'The gun’s in his hand': Columbus police sued after homicide victim left alone with her abuser
Part I: The End
The call is not, at the outset, different from the many others that dispatchers across the United States receive every day. A woman picks up the phone and dials 911. “I need you to come get my husband,” Deborah Saenz says, “because he’s beating me.”
Deborah, 32, lives in the North Linden neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. First things first — the dispatcher, a woman, takes Deborah’s address. Then, she confirms the abuse. “He hit you today?”
“Yes, yes.” His name, Deborah says, is Marcos Solis. He’s just left the house. He’s walking away. Deborah’s voice is tight — she’s stressed, clearly, but not hysterical. Not yet. Not until —
“He just went back inside the house!”
The dispatcher remains calm. “He’s inside the house? And he wasn’t inside the house?”
“Yes,” Deborah says. Then — “There are two guns inside this house.” Her voice is rising now, she’s speaking faster. The dispatcher wants to know whether Solis has the guns in hand. “Yes, the gun’s in his hand!”
“The gun’s in his hand?” The dispatcher tries to keep Deborah on the line. But Deborah has stopped responding.
Deborah sobs, and then, the line goes dead.
Deborah Saenz called 911 on the afternoon of July 11, 2019. Five patrol officers responded to her call. But when they left her home 20 minutes later, they left alone, having taken no action. They made no arrests. They did not run background checks on the parties involved, nor did they locate the guns Deborah described in her 911 call. Deborah and Marcos Solis remained together, alone.
Less than 24 hours later, Deborah Saenz was dead.
Through a public records request, Eye on Ohio looked at all 32,305 “domestic violence” or “domestic dispute” calls for service to the Columbus Police department in 2019. (Though in some cases, a complaint of a domestic dispute could be, for example, just a loud TV. Other times, domestic violence comes in under another label, as in Saenz’s case, which was initially classified as an “illegal gun.”)
According to the records, officers posted a time of arrival on the scene in 72% of cases and stayed for a median of 31 minutes in domestic violence/domestic dispute cases. A spokesperson with the Columbus Division of Police suggested that the missing arrival times likely reflected a technical issue, such as the officers failing to press the arrival button in their squad car. He emphasized that Columbus police officers respond to every domestic violence call, even when the complainant calls back and tries to retract the allegations.
Police had calls from one address 30 times, and 55% of addresses had at least two calls. Calls for service came from 111 places at least 10 times in 2019.
Unfortunately, Ohio has no way of tracking how often cases like Deborah’s happen, though there is a dataset that should do the job. Since 2010, Ohio has mandated that every sheriff’s office and police department submit annual data on domestic violence to the state attorney general. The attorney general’s office then compiles and releases this data publicly as “Domestic Violence Reports.”
Among other things, departments must submit the number of domestic disputes and domestic violence incidents reported to their agency in a given year, and note the action taken by the law enforcement officers who handled the problems — whether domestic violence charges or protection orders were filed, whether other charges were filed, or whether no charges were filed at all.
In theory, then, this dataset should provide a comparative look at how often officers in a given jurisdiction respond to domestic violence and dispute cases without taking any action. However, interviews with domestic violence advocates and police officers in Cincinnati and Columbus indicated that the reporting standards for this data are not consistent across departments.
Some departments, such as Cleveland, haven’t reported at all for years.
“The fact that there’s underreporting or other inconsistencies like that doesn’t surprise me,” said Steven Irwin, press secretary for Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost. He was unaware that the Cleveland Police Department hadn’t submitted data since 2016, and said there might be a misunderstanding among police and sheriff’s departments about the reporting metrics. “It sounds like not everyone’s on the same page – that there’s an issue. We’re interested in the solution.”
A spokesperson for the Cleveland Division of Police said the department was “currently implementing a process” for reporting in the future, and “seeking guidance from the Attorney General’s Office as to submitting data for years past.”
In Columbus, Sergeant Rick Ketcham, who leads the department’s domestic violence unit, said that the Columbus Police Department receives approximately 30,000 domestic dispute and domestic violence calls annually, but the total incidents reported by the department in 2019 — the most recent year data is available — numbered less than 10,000. He didn’t know who compiles numbers within the department or how they define an “incident” for a report.
