Monroeville girl’s murder spurs father on crusade against teen dating violence
The majority of teen dating violence episodes — 83% — follow a bad breakup.
That statistic alone, had Demi Brae Cuccia or her parents known it in 2007, might have been life-saving.
“If my daughter had an assembly and she learned that, she wouldn’t have maybe let this boy come over to the house that night, when she was home alone. Maybe she’d be alive today,” Gary Cuccia said of his daughter.
Driven by 16-year-old Demi’s death in August 2007, Cuccia, a Salem Township chiropractor, spends his off hours warning middle school and high school students about the dangers of teen dating violence.
As part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the Tribune-Review — with the help of the FISA Foundation — created a video on teen dating violence that features Cuccia, college students at Seton Hill and Pitt-Greensburg, and a sexual violence prevention expert.
Cuccia leads school assemblies in which he talks about the 83% figure and other statistics that point to the incidence of sexual assault among teens. He talks about the warning signs — signs that, in hindsight, were evident in his daughter’s life.
“There were all kinds of red flags,” Cuccia said, “but we didn’t see them at the time because I didn’t know about dating violence.”
Demi, a junior at Gateway High School, was murdered on the day after her 16th birthday when her ex-boyfriend, John Mullarkey Jr., 18, stabbed her repeatedly at her Monroeville home. She stumbled outside, her axillary artery severed, and died at a neighbor’s house.
Mullarkey was convicted of first-degree murder in 2009 and is serving a life sentence without chance of parole.
Although the couple had been dating for about a year, Cuccia said he knew Mullarkey through his son for three or four years.
“(Demi) really wasn’t permitted to date, but we would let her because we thought we knew him; we kind of trusted him,” he said.
Mullarkey’s possessive, controlling behavior manifested later in the dating relationship. Demi finally broke it off about two weeks before her birthday. Evidence at trial revealed hundreds of texts showing increasing desperation on the part of Mullarkey in the wake of the breakup, Cuccia said.
Mullarkey reportedly tried to isolate Demi, separate her from her friends and keep her from attending summer cheerleading camp.
“We learned from some of her friends … that if Demi would be down at her friend’s house and this boy would call her, she would lie and say she was home,” Cuccia recalled. “He didn’t want her to have friends, he didn’t want her to be involved in activities — all the typical warning signs were there, but we didn’t see them as warning signs.”
Cuccia said excessive texting as a way to control the partner is even more of a problem today with smartphones.
“As an adult, it’s hard to keep up with that stuff,” he said. “When we grew up, you had one phone in the house, so if you’re arguing with somebody … it gets everybody’s attention. But now, everything’s done through silent platforms on these phones. It’s so hard to track what’s going on with your kids.”
In addition to trying to get the law changed in Pennsylvania, Cuccia has given more than 330 school presentations drawing lessons from his daughter’s story.
He has spoken at Father’s Day Pledge events at which men “take a public stand against gender-based violence,” said Kristy Trautmann, executive director of the FISA Foundation in Pittsburgh.
“We are deeply moved by and admire his efforts to transform personal tragedy into social change,” Trautmann said.
FISA Foundation supports the Father’s Day Pledge, Coaching Boys Into Men and other initiatives of Southwest PA Says No More, a regional effort to prevent domestic and sexual violence.
Trautmann said Demi’s case highlights the fact that 16- to 24-year-olds are at highest risk for dating sexual assault. That demographic needs to know more about the warning signs of abuse, abuse prevention and ways to get help, she said.
Trautmann said young men, especially, are getting “mixed messages” about relationships. Adult men have a critical role to play in preventing gender-based violence, so it’s important for fathers to talk to sons and for coaches to talk to their athletes, she said.
FISA Foundation is a longtime supporter of a Blackburn Center initiative that surveys incoming freshmen at Seton Hill and Pitt-Greensburg about the “root causes” of gender-based violence. Students also are surveyed as outgoing seniors as a way to measure attitude changes.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter .