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Lisa Menzo Santoro told police she was scared of her boyfriend, and just wanted him to finally move out of her Palmer Township home. The cast on her right arm, she reported, was from when he broke her wrist during an argument.
Called to Santoro’s doorstep twice that day last month, police made no arrests, just like the two previous times they responded to domestic disputes between her and Leonard Moser — her soon-to-be killer.
Though Santoro, 47, repeatedly asked police to kick Moser out of her house, police told the mother of four they couldn’t do it.
“Lisa was yelling at us [police] because we haven’t done anything to help her,” officer Michael Calabrese wrote in his Feb. 25 police report, obtained by The Morning Call through a Right-to-Know request. “I explained to her that these are the ‘gambles’ and ‘risks’ you take when you enter into a relationship, start to share a home with another person, accept gifts such as cars from other people that aren’t registered to you, and allow a [significant other] to move in with [your] family and/or property.
“I told her these are now matters that are out of our [police] control, and we can’t stand her[e] and fix all your relationship problems in an instant, making you AND him happy,” Calabrese wrote.
In an interview last week, Calabrese said police did everything they could to help Santoro.
Six days after the two calls, police again responded to Santoro’s four-bedroom, four-bathroom home on Saddle Lane. Only this time, she was dead, shot repeatedly in her garage with a shotgun. Her 17-year-old daughter discovered the body.
Northampton County prosecutors say they believe Moser, 45, ambushed Santoro on March 3, then took his own life in New Jersey after encountering police outside Phillipsburg.
The comments Calabrese made in his report provoked a visceral reaction from one advocate for victims of domestic violence, who called them unacceptable and insensitive to what Santoro must have been going through.
“Wow,” said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “I’m speechless. That’s just shocking.”
Three experts on domestic violence who reviewed the paper trail at the request of The Morning Call said the police reports raise questions over how seriously Palmer police treated a domestic violence case that ultimately ended in murder.
Santoro’s mother, Patricia Menzo, was more direct about the police response.
“I feel they enabled a killer to murder my daughter,” Menzo, 68, of Passaic County, N.J., said in an interview. “In a sentence, I think that says it all.”
Palmer police Chief Larry Palmer defended his department, saying it is only in hindsight that the conflicting picture presented to officers at the home becomes clearer. He noted that in the first three of the four calls, it was Moser who phoned police, claiming he was the victim.
“You can what-if it to death. We don’t have the luxury to do that when it’s happening,” Palmer said. “There are extremely volatile situations with a lot of emotions, so it’s tough.”
To The Morning Call, Calabrese said he is shaken by Santoro’s death and never meant his comments to her to come off as hurtful. A 25-year veteran of the department, he said he understands the anger of Santoro’s family, and apologizes if his words were offensive.
“If somebody is going to tell me I’m insensitive, they don’t know me, and all they are basing it on is the last report, which had an unfortunate tone,” Calabrese said.
Unaware of previous calls to the home when he responded there, Calabrese said he had no grounds to arrest anyone that day based on what Santoro and Moser reported to him. Calabrese said he encouraged her to seek a protective order that would force Moser from the house.
“I don’t feel me, myself or my department did anything wrong,” Calabrese said. “We did everything we could within our bounds.”
He added: “It’s not fair until you’re in the middle of two adults screaming at each other and screaming at you; it’s not fair to judge.”
That night, Santoro applied for and was granted an emergency restraining order from a district judge, evicting Moser, her boyfriend of about two years.
Two days later, Santoro was before Northampton County Judge Michael Koury Jr., who extended the order after she described abuse that “just keeps escalating” and said she was in fear of Moser, a muscular body-builder type who was nearly a foot taller and more than 100 pounds heavier than she.
That police were called on four occasions without anyone leaving in handcuffs speaks to a “shockingly inept” investigation that ignored signs of violence that was getting worse, charged Michelle Dempsey, a former domestic violence prosecutor who now teaches law at Villanova University.
