Meet the cops who save women from forced marriage

How two homicide detectives from Peoria, Ariz., became the go-to guys on honor violence in US

This is part four of a four-part series. Click at right for the other parts.

Last May, homicide detectives Chris Boughey and Jeff Balson were in the City Council chambers for Peoria, Ariz., recipients in the police department’s annual awards ceremony, when Balson received a text message:

“Help, I am out of the country and I don’t think I am ever going to get back. What do I do?”

Homicide detectives in Peoria, Ariz., Chris Boughey, left, and Jeff Balson, right, are trying to educate other law-enforcement officers about the culture of honor violence and forced marriage.
Courtesy of Det. Chris Boughey

The message was sent from a college-age woman whose family had sent her to the Middle East under the guise of visiting relatives. But they were worried that her Westernized behavior had dishonored them, and their actual aim was to force her into a marriage without her consent.

“As soon as she landed, her mom took her passport and documentation and said, ‘Forget everything you have ever known about America, because you are never going back,’” said Balson, who would not reveal the woman’s country of origin or name to protect her identity.

According to Balson, 39, the girl did nothing shameful. One of her friends had tagged her in a group photo on Facebook. A family member abroad saw it and alerted her parents. He said the photo was “not risqué” and there was “no skin showing.” But there were boys, and the photo looked as though it had been taken in a bar or club.

While she was abroad, she and Balson sent secret messages using a secure messaging app. He and Boughey were planning her escape.

“I like to refer to it as like the movie ‘Argo,’ where they have this big plan to get someone out of the country,” Balson said.

The escape involved the woman’s lying to her mother, getting to a well-populated area and making her way to the airport, where U.S. federal agents — and a new passport — were waiting for her.

The detectives’ plan worked. By August of 2013, the young woman was back in the United States, away from her captors.

The two men have become the country’s law-enforcement specialists for cases of forced marriage and honor violence, according to the AHA Foundation, a women’s-rights advocacy organization that helps women suffering from religiously and culturally justified violence. Honor violence is a crime usually perpetrated against women who are seen, in the eyes of relatives, as having shamed the family for being “too Westernized” said Boughey, 43.

In 2012, AHA brought the two detectives on board as law-enforcement liaisons and refers cases to them nationwide. They consult with local police departments and social services on how to protect women from suffering, ostensibly to protect their families’ honor.

Noor’s story

Boughey has been investigating homicide for 10 years, Balson for six. The first time they dealt with honor violence was in 2009, when they investigated the death of Noor Almaleki. The Iraqi-born Arizona woman was run over and killed by her father, Faleh Hassan Almaleki, because of her refusal to enter an arranged marriage

Boughey said that a day rarely goes by that he does not remember Noor Almaleki and her situation.

“I think, ‘How many other Noors are out there in the world, and how can we help them?’” he said. “That is what truly what drives me.”

Their memory of the 2009 honor killing of Noor Almaleki in a suburb of Phoenix is what spurs Boughey and Balson to help other forced-marriage victims.

The honor killing of Almaleki was the first ever investigated in Arizona, according to Boughey. From that point forward, he and Balson made it their mission to protect women like her.

And that includes raising awareness among other law-enforcement officers.

“This is something that I believe both of us feel very deeply in, in the rights of these women and how they have been so violated,” Boughey said.

For both of these men, the idea of killing a child because of an alleged offense is hard to grasp.

Boughey calls his 12-year-old daughter his “greatest accomplishment” and said that when he worked on a case in which the victim was a young woman who was killed by a man who should have been her greatest protector, he felt a deep, resonating impact.

“I am very, very protective of her, and absolutely, this put me in a unique position,” he said. “How completely unfathomable it is that a father could even think of doing something like that. It is just unfathomable.”

Balson, whose wife is an attorney who litigates for victims of domestic violence, agreed.

“When I was single, I didn’t understand the love relationship you have with your wife and your kids, where you would do anything for your kids,” he said.

Balson, whose children are a 6-year-old boy and a 10-year old girl, is originally from Fond du Lac, Wisc. He started his career as a patrol officer in Milwaukee and arrived in Peoria 10 years ago.

Born and raised in the San Francisco area, Boughey started his career at the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office after attending the University of Colorado. He eventually moved to Phoenix to live closer to relatives.

Balson was promoted to detective in the violent-crime unit in 2008. One of the first cases he worked on with Boughey was the Almaleki case. The detectives were listening to the police radio when a vehicle-pedestrian collision in a parking lot was announced. They thought nothing of it until the dispatcher said the collision was intentional and a young woman had been hit by her father.

While Peoria does not give detectives the official designation of partners, according to Balson, he and Boughey quickly realized that they “work really well together.” In 2013 the two were honored for their self-imposed partnership when fellow Peoria police officers nominated them for the annual medal of distinguished service, for their work on the Almaleki case.

Training others to help

Amanda Parker, communications director for AHA, said that the because of their unwavering dedication, the two partners have become an “integral part” of protecting honor-violence victims. Parker said that because Boughey and Balson are detectives, local police take their message more seriously.

“They sometimes get a better response than when I call and say, ‘Hi, my name is Amanda, and I work for a nonprofit you might not have heard of,’” she said.

According to Parker, this partnership was necessary because without the detectives, AHA would not have an effective way to connect victims with the assistance that is near them.

“We have had hundreds of girls come to us seeking help,” Parker said. “And we have built a solid network to be able to appropriately refer these women and girls to local services when they come to us.”

Since being appointed as liaisons by the AHA Foundation in 2012, Boughey and Balson have dealt with about 10 cases of honor crimes outside Arizona, including Alaska, Pennsylvania, New York, California and Washington state, and the number seems to be rising.

According to data released by the foundation in partnership with John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, there are about 40 confirmed honor-motivated homicide cases in the U.S. each year. But the researchers who conducted the study estimate that there are actually closer to 110 cases annually.

Although they participated in AHA’s past three annual conferences, Boughey and Balson did not think it was enough. The two began developing a curriculum to educate law enforcement and social services about how to identify and deal with these kinds of honor crimes.

Next month the two detectives begin training sessions on honor violence, starting with the main event at the quarterly conference for the Arizona Homicide Investigators Association in Glendale. Boughey and Balson hope to host training sessions throughout the country in 2014 as agencies reach out.

For both detectives, the motivation is simple. They said they’re driven to protect those who have been victimized by honor violence to ensure their rights as Americans.

“It makes me so frustrated that these young women are really trying to live the American dream,” Boughey said. “And they are killed for it.”

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