The man who killed two women before turning the gun on himself in Ames had assaulted and threatened to “murder” the mother of his young son five years earlier, according to court documents. She worried he would follow through with it because he had a gun, an eerily prescient warning about what was to come that went largely ignored.
Gun violence prevention advocates say so-called red flag laws, lethality assessment, and even prior Iowa law might have prevented what Johnathan Lee Whitlatch did next.
That woman later dropped her case against Whitlatch, but said in unsealed court documents he “grabbed my throat” in August 2017 and nearly hit her, she wrote in a petition for relief from domestic abuse that also asked the court to take away custody rights.
(Starting Line does not publish the names of victims of domestic violence unless they choose to tell their story.)
The day after Whitlatch choked her, the woman said Whitlatch threatened to “come to my home and murder me.” She begged a judge to approve a no-contact order “until (Whitlatch) gets help,” saying she feared he was “unstable” and claiming Whitlatch also tried to kill himself a day later.
“It also bothers me that he has a gun and military training,” the woman wrote.
Five-and-a-half years later, Whitlatch would go on to carry out such violence against a woman he had previously been accused of harassing: Eden Montang, 22, as well as a friend, Vivian Flores, 21, who was apparently trying to protect her. Whitlatch then shot and killed himself.
Between the incident with his son’s mother and the killings, Whitlatch had also been accused of sexually assaulting a woman at a Cedar Falls bar in 2021, a trial for which was slated to begin later this summer.
The Des Moines Register reported the Iowa National Guard investigated Whitlatch for these charges and relieved him from full-time duties late last year. The Guard had also separately investigated the relationship between him and Montang because of their difference in rank. Results are being withheld until law enforcement finishes investigating the shooting.
On the day he killed the two women, Whitlatch was charged with third-degree harassment and impersonating a public official after Ames Police say he called Montang’s work several times, just a few days before on May 31, asking for her manager and pretending to be a cop.
Whitlatch falsely said he was a police officer, gave fake names such as “Dominic” and “Nicholas Jefferson.” He said Montang was being investigated by police for an “inappropriate relationship” and being written up in the local newspaper.
Similar behavior, too, was reported by the mother of his son in 2017. She wrote Whitlatch “said he was coming to my work” but, ultimately, “he never did.”
Yet, nothing in Iowa or federal law precluded Whitlatch from owning or carrying the handgun he used to shoot and kill.
The Violence Against Women Act expired in 2018, and it wasn’t until March this year that it was reauthorized.
Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, was responsible for holding it up over Democratic efforts to close the so-called boyfriend loophole, where domestic partners convicted of domestic violence aren’t restricted from accessing firearms the way spouses are.
But this year, the reauthorization passed with that loophole still in place.
Chuck Grassley, Iowa’s other Republican senator, last week was non-committal on red flag laws, which would allow guns to temporarily be taken from people who petitioners say pose a risk to themselves or others.
“I would look at it from the standpoint: is there a due process in place to protect somebody if their gun’s going to be taken away from them?” Grassley said at a heated town hall.
Such laws would allow a small set of people–law enforcement, family, or household members–to petition a judge for an “extreme-risk protection order.” If granted, the person would temporarily have to surrender their guns and be barred from buying new ones. Usually, they last for two weeks or less. Experts say that’s enough to avoid crises.
In states where red flag laws exist, courts have not found they violate the Second Amendment or due process rights.
Petitioners must meet a burden of proof that varies depending on how the law is written. Longer-term extreme risk protection orders can be sought at a hearing, but there’s a higher burden of proof.
Senate Republicans have also held up HR 8, which would create new background check requirements for private gun sales and close a loophole. Before the sale, a licensed gun dealer or manufacturer would have to take possession of the weapon in order to do a background check.
The bill passed the House 227-203 with eight Republican supporters in 2021. Rep. Cindy Axne (D-3rd District) was the only member of Iowa’s Congressional delegation to vote for it.
No action has been taken in the Senate.
More support needed for victims
Tiffany Allison, founder and president of domestic violence victim advocacy group the Soaring Hearts Foundation, said there’s a lot of room for improvement when it comes to the protection of domestic violence victims in Iowa.
“Right now in Iowa, we don’t have any next steps other than smacking them [abusers] with a violation of the no-contact order. And, if I tell you the truth about that, it doesn’t really mean anything most of the time,” she said.