Anecdotal reports suggest such data would be revealing. Advocates who work with multiple jurisdictions statewide say the police response to domestic violence is inconsistent.
“We do see really disparate responses which dramatically impact our ability to safety-plan with clients,” said Micaela Deming, a policy director and staff attorney at the Ohio Domestic Violence Network. “The situation with law enforcement really varies by jurisdiction. I have worked with departments where they don’t even respond to DV calls in some areas.”
National data suggests such comparisons would illuminate more cases like Deborah’s. A nationwide study by the National Domestic Violence Hotline in 2015 found that nearly a quarter of women who used the organization’s chat services would not call police a second time based on their first interaction. Two in three women who contacted police reported being “somewhat or extremely afraid” to do so again in the future, citing fears that “police would not believe them” or would take no action.
What happens, then, when victims are left without resources to plan for their safety?
For Deborah Saenz, the consequences were deadly.
Part II: The Beginning
Deborah Saenz was born on the outskirts of Houston in June 1987. She grew up with one sister, Vanessa Santillan, and was close to her mother. Her parents had divorced when she was a toddler, and Luzy Saenz raised her daughters alone. As a child, Deborah clung to her mother, squirming past her sister to snuggle up to her in bed. Even as an adult, Luzy Saenz remembered, “she was always hugging me and kissing me.”
Deborah, known as Debbie to her friends and family, was an animal lover, and great with children. She worked with newborns in a hospital, though she wasn’t a medical professional; even in high school, she doted on the kids who were a little different from the rest. “She always liked to help special-ed kids,” Saenz said. “Kids were always waiting for her in front of the door when she arrived at school.” She would buy them breakfast, bring back treats from family trips to Mexico. And, when her nephew was born with cerebral palsy, she stepped up to help with his care.
“She made him dance like no other person can dance,” Santillan said. Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj — if it was a hit, she could get her nephew grooving. “My son loved her. He loved to give her kisses. He gave her kisses on the cheek.”
She was active, outdoorsy, a fan of sports and riding all-terrain vehicles in the mud. Her teams were the Houston Texans and the Houston Rockets. And, to her family remembers, she was an excellent cook. Spanish rice, fajitas, enchiladas. Shrimp, salsa, tacos. She made it all and relished cooking for her family.
* * *
Deborah’s relationship with Marcos Solis was long-distance at the beginning. Solis was in prison in Ohio, serving time for possession of drugs and having an illegal firearm, and his family – distant relatives of the Saenzes – had reached out, thinking he could use a pen pal. They found Deborah.
Even now, the Saenz family knows little about those early days. Deborah and Solis communicated by phone, they think, probably by letters, too. A divorcee when she first connected with Solis, Deborah was private about her relationships, and it wasn’t until she moved to Columbus in spring 2019 to be with him that her mother and sister even knew the two were dating.
The family was taken aback. Deborah’s sister, Vanessa Santillan, disapproved of the relationship because of the family connection, and the move alienated the sisters. Their mother, Luzy Saenz, was just as surprised. They knew nothing about abuse – not until the murder. Friends would later tell them that Solis was controlling, taking Deborah’s phone, her car keys. But her family was left in the dark.
“We didn’t know about the abuse, how he was treating her,” said Santillan, “It was a complete shock when she died.”
Part III: What Happened
At approximately 1:15 p.m., just minutes after Deborah made her 911 call, three Columbus police officers arrived at her home. It was a sunny summer day, but the officers were on high alert. At least one had his weapon drawn, a police chopper droned overhead. Dispatch reported the event as a “gun run,” weapons on the scene.
The apartment where Deborah and Solis lived was one-half of a single-story, yellow stucco house. There was a picnic table outside, and no signs of disturbance except for a broken window. There, officers found Deborah, inside the apartment, cleaning up broken glass.
She came to the door seconds later, wearing a gray T-shirt, blue sweatpants and white slippers. The officers asked if she called them.
“Yes,” Deborah said, “but I was contacting you guys about a trap house that’s over there.”
