In the days after Rhonda Pattelena was killed on Short Sands Beach in York on Friday, people writing on her Facebook page asked why no one had stopped the attack.

Dozens of people commenting on news stories questioned why witnesses called 911 but did not physically intervene as her domestic partner, Jeffrey Buchannan, allegedly hit the 35-year-old mother on the head with a rock.

But police officers say it’s not fair to question the split-second decisions that witnesses have to make while also considering their own safety. And advocates who work with domestic abuse survivors say that instead of questioning the response of people who witness a shocking domestic violence homicide, as was the case in York, communities should focus on recognizing and preventing domestic abuse.

“The conversation we really need to be having is about prevention. How do we intervene before it gets to that point?” said Regina Rooney, education and communications director for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

York Police Chief Charlie Szeniawski has seen online comments and his department has even received phone calls questioning why bystanders didn’t intervene in some way to stop the attack on Pattelena, which was reported to police in 911 calls that began coming in just before 4 p.m. on Friday. Though he said he cannot provide specific details because of the ongoing investigation, Szeniawski said witnesses were not in the position to get to the victim in time to do anything.

“The people saying others should have intervened just don’t know. There was no opportunity for anyone to intervene,” he said. “The people who did see it did the right thing by calling.”

Szeniawski said the witnesses who called 911 “were great and gave us good information” that police were able to use to detain the suspect within minutes. An affidavit filed in court by a state police detective outlined some of the detailed information provided to police by witnesses, including descriptions of what they had witnessed, the suspect’s clothing and where he went after he left the beach.

Rhonda Pattelena Photo courtesy of Melissa Matranga

Those descriptions allowed a York police officer to spot Buchannan as he walked along Railroad Avenue minutes after the incident and take him into custody, according to court documents. Buchannan, 33, was charged with murder and is being held without bail at York County Jail.

The couple lived in Massachusetts, and the southern Maine the beach was a favorite spot for Pattelena, who had three children.

Jeffrey Buchannan York County Sheriff’s Office

Maine State Police Lt. Mark Holmquist, who is assigned to Troop A in York County and is not involved with the York murder investigation, said it is not fair to question how others react to witnessing a crime.

“No one ever really knows how someone is going to react until they’re placed in that situation,” Holmquist said. “It’s tough to criticize anyone for what actions they may or may not have taken because we weren’t there and weren’t privy to exactly what was happening. Individuals may feel compelled to assist in whatever manner they feel is necessary. They may want to just watch from afar and keep themselves safe. That’s an individual decision.”

Holmquist said anyone who witnesses a crime should first call 911 to notify police so they can begin to send resources to the incident. The information witnesses relay to police is important for investigations and prosecution, he said. Witnesses try to provide detailed descriptions of the suspect, any vehicles involved in the incident and where it it happening. Szeniawski suggests that when possible, witnesses take photos or video of the potential suspect.

“People need to make their own decision about what they can safely do,” Szeniawski said. “The best thing they can do is be the best witness they can be.”

Rooney, from the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, said she would like to see more people talking about how to intervene with domestic abuse before it gets to the point of violence. That requires talking openly about how to recognize abusive behavior, not making excuses for people’s behavior, and learning how to intervene when people suspect someone they know is either engaging in abusive behavior or is experiencing abuse, she said.

“One of the most important ideas that we can come to understand and deeply take in is the reality that people who abuse are not someone other than us,” Rooney said. “If we can’t even take in the reality that the people causing this harm are people that we know in our lives and often care a great deal about, and we can’t take in the fact that they are acting purposefully, then we’re not going to be able to intervene effectively.”

When someone suspects a person they know is engaging in abusive behavior or is the victim of abuse, Rooney suggests they call a domestic violence helpline for advice and resources from a skilled advocate. It’s important, she said, for people not to assume they know how to fix the domestic abuse, which is extremely complicated and could put a victim in further danger if they are in a volatile situation.

Patrisha McLean of Camden, a domestic violence survivor, founded Finding Our Voices, whose volunteers will spread out across York and other York County towns to hang large posters with photos of 35 abuse survivors. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Patrisha McLean, a photojournalist and advocate from Camden, said here is “so much shame and silence” around domestic abuse in Maine. Pattelena’s killing on a beach in broad daylight was shocking, she said, but horrific abuse is also happening behind closed doors and needs to be brought to light.

“When something like this happens and it becomes public, it’s too much,” McLean said. “But it’s going on everywhere.”

McLean founded Finding Our Voices, a survivor-led organization that uses the faces and stories of survivors to draw attention to and educate the community about the pervasiveness of domestic abuse in Maine. McLean, a survivor of domestic abuse, is the ex-wife of recording artist Don McLean, who was arrested in 2016 and later convicted of domestic violence criminal threatening, criminal restraint and criminal mischief against his former wife.

Over the past year, Finding Our Voices has tried to raise awareness about domestic abuse by hanging posters with photos of 35 abuse survivors in storefronts across the state. On Friday and Saturday, McLean and volunteers will spread out across York and other York County towns to hang the large posters, which include the number for the national domestic abuse prevention helpline.

“It’s time to wake up and see what’s happening all around us,” she said. “There’s a big problem in Maine with domestic abuse and people need to start waking up and doing something.”

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