gov. Tim Walz announced Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said they included $10 million in additional grant funding for victim and survivor support programs, along with funding to establish a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Office at the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

“While we can’t take away the painful loss (of those killed in 2020), we can work together in their memory toward a safer Minnesota,” Flanagan said.

For help

People experiencing abuse in Minnesota can call the Day One Crisis Hotline 24 hours a day at 866-223-1111 or by texting the hotline at 612-399-9995.