“They’re about 40 years behind the times in how they are handling domestics, just from what I’m reading in their reports,” Dempsey said. “I have never seen such policing practices. This is the worst I’ve seen.”
Domestic violence calls are often frustrating, Dempsey and the two other experts interviewed by The Morning Call said. But police still have a responsibility to investigate and determine whether abuse is occurring, they said.
Dana Harrington Conner, a law professor at Widener University who specializes in domestic violence, said a restraining order isn’t meant to be an alternative to criminal charges.
“Could they have arrested? I think the answer is yes, and that’s the purpose and job of law enforcement: that if there’s a crime, that person needs to be held accountable,” Conner said.
She noted that by the time police were called Feb. 25, Santoro’s arm was in a cast and she was telling officers that Moser had broken her wrist, albeit in a dispute more than two weeks before that she had not previously reported.
Sarah Katz, a Temple University professor who teaches family law, said the reports suggest police failed to understand the dynamics of domestic violence. It’s not about a bad relationship between two equal partners, she said, but rather one person exercising control over the other.
Taken from that perspective, it isn’t surprising that Moser would be the one calling police, or that he would accuse her of wrongdoing, Katz said.
“That is not uncommon in these situations,” Katz said. “In fact, having done this work, it’s something I’ve seen day in and day out.”
Palmer, the police chief, said he doesn’t second-guess his officers’ decisions to not make an arrest, saying they were presented with competing stories from Moser and Santoro about who was doing what.
“Obviously, if it is clear cut and there’s injuries and nobody is disputing it, then you have to make an arrest, absolutely,” Palmer said.
But the situations police were confronted with at the home weren’t that, he said.
“Who are you going to believe? They’re both blaming each other,” Palmer said.
The chief has not launched an internal investigation of the responses, and said he has not disciplined any officers.
Calabrese said he had no evidence of recent physical injury to work from.
While Santoro reported Moser had broken her wrist previously, “we don’t have a crystal ball. We don’t really know how it happened, when or where or what the case was with that,” he said.
“It was our first time there and I had no knowledge of those two, had never seen them before,” Calabrese said. “So we can’t go on the implied or assumed. We can’t do anything without facts.”
The next day, Calabrese said, Moser came to the police station seeking to file charges against Santoro. Calabrese said he told Moser that wasn’t going to happen, then dropped by Santoro’s home and spoke with her, to give her a heads up and to see if Moser tried to come by despite the restraining order.
“That was a courtesy we didn’t need to do, but we did,” Calabrese said.
Not feelings, fear
Santoro was a fun-loving single mom and her children’s loudest cheerleader at school sporting events, her mother said.
Divorced, she worked as a bookkeeper in her stepfather’s software company while raising her children — their ages range from 22 to 10. She was the kind of parent who would stay up until all hours just to bake cupcakes if they were needed the next day, Menzo said.
“I thought I was a good mom,” Menzo said. “She was my idol. I’ve never seen anyone be able to juggle so much so well.”
Santoro grew up in New Jersey but moved to Palmer more than a decade ago with her then-husband, who opened a deli that proved unsuccessful. The couple separated in 2010, and only in the past couple of years had Santoro begun dating again, her mother said.
“I pushed her. I said, ‘You got to get out there, girl,'” Menzo said. “‘You are beautiful. You are intelligent.'”
Santoro met Moser through a dating website and he immediately showed interest in her family, asking to meet the children and offering to spend time with her two sons.
Roughly a year ago, he began living with Santoro, a process that happened gradually as he increasingly stayed overnight, Menzo said.
Menzo found Moser, who worked as a steamfitter, to be “very clingy” but believed he was a generally “nice guy.” It was only slowly that his possessiveness and his anger — a “zero-to-60” temper — became apparent, she said.
