Gena and Rondo Latu share a happy life together, some 20 years after Gena fled an abusive relationship in California. She now has found a way to help other victims of domestic violence.

‘It Takes One Good Person’ —
Woman uses her own experience to help Kammy Mae organization

  • By John Hales
  • 08-17-2017

 

            SPRING CITY—Gena Latu directed her husband where to set up the Aloha Joe’s catering van, the three-month-old business they run together.

            As the strains of a string quartet playing familiar classical-music tunes as well interpretations of modern pop/rock songs drifted through Spring City’s park during a fundraiser for the Kammy Mae Foundation on Saturday, Aug. 12, the heavy smell of cooking oil began to waft from the food truck.

            It was such a different smell from the oil that leaked as though from a sieve from the car she drove from California to Sanpete 20 years ago. She spent two to three times as much on oil as she did on gasoline during the trip. It was the only vehicle her former husband had allowed her to have; it was the only way she could escape.

            “There was a visible trail of oil all the way from L.A. to Ephraim,” Latu says.

            Less visible, perhaps, was the trail of tears she shed from 12 years of an abusive relationship.

            It’s almost surprising how easily Latu talks about her experience with domestic violence, but it’s because she is practicing what she preaches.

            “It’s got to keep coming out,” she says. “Before, you didn’t talk about it.”

            Changing that is why the first $50 earned at any Aloha Joe’s catering gig, even before covering expenses, goes to the Kammy Mae Foundation, which held a fundraiser at the Spring City park last Saturday, Aug. 12. The foundation’s goals are domestic violence awareness and prevention.

            “It takes one good person to teach you you’re worth something,” Latu says. She found that person in her current husband, and the two have built what appears to be a happy family. They’ve adopted four children, in addition to the seven Latu had from her previous marriage.

            One of those seven children, at 26 weeks, was literally stomped out of the womb during a beating Latu suffered at the hands of her then-husband. She held the infant’s head inside her while she drove herself to the hospital. The boy was in the hospital for a year; he is still confined to a wheelchair.

            Even after that, Latu stayed for “another four kids.”

            Abusers “rob you of your self-worth,” she says.

            It was a 5-year-old daughter who finally brought her to her senses. During a vicious event, the girl found a hammer and with all her might hit her father in the head with it. It gave Latu enough time to escape, but it left her thinking, “My daughter had to save me? I’m not strong enough to save myself?”

            Though it doesn’t sound like it, Latu is one of the lucky ones.         

            On average, two to three people per month die in Utah in domestic violence incidents. This summer, there’s been a spike in that number.

            “Eight!” Tammy Coates, the mother of Kammy Mae Edmunds, all but shouts. “Eight in one month.”

            Indeed, eight women and children were killed though domestic violence between June 1 and July 15. If suicides of suspected killers are included, the number rises to 12, according to the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.

            By the beginning of August, Utah had already surpassed the 2016 domestic fatality number. Last year, there were 20. There have already been 21 this year.

            More than a third of homicides in Utah each year are the result of domestic-violence.

            Kammy Mae Edmunds, Tammy Coates’ daughter, was the Mt. Pleasant woman who died at the end of March, from an apparent domestic-abuse incident. (Her friends and family would say the cause of death was obvious, but the case against Anthony Christensen, who was living with Kammy Mae at the time of her death, is ongoing).

            At the beginning of the event, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox spoke to the number of domestic-violence deaths in the state.

            Cox lauded the manner in which the local community was coming together to bring awareness to the issue and raise the ante as a community in the fight against it.

            This week, Coates took her message beyond Sanpete, traveling to Vernal to meet Meredith Cherry, a woman who is on a four-year, 10,000-mile journey on horseback to raise domestic-violence awareness.

            Cherry is also a domestic-abuse survivor. She started her journey last January. While in Vernal, Cherry and Coates made a joint appearance on a local radio program.

            During the program, Coates mentioned a woman who went only by the name of Jenn because she was recently out of an abusive relationship and had a protective order against her former partner.

            Jenn, Coates said, had found letters written by her former partner’s ex-wife indicating that even though she had left him, she “was still harassed by him and bullied,” until she finally killed herself to get away from him permanently.

            “We all have the same goal: Getting the word out that we have to bring a stop to this, and getting the word out that there is help,” Coates said.

            On the way home from Vernal, she stopped for a drink at a store near Soldier Summit. The clerk saw her Kammy Mae T-shirt and mentioned she was also a survivor.

            “She never told anyone. Her kids were conditioned to not tell anyone,” Coates says.

            Stopping that kind of silence is what remembering Kammy Mae is all about, Coates and others say.

            As for Gena Latu, she says she can spot the signs of domestic abuse a mile away—and it’s everywhere.

            “When I go to the store, I can tell who’s getting it,” she says. There’s a look in the eyes of both victim and abuser; there’s the way the abuser says things; there’s the way the victim reacts. “You can tell.”

            Asked whether it’s painful to talk about her experience, especially when it’s difficult and painful to just to hear about it, her answer is surprising. With an end-of-discussion firmness, she says, “No. I survived it.”

            Yet she also laughs and jokes in a way that is heartwarming and disconcerting at the same time.

            “You have to have laughter,” she says. “I need to be strong, and take what happened and turn it into a good thing.”