Alice Snodgrass was worried about her friend Nicki Alexopoulos. Worried about a threat from within her family.
“When she went silent, when she wasn't on Facebook, that was an indication that something was wrong,” Snodgrass says.
So, she drove 200 miles to check on Nicki. But as the two of them were catching up in the living room of Nicki’s home in Kansas City’s Brookside neighborhood, the “threat” showed up at the door. Nicki’s 38-year-old son, Patrick Alexopoulos, barged in with a 9 mm gun and a demand.
“Give me $25,000 or I’ll kill you and I’ll kill myself” he said.
Snodgrass says Nicki didn’t budge. She sat, eyes downcast, with her back to the door where he stood.
“No,” Nicki said.
True to his word, Patrick shot and killed his mother that evening last October, and then he killed himself.
Their argument was over money. Patrick had been stealing — upward of $40,000 — from Nicki; Snodgrass says Nicki had had enough. But Nicki's murder had a much longer back story. It was the culmination of years of domestic abuse.
“Violence is a lot more contagious when it happens under a roof,” says Damon Daniel, from Kansas City’s Ad Hoc Group Against Crime. “It can become generational.”
Behind closed doors, abuse runs the risk of becoming “normal” behavior for those involved. The typical culture of silence and, sometimes shame, of domestic violence makes it one of the most difficult crimes to track and combat from a law enforcement standpoint.
A history of abuse
The violence in the lives of Nicki and Patrick Alexopoulos went back decades, according to Kristen Oehlert, who as Nicki’s daughter and Patrick’s sister, saw it firsthand.
Nicki was abused by her first husband, the father of her two children, back in the 1980s when they lived in Boonville, Missouri, a small town in central Missouri.
“I was five when it started, my brother was nine,” Oehlert says.
Once, she saw her dad smash her mom’s hand into a wall, breaking her fingers. But, Oehlert didn’t know the full extent of the abuse until she sifted through Nicki's journals after her death.
“Hiding the keys to my car, taking the starter off my car, accusing me of affairs, calling my mother and father vile names, ripping jewelry off my neck, smashing food I would buy, ripping up family photos, spitting on me,” Nicki wrote.
But Nicki wasn’t the only victim. Patrick was abused, too.
“Mom was a teacher, and she would go into town to grade papers,” Oehlert says. “Patrick would do something, cause my father to get angry and hit him. Then he told Patrick that if he told my mom, he’d kill him.”
It took them two years to escape — the three of them got away 1989, and Nicki filed for divorce.
Oehlert remembers getting through the emotional pain with the help of her friends. But for her brother, it wasn’t so easy.
“He never fully healed,” Oehlert says.
Domestic violence in Kansas City
Sergeant Kari Thompson, formerly head of the Kansas City Police Department’s domestic violence unit, says she is well aware of the dangers of the generational curse of domestic violence.
“A high percentage of young boys that see their mother involved in a domestic violence relationship grow up to be offenders,” Thompson says.
That it’s hard to shed makes it hard to track and therefore prevent from escalating into homicide.
Though the KCPD reported domestic violence as the third most common motive for homicides in Kansas City in 2016, those numbers don’t necessarily reflect cases where perpetrators have a history of abuse, whether as the abuser or victim.
Annie Struby, who works at Rose Brooks, a local shelter, says domestic violence probably accounts for more homicides than officially recognized, and even more, it looms as a threat beyond individual homes.
“It's starting to become more common knowledge that domestic violence can be a definite indicator of future community violence,” Struby says.
In an effort to curb this threat, last October, the KCPD started deploying two-person domestic violence arrest teams to help bring abusers with outstanding warrants into custody. But bond is often set at $200, making it easy to get out fast.
In April, Kansas City Councilwoman Jolie Justus, chair of the Citizens Task Force on Violence, recommended that the city pursue legislation to create an intra-agency team dedicated to investigating domestic violence.
“Right now, every time there is a child homicide, a fatality review team comes together to look at all of the issues, to figure out how we can prevent the next child homicide,” Justus said in April. “We need to do that for domestic violence cases as well.”
Struby, at Rose Brooks, point to another concern — easy access to guns.
Thousands of domestic violence reports are made to police each year, but it’s unclear how many of those complaints involve guns. Police departments in Kansas City, Kansas City, Kansas, and Overland Park said they don’t track if domestic violence calls involve armed disturbances.
But Struby thinks it’s an important connection to make.
“At Rose Brooks, we are keeping track now and we know that over half of the abusive partners have access to weapons and about 40 percent of victims have been threatened with that weapon,” Struby says.
It’s a powerful tool of intimidation that becomes especially dangerous when placed in the hands of an abuser, she says.
Patrick Alexopoulos had never owned a gun before, or even expressed interest, according to Oehlert. But, he had been physically abusive with their mother.
Oehlert noticed a bruise on Nicki’s arm last September. When she asked her mom if Patrick hit her, Nicki said no. But Oehlert knew better.
“She was falling back into those old tendencies of domestic violence — hiding and denial,” Oehlert says.
For most of 2016, Oehlert says her brother was in a very “dark place.”
He had long suffered with mental health issues, including addiction. When he was in his mid-20s, he spent some time in rehab after attempting suicide. He often changed jobs and locations — California, Nevada, Texas — always seeking a fresh start.
“Patrick was a little boy who grew up in a really unfortunate situation who just couldn't figure out how to find the balance in his brain, to find what would make him happy,” Oehlert says.
She wishes he could have gotten the help he needed when he was a child, to understand that their father’s behavior was not “normal.” But, there wasn’t a lot of help available. And, after they escaped, Nicki was a single working mom focused on survival.
Patrick always relied on his mom. She bought him apartments, and lent him money, and made excuses for his erratic behavior.
But, when he started stealing from her, it was the last straw. And, when Nicki finally started to push back, Oehlert thinks her brother just snapped.
On the morning of Oct. 25, 2016, he bought a 9mm handgun from a Bass Pro shop.
The only survivor
Alice Snodgrass was standing in the kitchen when Patrick shot Nicki. Snodgrass says she went into autopilot and bolted through the door.
When she made it to the yard, she tried to yell but nothing came out. That’s when she felt a deep shove — five bullets, hitting her from behind.
“I assumed I was going to die,” Snodgrass says.
Face down in the grass, she heard Patrick go back inside — more gunshots. Then the paramedics arrived.
“I heard the EMT say, ‘There's two more in the house but there's no rush.’ And I knew then that I was the only survivor,” Snodgrass says.
One bullet went through her arm, and three through her back. She has lasting damage in her abdomen, and numbness in her knee. One bullet was lodged in her chest until it was finally removed in the spring.
It didn’t really hit her that she lost her best friend until a few days after the ordeal, when she got out of the intensive care unit at St. Luke’s Hospital.
“The only thing I could have done differently was not be there,” she says. “And I think it would have ended the same way for Nicki.”