Moser pressured Santoro to unfriend men she knew on Facebook, the mother said. Once, when Santoro was having her nails done at a salon, he came in and jealously went through her phone. And it just got worse, Menzo said.
Menzo wondered why her daughter put up with it. A self-described ex-hippie who speaks her mind, Menzo said women in her family aren’t built that way.
“I kept saying, ‘Lee, what’s wrong with you? We’re strong women. People don’t tell us what to do,'” Menzo said.
But with her daughter’s death came a revelation.
“I thought it was feelings” that drove her to stay with Moser, Menzo said. “But now I know it was fear.”
Mark Minotti, an Easton defense attorney who met with Moser after Santoro sought a protective order, declined to comment.
Will Spencer, a friend of Moser, said there is no point in rehashing what happened. Spencer, a retired police sergeant in Lopatcong Township, N.J., accompanied Moser to the Palmer police station on the night of Feb. 25, when he was formally notified Santoro had gotten a restraining order against him.
“There’s no sense in dragging everything out here,” Spencer said. “It’s time to move on, if only for the family.”
Spencer added: “I’m not playing Monday morning quarterback as to how it was handled, how it should have been handled. You can say each case is the same, but it’s not.”
A police decision
When Moser first called police to Santoro’s home on Jan. 2, she told them he had thrown her to the floor during an argument in the garage, according to the police incident report. She showed officers a scrape above her right knee, as well as an old bruise on her left arm that she said also was from Moser, who had left before police arrived.
Police asked Santoro whether she wanted Moser arrested, and she said no.
Police don’t need a victim’s permission to file charges, and in domestic violence cases, officers have greater powers of arrest. The law allows police to arrest someone even for a misdemeanor assault as long as “recent physical injury” is observable or there is “other corroborative evidence” to back the charge.
In its protocol on domestic violence cases, the Northampton County district attorney’s office tells police to put the evidence first when determining whether to arrest. Whether someone at the scene denies abuse occurred, or whether the victim is unlikely to cooperate in the prosecution shouldn’t be factors in an officer’s decision, the protocol says.
At that first call, Moser returned to the home and denied having pushed Santoro. He agreed to again leave after officer Keith Border suggested he “go watch the football games and come back later when he is calmed down,” according to Border’s report.
Even on that first call, there are things that raise red flags, said the experts who reviewed the reports for The Morning Call. Asking Santoro whether charges were warranted, they said, placed responsibility where it should not have been: in the hands of someone who may have had legitimate reason to fear Moser if he learned she wanted him charged.
Also, the experts said, in urging Moser to leave for a while, police echoed paternalistic practices of years ago that are now frowned upon.
“Back in the 1950s, that’s what law enforcement did,” said Conner, the Widener professor. “‘Why don’t you cool off? Why don’t you leave the house and cool off?'”
Before clearing the scene, Border wrote, police “clearly explained” to the couple that Moser had “the right to come back to the house at any time he wishes.”
The incident reports show that each time police were called — in January, then late Feb. 14 on a report of a purported argument, and the two times Feb. 25 — officers repeated that it was up to Moser whether he stayed.
But whether Moser actually had a tenant’s rights to the property isn’t certain. Melissa Rudas, a Bethlehem attorney who practices family law, said she advises clients in situations like Santoro’s that while they can change the locks and try to keep their former partner out, they risk being sued for wrongful eviction if they do.
Bruce Thomas, an Easton lawyer who often handles domestic cases, said that in his experience, police are unlikely to try to force someone to move out, absent a protection-from-abuse order forcing an eviction.
But Katz, the Temple professor, said she is aware of no statute that gives Moser residency, especially without proof he had a financial stake in the household.
“I bristled a bit about the police’s own description when they informed her of her rights,” Katz said. “The way it reads to me on the page is it’s going to be really hard to get this guy out of your house because you let him in in the first place.”
That police told Moser he was free to stay only emboldened him, Santoro’s mother said.