It was, in fact, the second time Deborah had called police that day. Her first call, earlier in the afternoon, was about a trap house — a house where drugs are sold. She was concerned and wanted something done about it. Officer Rodney Reed, not on the scene yet but on his way, responded to that earlier call. He left her, he said later, thinking that she was mentally ill.
The officers were confused by the statement about the trap house. She didn’t call about Marcos? She wasn’t hit by him or anything like that? Well, they still needed to speak with him. Solis, until now inside the apartment, came to the door. The officers sat him down at the picnic table on the patio, and led Deborah inside the house for questioning, the door shut behind her.
By now, Deborah was weeping. Officer Todd Eagon joined her, asking what’s wrong. No reply, just sobbing. Then, he asked if she’s afraid of Solis.
“Yes,” Deborah managed. He wouldn’t let her inside the house, she said, so she had to break the window — that was her, she did that. “I shouldn’t have broke it, but I wanted to get inside the house to protect the dogs.” From Marcos? “No,” Deborah said through tears. “Just to protect them.”
“So then, Marcos didn’t do anything?”
“No,” Deborah sniffled. She sounded bereft. “He didn’t.”
Another officer, Officer Caldwell, entered the residence to sweep for weapons. Eagon, meanwhile, was still trying to figure out the issue with the trap house. She was scared of it, Deborah said, because the people there were harassing her and Solis. Solis “just got out of prison like three months ago and I think they’re trying to get him.”
Caldwell, from another room, called out, “33 on the bed.” He’d found a gun case and ammunition. Seconds later, he emerged and told Eagon, “It’s just magazines.”
By now, two more officers had arrived on the scene. One entered the home. It was Officer Rodney Reed, his second time at the apartment that day. He was cheerful on entry.
“Hi,” he said. “Remember me?”
Deborah sniffled. “I don’t know, sir.”
Reed addressed Eagon. “So what’s going on, Todd?”
Eagon responded that Deborah had been talking about the trap house. Reed redirected to Deborah. Why did she and Solis fight over this place?
Because guys look at me, said Deborah. “Because he gets mad, and he’s jealous, and he’s this and he’s that.”
And now, a key moment. “B,” said Reed. He’s not talking to Deborah.
“Huh,” Eagon concurred.
“B” here was short for 10-16B — the official ten code for mental disturbance. Reed had concluded, for the second time in a day, that Deborah was mentally ill. Later, he would describe her as “hysterical,” “overdramatic,” “not like a normal, functioning person.”
He proposed a solution to Deborah. How about she and Solis just take an alternate route through the neighborhood, so they don’t pass the trap house? Would that solve the problem?
“Yes,” Deborah managed, but she was still weeping. Reed told her to calm down. Deborah continued weeping, crying harder, saying she was so far away from home. “I’ve been here for three months and I’ve left, and I’ve come back, and I’ve left, and I’ve come back…”
Reed told Deborah to calm down inside while he went outside to talk to Marcos. Deborah begged him not to take Marcos to jail. He tells her he won’t, but then again, an about-face. She said, “Take him to jail.”
“No, no, no,” Reed interjected. He needed her Social Security number. She gave it to him, and didn’t mention jail again.
Meanwhile, Eagon had exited the building. He told the officers interviewing Solis that there was no domestic violence — the situation is a “B, from what I’m gathering.” Solis had made a statement, too — they did fight, he said, but only because he was out all night.
Eagon asked whether Deborah took any medicine. Yes, Solis replied, she did — Xanax. Solis was not particularly tall, with short black hair and angular features. His demeanor was relaxed, unthreatening, and he spoke softly, rarely making eye contact with the cops. When asked about the broken window and protecting the dogs, he smiled, laughed, and looked up. “The dogs were chilling.”
Deborah and Reed’s voices were audible through the closed front door. Deborah’s distress conveyed itself even to those officers who hadn't entered the house. Why isn’t Deborah relaxed like Solis, one of them wondered.
“She’s tripping,” Solis said.
The officer appeared to take this at face value. “Must have been some bad cigarettes.”
What about the gang tattoos on Solis’ stomach? He was in jail, he said.
Reed and Deborah exited the residence then. They were standing on the patio outside the apartment, all five officers, plus Solis at the picnic table and Deborah, in tears, holding her dog’s leash. Reed walked Solis through the alternate route solution to the trap house problem. “So you guys are good, right?”