Allison has tried to get a law passed that would institute “lethality assessments” for first responders. This measure would assess whether the perpetrator is at high risk for attempting lethal assault and, if so, give law enforcement or judges the authority to place the perpetrator under GPS monitoring during the court process.
Histories of harassment and abuse charges such as Whitlatch’s would factor in.
“What we would want is for a judge to see that and say, ‘OK, this person is high risk and I want to put them on monitoring during this court process,’” Allison said. “And so that way, the victim would have known when he came into her physical proximity so that she could have sought safety hopefully sooner than he was able to act and do something.”
In 2018, a lethality assessment bill passed the Iowa House 98-0. A Senate subcommittee recommended passage, but it didn’t go to the floor.
Jessica Rohrs, director of victim services at Family Crisis Centers, said it’s important to remember domestic violence victims in discussing solutions.
“To me the process is supporting the victim, believing the victim, and talking through what their options are,” she said. “They say that the most dangerous time in a domestic violence relationship is when the victim leaves.”
With that in mind, she said each victim will have different priorities about what will make them safe. Especially if their abuser controls the finances and/or children are involved.
Rohrs said society needs to learn and understand how the dynamics of domestic abuse and violence work.
“The resounding message that the Family Crisis Centers usually sends to people is it’s not the victim’s fault,” she said. “Really making sure that we don’t shift the responsibility from the abuser, the harmer, shooter in this case, making sure we don’t shift the responsibility from him to the victim or anyone else.”
Family Crisis Centers is based in Sioux Center but covers the whole state and operates a 24/7 call line and a 24/7 text line.
Gun laws loosened in Iowa
Instead of passing laws to prevent violence, Iowa legislators have relaxed more laws for gun owners in the past dozen years.
Joe Gorton, a professor of criminology at the University of Northern Iowa and president of the Iowa chapter of Brady United Against Gun Violence, agrees that such orders would protect due process while potentially taking a gun away from someone likely to immediately harm themselves or someone else.
“Gun violence and intimate partner violence are very, very closely entwined,” he said.
But he said he wasn’t optimistic it would pass in Iowa right now.
“Politicians are primarily interested in taking the path of least resistance toward re-election, and supporting gun violence reduction laws is not the path of least resistance if you live in a rural state like Iowa,” he said. “A near majority, or a plurality in any event, of the Republican Party are people who are just militant about the Second Amendment.”
According to Everytown USA, 70 women per month are shot and killed by an intimate partner in America. Gorton speculated that number would increase due to what he called “the loosening of gun laws,” including in Iowa.
He pointed to Missouri, which passed permitless or “constitutional carry” in 2009, 12 years before Iowa did. A Johns Hopkins study says that one law contributed to a 14% increase in Missouri’s murder rate, or between an additional 49 to 68 murders per year, as well as a 25% increase in firearm homicides.
“When you make it easier for people to get guns, then you expand the population of people who shouldn’t have guns,” Gorton said.
Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson warned against “shall issue,” which was passed under Democratic control of the Legislature and enacted in 2011. That law took away sheriffs’ discretion to issue handgun permits—part of the rationale at the time was that some Iowa sheriffs allegedly abused that power.
And he especially worried when, in 2021, Iowa Republicans enacted “permitless carry,” meaning handgun buyers didn’t need a permit and background check from the county anymore.
Before 2011, Thompson remembers sitting down with would-be permit holders, asking them questions about why they wanted a gun and how they planned to be trained on it. Through those interviews, he said, he’d be able to spot something problematic.
“Shall issue,” however, meant the only thing sheriffs could look at was a specific set of criminal convictions. Whitlatch had no such convictions. And by 2021, Whitlatch didn’t even need a permit.
“We’re a little more Wild West than we used to be,” Thompson said.
As a former president of the Iowa State Sheriffs and Deputies Association, Thompson traveled to Des Moines to argue against both of those laws before passage.
“We fought so hard to keep discretion,” he said. “A lot of the ‘doomsday’ stuff never did happen … but, at the same time, could we have prevented [Whitlatch’s homicides] with anything other than discretionary issue?”
Thompson thought winning hearts and minds might eventually effect change, at both the state and federal levels.
“My prayer is that, with each gun-related incident, that Iowans continue to search their soul with regard to guns and gun safety,” he said. “Guns are not the solution to every problem that we have in our state.”
If you or someone you love is stuck in an abusive situation, the 24/7 Iowa victim service call center is at 1-800-770-1650 or you can text IOWAHELP to 20121.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-7233 or you can text START to 88788.
By Amie Rivers and Nikoel Hytrek
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