“He was goading her and goading her and goading her,” Menzo said. “‘I’ll leave when I’m good and ready,’ was what he was saying to her.”
Palmer highlighted that beginning with the first police call, officers unsuccessfully urged Santoro and Moser to seek restraining orders that would have legally forced them to separate.
Both ultimately pursued them in county court Feb. 27, though Moser’s request was denied by a judge who was unpersuaded by his claims, which were filed hours after Santoro’s order was granted.
In total over the four calls, police spent three hours at the home, the lion’s share Feb. 25, when they twice responded.
According to Santoro’s petition for protection, during the daylong argument she felt like she “was being held hostage.”
Santoro said the dispute began when she asked Moser to leave and he wouldn’t, with him pushing her into her bedroom window, breaking her shades. Santoro said Moser also was “trying to have me arrested.” He was claiming to police that he was afraid of her, she said, and that she assaulted him.
In Moser’s petition, he maintained it was Santoro who pushed him, and that she hit him on the back. He said police questioned him about a bruise on Santoro’s neck, which he claimed was a hickey.
In his report written from the first call that day, Calabrese noted that Moser wanted police to force Santoro from the home, which she solely owned.
“I said, ‘Are you kidding me now? This is her house …. There’s no reason we’d ask her to leave here,'” Calabrese wrote. “‘The more logical solution would be to have you leave for the night.'”
Calabrese wrote that he asked Santoro if she was aware of the option of seeking a protection-from-abuse order.
When she told him that she intended to apply for one, “I said OK … I recommend it,” Calabrese wrote.
Once Santoro got the restraining order, Menzo said, she believed her daughter would be safe. They had the locks at the house changed, and she got Santoro a new phone number. She gave her daughter a baseball bat to keep under the bed.
On March 1, two days before the killing, a constable arranged for Moser to pick up his belongings at the house. The end of the relationship had Santoro “happy as a lark” and she began to reconnect with friends, Menzo said.
“She was back,” Menzo remembered.
Moser knew Santoro’s schedule, that she returned every day at 8:45 a.m. after dropping off her 10-year-old son at school, Menzo said.
On March 3, Menzo said, she tried calling and texting Santoro a few times to see how she was doing, but never heard back. After school, Menzo called her 17-year-old granddaughter to ask if she knew where her mother was.
The girl said Santoro’s car was in the garage, but she hadn’t seen her. Soon, the teen called back.
“My mommy’s dead,” and “there’s blood everywhere,” Menzo remembered being told, her voice breaking as she recounted her granddaughter’s words.
In the two months before Lisa Menzo Santoro’s murder, Palmer Township police were called to her home on four occasions but made no arrests. Here is a summary of those reports, which can be viewed in full at themorningcall.com.
1:08 p.m. Jan. 2: Moser called police. According to the report: Santoro said Moser had thrown her to the ground. She showed police a scrape above her knee and an old bruise. Moser denied pushing Santoro but agreed to leave the home until he calmed down. (Police were there for 36 minutes.)
11:51 p.m. Feb. 14: Moser called police. According to the report: Moser said he was sleeping downstairs when Santoro began arguing with him. Santoro said Moser was “very controlling” and she wanted him out of her home. Police advised them to stay away from each other. (Police were there for 17 minutes.)
1:16 p.m. Feb. 25: Moser called police. According to the report: Moser said Santoro had pushed him and that she had been “nasty and abusive.” Santoro “stated just the opposite,” saying Moser was being aggressive towards her, and that he broke her wrist during a previous dispute. Officers said if there were further problems, they should call police back. (Police were there for 43 minutes.)
3:39 p.m. Feb. 25: Santoro called police. According to the report: Santoro was crying because Moser wouldn’t leave her house. She said Moser was acting aggressively and that she was scared of him. Moser gathered some belongings and left for the night, with Santoro later successfully seeking an emergency restraining order. (Police were there for 81 minutes.)
Source: Palmer Township incident reports.
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