She was crowned Miss Washington in 2007. A year later, the young woman from Wapato, Wash., placed third in the 2008 Miss America Pageant. Yet, Elyse Umemoto felt defeated.
That's because, like tens of thousands of Washington residents every year, Elyse's successes were marred by a recent episode of domestic violence.
Umemoto returned to her home state Tuesday to come to terms with what happened to her and to endorse Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna's proposal to ramp up penalties for the most dangerous, repeat domestic abusers.
"I'm hopeful that talking about my struggle will bring more attention to the issue of domestic violence and help other victims empower themselves," Umemoto said Tuesday at a news conference with legislators, government attorneys and law enforcement officers. "Sharing my story hasn't been easy. But it's given me a sense of empowerment and healing."
Umemoto's boyfriend ultimately pled guilty to two charges related to the incidents, and was sentenced to probation and community service.
"As awful as her situation was, she was one of the lucky ones," said Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Moran. "She wasn't the target of a serial abuser. But her experience gives her added compassion for those who are. Our bill shields those victims by treating repeat abusers seriously."
Earlier this year, legislators weren't able to finish work on the AG's domestic violence bill before a key cutoff date. This January, the bill is once again scheduled to be introduced by influential leaders from both parties.
"I'm eager to help usher this bill through the process, particularly because of the impact domestic violence has on children" said Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, chair of the powerful House Public Safety Committee. "Many people don't know that lots of kids are homeless because their parent is fleeing an abusive relationship, and that many children in our state have been killed by domestic abusers."
According to the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, between January 1997 and June 2006, abusers killed at least 32 children in Washington state, in the context of violence towards their intimate partner.
The AG's proposed law — the first major overhaul of Washington's domestic violence laws in nearly 30 years — requires lower-level domestic violence crimes to impact the sentences of attackers charged with abuse-related felonies. This adds up to more time behind bars for dangerous criminals whose assaults grow in severity over time.
"These are the offenders who do the most damage," said David Martin, senior deputy prosecutor at the King County Prosecutor's Office Domestic Violence Unit. "Felony domestic violence is the single greatest predictor of future violent felony behavior. We see this pattern every day, and it too often leads to hospitalizations and even murder."
The bill's prime sponsor in the state Senate agrees. "During my days in law enforcement, I saw the tragic results of domestic violence too often," Sen. Dale Brandland, R-Bellingham. "The violence escalates over time. Our laws need to recognize that."
The state Legislature opens for business on Jan. 11, 2010, and Elyse Umemoto plans to be there. She says she'll travel to Olympia to testify in favor of the legislation.
What people are saying about Attorney General Rob McKenna's domestic violence legislation:
"Being the victim of a crime is terrible, but when the crime is perpetrated by someone in a position of trust, like a spouse or partner, the victim can be even more devastated," said Rep. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, prime sponsor of the measure and lead Republican on public safety issues. "What makes those who commit domestic violence so dangerous is that often times they have keys to their victim's home and know family members and co-workers."
"With all police agencies, especially the Sheriff's Office, facing on-going budget difficulties, I am especially supportive of this bill," said King County Sheriff Sue Rahr. "It will get repeat DV offenders off the streets, which is a very worthy effort in itself. But it will also allow our scarce resources to be used to protect future victims."
"Domestic violence is so pervasive in our society. We need to do everything we can to alert abused spouses to their rights and do everything we can to stop it," said Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton.
"I commend victims of domestic abuse that tell their story to the community. Their courage helps advocate for stronger domestic abuse laws," said Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma.
"Since 1997, 430 women, men, and children have been killed by domestic abusers in our state. These murders tell us we are falling short," said Nan Stoops, executive director of the Washington Coalition Against Domestic Violence in a written statement. "We applaud Attorney General Rob McKenna for his leadership and commitment to ending domestic violence."