On Valentine’s Day, Baltimore resident Lakisha Wheeler took out a protective order against the father of her youngest child. That man, Levi Feldman Sr., was charged with violating the order in late June after trying to force his way into Wheeler’s home and threatening her.
A judge issued a warrant for the arrest of Feldman, 53, a Baltimore man who lived on the city’s east side, but it wasn’t served for 18 days. The unthinkable had already happened: Baltimore County Police say Feldman shot and killed her in her car, just across the city border, and left Wheeler’s body for others to find at Pikesville High School a week earlier.
The case has sounded alarms among those with experience reviewing and litigating domestic violence cases. What happened during that nearly three-week gap?
Some say Wheeler’s fate could have been avoided if police had made contact sooner with the accused, who is currently being held without bail in the Baltimore County Detention Center, court records show. This case, experts say, exposes deep flaws in a system that places undue burden on those subjected to abuse to stay safe. Others say while Wheeler may have done all she could to protect herself, the justice system doesn’t always have the capability to deter people who disregard the law from violence.
“It’s concerning that the violation of the protective order wasn’t served and the victim ended up being killed,” said Baltimore City Sheriff Sam Cogen, whose department served the initial protective order to Feldman in February. Representatives from the Baltimore Police Department, tasked with serving the arrest warrant, said after the story published that they attempted to serve the warrant twice on two separate days before Wheeler’s death but did not elaborate on why those efforts were unsuccessful.
Cogen said he did not know why city police failed to issue the warrant sooner, or what steps they took to deliver it. He said when his department served the protective order, they did not find any guns registered to Feldman. He said it’s possible Feldman obtained the gun illegally.
Feldman, who does not have an attorney listed to represent him in online court records, has not returned a request for comment from The Banner. One phone number listed for him was disconnected, and another wouldn’t accept voicemail. A previous voice message left for Feldman earlier this month was not returned.
James Dills, District Public Defender for Baltimore County at the Office of the Public Defender Maryland, said Feldman has not been deemed eligible for public defense at this time. He previously has declined representation from the office, Dills noted. And Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, whose office is prosecuting the case, referred a reporter to city police.
In charging documents, Baltimore County police paint a grim picture of Feldman’s actions in the lead-up and aftermath of Wheeler’s death. They say Feldman, fueled by vengeful rage over his child’s mother finding love with someone new, asked her to meet him on her way to work. He told her he was having car troubles on Interstate 83, and the tools he needed were in her trunk.
They wrote that Wheeler agreed to meet him and, shortly after 7 a.m., she called the young child she shared with Feldman to check on him and let him know she was going to work. But she never showed. She was reported missing to city police later that day.
Police said security cameras at the high school captured her parking a silver Honda Accord near Pikesville High School just before 8 a.m. on Thursday, July 6. Less than half an hour later, they said Feldman exited the front-passenger seat, started walking east on Smith Avenue then south on Greenspring Avenue, and either turned off or discarded her cellphone. The Office of the Medical Examiner declared her death a homicide, telling police Wheeler had been shot multiple times.
Feldman violated the protective order on June 24, police said, after learning that Wheeler was in a new relationship. He “became jealous” and “tried to gain entry into her residence,” according to charging documents. Wheeler’s friend stopped him and later told investigators that Feldman made threats of violence against Wheeler and her new partner, saying he would kill them if he saw them again near his home.
That day, an officer conducted an “area canvass” search for Feldman, “which resulted in a negative,” the officer wrote in an application for statement of charges. Police didn’t serve the warrant until July 12, announcing Feldman’s arrest a day later.
The “separation” period, during which people try to extricate themselves from their abusers, are “incredibly dangerous” periods, said Lisa Fischel-Wolovick, adjunct professor in forensic psychology and forensic mental health at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. She said courts and law enforcement can vary in how seriously they take violations, and racial and class biases can play into those decisions.
“It sounds like it fell through the cracks,” she said of Wheeler’s case. “Are we doing a good job of preventing it [violence] in all cultures and socioeconomic groups?”
