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A graduate of El Camino High School, Kass had bumped along from job to job, working as a receptionist in one office, doing odd jobs in another. What grounded her was her love for her 10-year-old son, a high-achieving boy who played clarinet and had an intuitive ear with almost any instrument.
By early 2006, Kass had found some measure of happiness. The 38-year-old divorcée had a boyfriend, Jonathon Arthur Hendler, an employee of a drug-rehab program she attended. She saw in Hendler a possible father figure for her son and was even planning an October wedding. “She was a proud, single mom raising a kid. She was very loving,” says her older brother Dennis Kass. “She was one of the nicest people you’d ever meet, and for her to meet a violent end is just so sad, so wrong.”
Things changed utterly the day Kass got into an ugly fight with her fiancé. She wanted to break up, according to one of Hendler’s longtime friends. Hendler, still using drugs, flew into a rage. By the time Kass’ body was found behind a desk in her home, he was a fugitive.
As he hid from police, Hendler tearfully called one person after another to explain what happened. He telephoned one friend over and over, bluntly stating that he had strangled his girlfriend and didn’t know what to do. Distraught, he called a rabbi at the rehabilitation center where he worked. He even wrote a text message to his fiancée’s mother. Not wearing her reading glasses, and not knowing what the message said, she handed the phone to her son.
“It was just basically an apology,” Dennis Kass recalls. “We were standing with the police, and I handed it to them.”
Only after police arrested Hendler did the grieving family learn the truth: Hendler’s journal spelled out a history of violence. He had been convicted of three robberies and one first-degree burglary.
Dennis Kass, who had eaten dinner with the couple a week earlier, had no idea. “You look back and you go, boy, do you screen your adult sister’s dates by running a criminal-index search?” he asks. “It’s not something you think of doing. My sister didn’t learn anything of this until the end. He’d hidden it from everyone.”
Kass’ case was not unique. In the Valley, one of every nine murders in 2006 involved domestic violence. Two months after Kass perished, police arrested a 32-year-old day laborer in Canoga Park for allegedly slashing the throat of his ex-girlfriend. Two months after that, police identified a Sherman Oaks man as the killer of his girlfriend.
Yet if Kass’ family couldn’t see warning signs, who could? The rehab center? Hendler’s friends? More than a few experts insist that counselors need to step in and address violent behavior long before adulthood. “A lot of the work is being done in high school, but that’s a bit too late,” says Billie Weiss, a communications director at the Southern California Injury Prevention Research Center at UCLA. “The attitudes have already been formed.”
Weiss praises the work of the Colorado-based Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, which studied 600 anti-violence programs and identified 11 that met a scientific standard for effectiveness. Some were comparatively new, such as Norway’s Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, which assigned counselors to work with child bullies. Others were more tried-and-true, such as the century-old Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, which recruits mentors for children from single-parent homes.
Weiss was one of the researchers who spent part of 2006 trying to determine why L.A.’s gang prevention programs, which are supposed to keep children from engaging in violent behavior, were having so little success. Within six months, the researchers concluded that few of the L.A. programs had a coherent way to measure success or a clear mission — whether that meant “having no youth enter a gang, reducing violent acts, having set reductions in gang participation or ending the gang altogether.”
With the $200 million needed to fulfill Bratton’s LAPD expansion, the Big Brothers program could reach 200,000 students per year — nearly a third of the children attending L.A. Unified. Whatever the solution, earlier is better: “Violence is a learned behavior,” Weiss says.
Kass, an attorney with a 15th-floor office downtown, doesn’t know what could have stopped Hendler. Perhaps, he says, a longer prison sentence or more watchful co-workers or friends. While some criminologists voice doubts that police can prevent domestic-violence killings, the man who reviews the data for the LAPD disagrees.
“People say it’s not repressible, that you can’t put a cop in every living room,” says Detective Jeff Godown. “But you can put out education. You can put out programs that would get a husband into counseling. If nothing is preventable, then why do we continue to do this?”