WOONSOCKET, R.I. (WPRI) – The autopsy report for Erika Belcourt is disturbing.
She suffered head trauma, along with massive cuts and broken bones throughout her body. And the car James Grilli used to drive over her in a Woonsocket apartment building parking lot in August 2020 left a “patterned tire tread” on the right side of her face, according to the report.
“Homicide,” Dr. Ariel Goldschmidt of the state’s Medical Examiners Office concluded as the manner death for Belcourt, a single mother of two boys.
Grilli, Belcourt’s ex-boyfriend, last month pleaded no contest to second-degree murder, joining the ranks of Rhode Island defendants found guilty of the state’s No. 1 felony in recent years: domestic violence.
“She was the glue to our family, and without her here, it has been a broken home ever since,” Belcourt’s niece, Amber Isabelle, said during Grilli’s sentencing, where the man received life in prison with the possibility of parole.
“I just almost wish that she wasn’t such a caring person who really wanted to help, because I feel she wouldn’t have been in that predicament,” Isabelle added.
A Target 12 analysis of more than three years of felony data from the R.I. Attorney General’s Office shows there were more than 12,700 domestic violence-related charges filed during that period, representing more than 20% of all felonies. (The data doesn’t include misdemeanors.)
The second largest category, drug-related charges, totalled 10,200 from January 2019 to September 2022, the time period examined by Target 12. And even then, R.I. Coalition Against Domestic Violence executive director Lucy Rios said the felony data fails to paint a complete picture.
“Unfortunately, domestic violence is underreported,” Rios told Target 12. “Those felonies are just when the police are called. Most often, incidents are occurring and no one knows about it except for the people that are experiencing the harm.”
Domestic violence is happening throughout the state, but Target 12’s analysis shows Woonsocket had the most felony cases per capita between 2016 and the second half of 2022, followed by Pawtucket, West Warwick, Central Falls and Providence.
In Woonsocket, Police Chief Thomas Oates said he wasn’t surprised to learn his city was leading the way, noting that it’s one of the department’s “top priority calls.”
Oates highlighted a number of issues he said are contributing factors, including drug and alcohol abuse, along with being a densely-populated community.
“A lot of it may be the actual socioeconomic situation that is here in Woonsocket,” Oates said.
What he sees on the ground in Woonsocket is reflected in academic studies examining the issue of domestic violence. A 2014 study published in the National Library of Medicine looked in part at the relationship between neighborhood-level income and domestic violence reports over a two-year period, concluding “intimate partner violence rates were highest in the poorest neighborhoods.”
Central Falls, Providence, Pawtucket, West Warwick and Woonsocket are the five communities in Rhode Island with both the lowest median household incomes and the highest rates of domestic abuse in the state, according to census data and Target 12’s analysis.
Regardless of income levels, however, domestic violence is happening all over the state, and economics alone cannot explain why families and intimate partners harm each other.
“When we look at risk factors for domestic violence, poverty is one,” Rios explained, while adding “there are lots of conditions that put the community at risk.”
“For me, that speaks to the need to make sure that all of our communities have the resources that we need so that the people who live there and reside there can be safe and thrive,” Rios said.
When Grilli killed Belcourt in 2020, it wasn’t his first brush with domestic violence.
In fact, he was considered a bail violator because of a prior case involving a different woman and child. And Rios said it’s common over time for abusers to escalate their behaviors, with risk factors including violating restraining orders, survivors trying to leave a relationship, stalking and strangulation.
“Those are all indicators that this person is in real danger and their life is at risk,” Rios explained.
In some instances, the warning signs lead to more violent crimes, including homicides. The coalition reports there were 26 domestic killings between 2016 and 2020, happening in 11 of the state’s 39 cities and towns. The attorney general’s office said there were two more in 2021 and four more in 2022.
“Domestic violence has always been a problem and it continues to be,” Attorney General Peter Neronha told Target 12.