She added that county police may have revealed a potential bias by including in the statement of charges that Wheeler maintained a “tumultuous” relationship with Feldman in addition to a romantic relationship with a new partner. “They should not be concerned about his motivation,” she said.
Deena Hausner, an attorney and interim director of the legal clinic at House of Ruth Maryland, added that people questioning Wheeler’s decision to maintain contact with Feldman may be failing to consider how people subjected to abuse might be manipulated by or financially dependent on their abusers.
“The right question is, why is the abuse happening, why is the abuser engaging in that abuse, and what can we do to hold them accountable and keep victims safe?” she said.
Cogen, whose department also has been permitted by the Maryland Attorney General’s office to help the city’s animal control agency serve administrative warrants following a policy change, said he’s interested in taking a more active role in domestic violence cases. He noted that the sheriff’s office already serves probation warrants and failure to appear in court warrants for circuit court cases.
“We’re not staffed or have the resources to do it, but I’d be open to looking at that in the future,” he said.
Still, the sheriff’s involvement may not have been enough to stop Feldman, or capable of preventing further violence from unfolding against those who have experienced abuse, said Leigh Goodmark, the Marjorie Cook Professor of Law and co-Director of the Clinical Law Program at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.
Protective orders, Goodmark said, may help return some power and peace of mind to people who have been subjected to abuse and also may deter violence in the short or long term.
“People say it’s just a piece of paper, and that’s true, but it’s a piece of paper backed by the power of the state,” she said.
What they don’t do, she said, is change the underlying behaviors or experiences of people who commit abuse.
“If you don’t care about being locked up for violations, you won’t care about the order,” Goodmark said. She added that women of color and with low incomes are disproportionately subjected to abuse.
Goodmark said there may not be enough community-based resources or supports — such as shelter space or financial resources for survivors to relocate — to help those in need. And due to generational frays in the relationship between communities and police, some may not even seek help from law enforcement or the judicial system at all.
Meanwhile, despite Maryland’s relatively stringent gun laws and state law that mandates subjects of temporary and final protective orders relinquish their weapons, law enforcement agencies don’t have a clear process for actually seizing those guns, said Lydia C. Watts, an attorney and executive director for the Rebuild, Overcome, and Rise Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, which provides services to victims of crime. And the proliferation of illegal weapons makes the situation more complex.
Over three decades representing survivors of abuse, Watts said there are often delays in serving arrest warrants, which could be due to staffing challenges, case backlogs or a suspect’s ability to evade authorities. “Misdemeanors are low on the priority totem pole,” Watts said.
She said while those with regard for legal authority may respond to the threat of a protective order violation, delays in serving arrest warrants could fuel a person’s belief that they are above the law.
“I wouldn’t say it’s not worth it for people to seek protective orders,” she said, pointing to research demonstrating their value.
And Hausner, from House of Ruth Maryland, added that protective orders are one element of a layered approach needed to reduce intimate partner violence, including well-crafted policy, education, an efficient legal system and a robust network of resources that allows people to gain independence from violent partners.
A preliminary hearing for Feldman is scheduled for Aug. 11, according to online court records.
In the meantime, Wheeler’s death continues to rock the orbit of those who loved her. At Wheeler’s celebration of life service, purple pamphlets bearing her name and face were adorned with small white doves. “Kisha,” or “Kiki,” as some knew her, loved her family, thrived in her career as a caregiver, and knew how to have fun, according to her funeral program. She had five children and three grandchildren.
A daughter declined a request for comment.
“Lakisha was a nice person. Why did the man do this to her?” said Venus Ricks, Wheeler’s employer at Vital Sign Home Care, an at-home care provider. She said Wheeler and one client in particular shared a close bond.
Ricks said Wheeler had been a dependable employee over several years who spoke often of her family, and two relatives called Ricks after she disappeared. They wanted to know if she had clocked in to work that Thursday. Ricks had to tell them she hadn’t.
Baltimore Banner reporter Dylan Segelbaum contributed to this article