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Pitt student Alina Sheykhet's case reveals limitations of PFA orders

Megan Guza
| Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017, 5:30 p.m.
Matthew Darby was arrested by Myrtle Beach Police on Oct. 11, 2017, and charged in the death of Pitt student Alina Sheykhet.
Myrtle Beach Police, Facebook
Matthew Darby was arrested by Myrtle Beach Police on Oct. 11, 2017, and charged in the death of Pitt student Alina Sheykhet.
Alina Sheykhet
Alina Sheykhet
Matthew Darby
Matthew Darby

Alina Sheykhet took all the right steps: she broke up with the man she called abusive and controlling, alerted police when he broke into her Oakland home and sought a protection from abuse order against him.

She ignored all five of his phone calls on the night he's accused of killing her.

The PFA — granted three days before Matthew Darby, 21, of Greensburg allegedly murdered Sheykhet — should have at least de-escalated the situation, according to experts.

“They do work in most instances,” said Laurie MacDonald, chief executive officer of Pittsburgh's Center for Victims.

Contrary to what some critics think, MacDonald said, a PFA is an effective tool.

“A PFA is a court order. If you violate it, it's a crime. You're a criminal,” she said. “A lot of people think it's just a piece of paper. Well, it's not, because if you violate it, you go to jail.”

Across the state, 38,764 new PFA applications were filed in 2016. Of those, nearly 89 percent were granted. Last year, 102 domestic violence victims were killed across the state.

In Allegheny County, 94 percent of the 3,765 requested PFAs were granted in 2016. Nine county residents were killed by domestic violence in that time.

Less than three weeks before he was alleged to have killed Sheykhet, police charged him with criminal trespassing after they said he climbed a downspout and broke into Sheykhet's home. That incident prompted Sheykhet to seek the PFA.

“You get a PFA, and a reasonable person will realize it's a cooling-off period and rethink their behavior,” MacDonald said.

Police said Darby went to Sheykhet's Cable Place home in the predawn hours Sunday and bludgeoned her to death. The Allegheny County District Attorney's Office said it believes Darby entered the house through the basement. Police found what they believe to be the murder weapons — a claw hammer and two steel knives — in a sewer not far from Sheykhet's home.

Darby was arrested in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Tuesday night after a resident there called police to report a man prowling around a home. When police arrived and checked out Darby's name, they found the warrant out of Pittsburgh.

Cynthia Snyder, clinical director at the Center for Victims, said the effectiveness of a PFA depends on the “categories of batterers” against whom they are filed.

“There are categories of batterers that PFAs would never work for,” she said. “They are small in number. They are predatory. They are always going to find a way around (a protection order),” Snyder said. “I suspect if you looked at (Darby) psychologically, he would really fall on the end of the spectrum that would be classified as predatory.”

In an ongoing case in Indiana County, Darby is alleged to have reached out to another ex-girlfriend, indicating that he wanted to apologize for his past actions, according to a criminal complaint filed March 22. Between 2 and 4:30 a.m., Darby called the woman 33 times, the complaint said.

The ex-girlfriend allowed him to come to her home and gave him 30 minutes to talk, police wrote. There, he is alleged to have raped her. Police said he also attempted to contact the woman after she went to police.

Darby posted $10,000 bail March 23, the same day he was arrested. After being released, he checked in with probation officers while his case worked its way through the system. He was in court for that case Friday, according to Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty.

Dougherty called the situation in Oakland a tragedy, adding that “law enforcement doesn't have a crystal ball.”

Jennifer Storm, of the state Office of the Victim Advocate, said that when Darby broke into Sheykhet's home in September, the pending rape charges should have been taken into consideration in setting bail.

“If this man has pending charges, and he's broken into the home of another ex-girlfriend, that should have been enough,” she said. “If those facts were known by a judge, it should have been enough to deny bail or at least increase the bail amount.”

Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519, mguza@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @meganguzaTrib. Tribune-Review staff writer Renatta Signorini contributed to this report.

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