Solis nodded. He didn’t say anything. Neither did Deborah — she was still weeping as the officers filed out of the yard, one by one, passing her and leaving her and Solis alone together.
* * *
Less than 10 minutes later, 911 received another call from Deborah’s number. But the caller hung up immediately and didn’t answer when the dispatcher, Laura Thomas, tried to call back.
Thomas, whose break began just after the hang-up call, never sent the information about the second call to the officers.
Reed had already filed a police report. Deborah, he wrote, accused Solis of threatening her, but not of using force. This was a domestic dispute, he concluded — no weapon, no injury, and no violence.
Part IV: The Day After
The morning after police responded to Deborah Saenz’s 911 call and left her alone with Solis, after the emergency dispatcher Laura Thomas failed to alert police to a follow-up call, 911 received another call from the same address. This time, it wasn’t Deborah.
This time, it was Marcos Solis.
“911, where is your emergency?”
The first sounds from the other end of the line were muffled sobs. Solis was distraught, so overcome he couldn’t remember his own address. It took nearly two minutes until the dispatcher was satisfied with his answer and asked for him to describe his emergency. At first, Solis’ reply was unintelligible. Then —
“My girlfriend just got shot.”
Deborah, Solis said, was lying on the bed, still breathing. He sobbed, begging the police to hurry. But the dispatcher had more questions.
“Who shot her?”
“OK listen, I can ask you questions and send officers at the same time. Who shot her?”
A pause, some stammering, then finally — “Me.”
* * *
Deborah Saenz was pronounced dead at 10:58 on the morning of July 12, 2019. The coroner found gunshot wounds to her head, torso and arms, but it was the first two that killed her. The bullets penetrated her skull, her brain, her heart, her liver and her small intestine. The coroner also noted bruises on her left arm and her knees.
Solis’ relatives called Deborah’s mother, Luzy Saenz, about the death. They explained that Deborah had been shot – by Solis. Grieving, bewildered, Saenz flew to Columbus from Texas the same day. When she arrived, she went immediately to Deborah’s home, where she photographed the crime scene.
“I think I was in shock,” Saenz said. “If you asked me to do it now I wouldn’t. I wanted to know why he killed her.”
The pictures she took are graphic and hard to look at. Bullet holes in the drywall, drops of blood along the floor that turn into a thick red smear. Bloodstains on the mattress, and a giant crack in the bedroom door.
Meanwhile, word of Deborah’s death was spreading. At 3:50 p.m. on July 12, just hours after Solis shot Deborah Saenz multiple times in the head and torso, Investigative Subdivision Deputy Chief Timothy Becker emailed Commander Robert Sagle, who oversaw policing in the neighborhood where Deborah lived. He flagged a concern about the homicide. “Since Patrol was out there yesterday,” he wrote, “someone may want to take a look and make sure opportunities to intervene weren’t missed.” Sagle agreed, and Lieutenant LuEllen Kuykendoll was tasked with the administrative investigation.
The next day, after watching the responding officers’ body camera footage and reviewing the 911 data and Reed’s report, Kuykendoll submitted her findings to then-Chief of Police Thomas Quinlan. The issue, she found, was with the report, not the response itself. She instructed Reed to reclassify the incident from domestic dispute to “miscellaneous” and to revise the report’s narrative. The officers’ actions on the scene, Kuykendoll wrote, were otherwise appropriate. “It is extremely unfortunate what occurred the following day,” she conceded. “However, excluding the report classification and narrative, the officers followed Division policy and law during their response to the location the day before. I find no misconduct by the involved officers and recommend no further action.”
With that, the administrative investigation into the Saenz case was closed.
Part V: What Didn’t Happen
Columbus has a relatively robust infrastructure in place to support victims of domestic violence, and a reputation elsewhere in the state for a stern commitment to enforcing the law against abusers. The Columbus Police Department and prosecutor’s office both have units dedicated solely to domestic violence cases, and the directives for first responders — the patrol officers who are first on the scene of an assault — align with accepted best practices in the field. Officers separate the victim and the abuser for interviews; they secure weapons and run checks for outstanding warrants; they make arrests if they determine domestic violence has occurred.