The circumstances of Grilli’s murder case echoes other domestic homicides over the years, a trend that’s detailed in a homicide report put together by Rios’s coalition. For example, Berta Bogran’s estranged husband Oscar Hudson shot and killed her in Providence in 2019 before fleeing to a nearby apartment and killing himself.
“After Berta filed for divorce from Hudson in 2018, he installed a tracker on her car and moved only four houses away from her residence,” coalition officials reported. “Just two months later, Berta filed for a restraining order in R.I. Family Court, stating Hudson was stalking her and ‘is very manipulative and his anger is escalating.’”
A year later, police said 30-year-old Kristine Ohler was strangled to death in Pawtucket by Victor Colebut, the father of her child. Court records show Colebut was charged with first-degree murder, with the next hearing in his case scheduled for Wednesday. He’d already been arrested and charged multiple times for domestic violence before the murder charge, according to court documents.
“Colebut had a history of domestic violence and was out on bail for previous domestic violence charges at the time of the murder,” coalition officials wrote.
Last March, police arrested Nathan Cooper and charged him with first-degree murder. They allege he shot and killed his girlfriend, Sherbert “Strawberry” Maddox, in the shower before wrapping her body in plastic, blankets and towels and placing her inside a refrigerator in Providence.
“Our investigation shows he did have some violent tendencies toward her in the past,” Providence Police Maj. David Lapatin said at the time.
Last month, police arrested Jennifer Pamula and charged her with first-degree murder, alleging she killed 70-year-old father, Joseph Pamula, with a pair of garden shears to the neck. When Woonsocket officers responded and asked if she was OK, court documents show she said, “I had to do it.”
‘A plan for safety’
Policing domestic violence has changed over the past four decades that Oates has worked in law enforcement, the majority of which was in Providence before he became the chief in Woonsocket.
At the beginning of his career, he said if there was no serious injury at a call for a domestic dispute, the typical response from police would be to tell the aggressor to “go for a walk.”
“That doesn’t happen now,” he said. “If we go to a residence and even if it’s not an assault – it’s obvious that he’s broke up the apartment or thrown stuff around, even if our victim’s not injured – we are making a disorderly arrest under the domestic statute.”
The more aggressive enforcement tactic has come in part because awareness around domestic violence has improved in recent decades. Oates said he’s thankful there are more advocates within the judicial system who try and intervene before the violence escalates.
“Back then, there were no advocates, there was no communication between us and any entity that could actually get them help,” he explained.
At the R.I. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Rios echoed the importance of having advocates who understand the complicated nature of the judicial system, to ensure domestic violence is being addressed appropriately.
And her organization has been advocating for the creation of a court dedicated specifically to handle domestic violence cases, saying survivors could benefit from an arm of the judiciary trained to deal with such sensitive crimes.
For now, someone getting abused will often reach out to the coalition’s hotline to speak with an advocate rather than calling the police, especially if they fear law enforcement or are concerned that an arrest might break up their family.
“The helpline does not mean that you are going to be forced into the criminal justice system,” she said. “It’s really there to support people in the immediate crisis and to get information – to make a plan for safety.”
The value of the hotline became especially apparent during the pandemic, as many lost their jobs and families were forced to live together with limited exposure to friends, colleagues and the outside world. And while Target 12’s analysis shows overall felony charges fell during 2020, the coalition reported calls to its helpline soared from about 17,000 calls compared to the average 10,000 calls they see during a typical year.
“Everyone was just so isolated at the time that I think people were really looking out for a way to reach out for help,” Rios said.
Citing the elevated level of calls, the coalition successfully lobbied the state for more funding, garnering $10.5 million over three years to help address domestic abuse and support survivors — shared across multiple organizations. But Rios warned that money came out of the American Rescue Plan Act funds, meaning it’s not recurring.
“ARPA funds – it’s temporary,” she said. “The need isn’t going away so I am going to continue to do our advocacy to make sure the state adequately funds services for victims of abuse because it’s totally needed in our state.”
Eli Sherman (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.
Tim White (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Target 12 managing editor and chief investigative reporter at 12 News, and the host of Newsmakers. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.
Kim Kalunian contributed to this report.