Purple Berets


Maria Teresa Macias - Murdered April 15, 1996

The Murder of
María Teresa Macias

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Teresa's Legacy:
The Women's Rights Case That Changed the World

by Tanya Brannan, Purple Berets

A hush fell over the courtroom as Sara Hernandez began her second day of testimony in the María Teresa Macias federal civil rights trial in San Francisco. All eyes were on Sara as she told the story of her daughter's valiant but ill-fated attempts to escape her husband's violence.

But that escape was not to be. On April 15, 1996, Avelino Macias brutally murdered Teresa, shot Sara, and then lay across Teresa's dying body and blew his brains out.

Before that awful day, Teresa Macias had contacted the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department more than twenty times to report Avelino's obsessive stalking; threats to kill Teresa, her children, her mother and other family members in Mexico; and a number of other felony crimes. She'd had friends, family and employers report incidents they themselves had witnessed, got multiple restraining orders, and reported every violation of those orders to the sheriff. In short, Teresa Macias did everything right.

But the Sheriff's Department did everything wrong. They never cited or arrested Avelino, despite their own policy and California law requiring that they do so. They called Teresa crazy, told her to quit coming in and to just write down her complaints instead, and then never bothered to translate the diary pages she brought them detailing more than 30 separate crimes. They took her children into Child Protective Services custody because Teresa could not protect them from Avelino's violence and sexual abuse. And through it all, they only even bothered to write two police reports.

On the witness stand, Sara Hernandez described Teresa's constant fear of Avelino, a man who had beaten her, raped her repeatedly, and shot a man in the head in their home in front of Teresa and her three young children. He had molested and beaten with broomsticks those same children, and put cigarettes out on Teresa's arms. And then Sara described the day he murdered her.

As Sara and Teresa arrived for their housecleaning job on that drizzly April morning, Avelino lay in wait. After he forced his way into the car; Teresa escaped and ran into the house. When he forced his way into the house, Teresa fled to the sidewalk. As Sara picked up the phone to dial 911 she heard Teresa plead, "For God's sake, for God's sake, don't do it, don't do it." And then she heard the shot.

Sara went to the front door and saw Avelino running up the sidewalk shooting wildly. "I slammed the door closed and leaned against it," Sara testified. "Then Avelino shot me [in both legs]. I fell to my knees. As he turned to leave, Avelino said, laughing, ‘My stupid mother-in law, I have killed your daughter.'"

Moments after this chilling testimony, the courtroom sat in stunned silence as attorneys for the Sonoma County Sheriff announced they had reached a settlement agreement with the Macias family. And with that historic $1 million settlement – the first-ever paid by a law enforcement agency for their failure to protect a domestic violence victim leading to her homicide – one of the most important women's rights cases in U.S. history came to a dramatic end.
But the Macias case is not only a legal victory, it is a victory for grassroots activism. Marie De Santis (Women's Justice Center) and I (Purple Berets) investigated Teresa's contact with law enforcement and exposed the sheriff's deadly disdain that contributed to her murder. You literally would never have heard of Teresa Macias without that investigation being released to the Bay Area press, thus shaming the Press Democrat into covering the case.

We researched the state of the law, met with constitutional attorneys, found the attorneys who took the case and formulated the legal strategy, all the while helping the family deal with a host of other needs in the wake of Teresa's murder. The two groups organized six years of demonstrations, events and media revelations, did regular mailings on the case, and in every way made the murder of Teresa Macias a touchstone domestic violence case nationally and internationally.

And in the end, working together with her courageous family, we fulfilled Teresa Macias' last wish. In the days before her murder, Teresa told her mother Sara, "If I die, I want you to tell the world what happened to me. I don't want other women to suffer as I have suffered; I want them to be listened to."

They're listening now, Teresa.

July 2002

© Tanya Brannan, Purple Berets
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