And there are two other pieces to the puzzle. When they establish probable cause that domestic violence has occurred, officers conduct a lethality assessment with victims, a series of questions designed to determine the situation’s risk level. There are questions about weapons, drugs, strangulation – factors that research has shown to increase lethality in domestic violence situations. Then, if screening reveals the situation to be a moderate to high risk, the officers call into the CHOICES hotline — a local organization that provides advocacy and support services, including shelter, to victims. The CHOICES advocate will speak with the victim by phone if possible and offer services.
But this chain of support begins with those who respond to 911 calls, victim advocates said.
“You are nothing without your first responders,” said Danielle Firsich, who works with police as manager of non-residential domestic violence services at the YWCA of Greater Cincinnati.
In Cincinnati, where the local police department maintains a partnership similar to Columbus police’s relationship with CHOICES, a 2020 study found that over 70% of victims identified by police were new to the local advocacy organization. Moreover, research indicates that the lethality risk can increase when police respond to a domestic violence call and leave without making an arrest.
Much rides on a patrol officer’s judgment. In Deborah’s case, that judgment failed.
The first thing officers missed, said Firsich and other experts, was the gun. In her 911 call, Deborah stated that Marcos Solis had two guns and was threatening her with them. Police neither asked her about the weapon nor did they search for it after finding an open case and magazines, even though both Solis and Deborah told officers he had recently been released from prison, making his possession of a weapon illegal. The next day, Solis used his Glock to kill Deborah.
Easy access to weapons is a major red flag in domestic violence situations, and it wasn’t the only one in this case. Deborah communicated, to 911 and to responding officers, that she was afraid of Solis; she also implied that Solis had threatened her pets, and said that Solis had just been released from prison, making it possible, even likely, that he was unemployed. Research shows that all of these factors increase the likelihood of homicide in domestic violence cases.
However, the officers failed to recognize that violence had occurred, even though Deborah had reported it in her 911 call. For this reason, they did not administer a lethality assessment or connect Deborah to local resources, even though the policy of the Columbus Police Department is to “complete the Domestic Violence Lethality Screen when responding to an incident involving intimate partners” and when certain other conditions apply. These include establishing probable cause that violence has occurred, but also situations where “the responding officer believes [a lethality assessment] should be administered based on his/her experience, training, and instinct.”
In Deborah’s case, the signs were there, even though she changed her story when officers arrived at the scene. Had they administered a lethality assessment anyway, they “would have immediately flagged this as high risk,” said Firsich. But the officers took Deborah at her word when she said nothing had happened. “We trust the officer’s training and experience and instinct to say, 'Hey, you know what, this [lethality screen] might be appropriate in this scenario,' ” said Sergeant Rick Ketcham, who leads the Columbus Police Department’s domestic violence unit.
In fact, far from being a deterrent, experts said that Deborah’s insistence on the story about the trap house is actually unsurprising. She likely fell back on it because feared Solis could hear her, and not without justification — her voice is audible even over the body camera footage of the police officers outside the house. “She’s fearing retaliation in that moment,” Firsich said. “Victims do this all the time. You disclose when you feel safe to do so.” Deborah likely didn’t feel safe because she and Solis were not adequately separated. Officers could have brought Deborah to a police cruiser, for example, where she may have felt safer to talk.
Moreover, the fact that Deborah seemed scattered, hysterical — the qualities that led Reed to determine that she was mentally disturbed — are not unusual in domestic violence cases. “Trauma brain is not linear,” Firsich said. “We know that during intense trauma and stress, somebody has immense difficulty explaining what just happened to them.”
For these reasons, experts said, it is deeply disappointing that Deborah, not Solis, was the one police immediately disbelieved. “That’s one of the major problems,” said David Hirschel, a professor emeritus of criminology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The officer has “made a judgment and then proceeds.”
Hirschel said that simply asking “what happened?” was inadequate. “They spent less than four minutes with Deborah getting the information from her. There are allegations that there are guns in the house, she’s said that he’s assaulted her, and they spend less than four minutes” discussing this with her, Hirschel pointed out after reviewing the recordings. “They should know that there are guns. They know or should know that he’s allegedly assaulted her. They do not follow up on any of that.”
Overall, experts who reviewed the case found the police response in Deborah’s case shocking. “The whole thing is unbelievable,” said Hirschel. “If you were writing this as a novel, and asking my advice, I’d tell you this is a little unrealistic.”
The opportunities to intervene were there, they concluded. “This is why we focus so strongly on the proper training of law enforcement or medical personnel,” said Firsich. “If all of these structures don’t operate in tandem and they don’t all understand the same factors that lead to violence, then what are we doing for survivors?”
Part VI: The Aftermath
On July 7, 2021, nearly two years after the murder, Deborah’s mother Luzy Saenz sued the city of Columbus. She named the five officers who responded to Deborah’s 911 call and the 911 emergency dispatcher who failed to relay Deborah’s second “hang up” call. Through her attorneys, Saenz accused the defendants of failing to do their due diligence in the case, for example by securing a weapon, conducting background checks on the parties, and taking action to protect Deborah from Solis. Their response, the lawsuit said, was “willful, wanton and/or reckless under Ohio law.” On August 4, 2021, the city and responding officers submitted a reply, denying Saenz’s allegations. In response to the allegation of failing to secure a weapon, they argued that they did not conduct a search of the apartment for a gun because they did not have a search warrant. The case is tentatively set for trial on Dec. 12, 2022.
Deborah’s boyfriend, Marcos Solis, is also awaiting trial in December. Mark Collins, Solis’ attorney, declined to comment on the case, other than to say he did not believe the shooting was an act of domestic violence.
An Internal Affairs Bureau investigation into the police response, conducted after police received notice that Luzy Saenz intended to sue, identified problems in the actions taken by Officers Todd Eagon and Rodney Reed. Eagon, the investigator found, failed to share important information with his fellow officers, including the discovery of the gun case and Deborah’s statement that she was frightened of Solis. Reed, the informal leader of the investigation, failed to ask Deborah important questions about Solis’ alleged abuse, nor did he “conference” with the other officers to ensure they had asked these questions.
The investigator also found that Reed had added inaccurate information to his revised police report after Deborah died. He had, for example, written that Deborah and Solis had been asked multiple times about threats and violence. Under questioning by the Internal Affairs Bureau, Reed admitted that they hadn’t. “The inaccurate information Officer Reed placed in the report narrative helped to establish that the alleged incident was thoroughly investigated,” the investigator concluded, and that “no probable cause existed to arrest Mr. Solis.”
Then-Chief of Police Thomas Quinlan concluded that Reed and at least three of the other officers who responded to Deborah’s 911 call be disciplined. He recommended an eight-hour suspension for all with the option of forfeiting eight hours of accrued leave instead. He also recommended that Reed receive a written reprimand.
However, in Columbus and Ohio more broadly, there are hopeful signs for victims of domestic violence. Ohio included general funding for domestic violence programs in its state budget in 2021 for only the second time, allocating $7.5 million across the two-year 2022-2023 fiscal cycle; and in late 2020, a coalition of Franklin County agencies received a $900,000 grant to enhance collaboration among domestic violence service providers. The coalition is now reviewing current practices, said Bridget DeCrane, the grant’s project director in the Franklin County Office of Justice Policy and Programs. The review will assess whether domestic violence protocols for first responders “translate to proper action and response in the field.”
Other than the grant, the Columbus Police Department has “no significant changes to any part of the domestic violence policy” in the works, according to police spokesperson Sergeant James Fuqua. However, Fuqua emphasized that Columbus’ new Chief of Police, Elaine Bryant, is “still in the review process of all current policies within the Columbus Division of Police.”
In Texas, meanwhile, Deborah’s family continues to come to terms with her death. It hasn’t been easy. “I’m not the same,” said Luzy Saenz. “If it wasn’t for work, for Jesus, my grandson, my daughter, I would not like to be here.”
“I’m just angry,” said Vanessa Santillan, Deborah’s sister. “I’m angry because if the police would have done their job, my sister would have still been here.”
Saenz recalled the last time she saw her daughter in person, in June of 2019. “I just remember what she told me,” she said. “ ‘I love you, Mom and Vanessa, and I would give my life for you.’ ”