Fighting Back: ‘I do deserve to have a life of my own’ 

  • Nine-year-old Lily sits on the lap of her grandfather, Michael Renkert, as the family talks about Renkert’s late daughter and Lily’s mother, Sarah Balch, at their home in Rumney. Sarah’s two girls were adopted by Michael and Donna Renkert in September 2014. Elizabeth Frantz photos / For the Monitor

  • Lexi holds a jewelry box containing items that belonged to her late mother, Sarah Balch, at her home in Rumney on Aug. 31, 2018. (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz) Elizabeth Frantz—For the Monitor

  • LEFT: Memories of Sarah Balch are never far away in the Renkert family home in Rumney.

  • Lily (left), 9, and Lexi, 13, look at photos of their late mother, Sarah, on a tablet screen at their home in Rumney. The girls, who were separated after her death, are together again. “If I could help at least one person by sharing, I would be happy,” said Lexi. Elizabeth Frantz / For the Monitor

  • Nine-year-old Lily sits on the lap of her grandfather, Michael Renkert, as the family talks about Renkert's late daughter and Lily's mother, Sarah Balch, at their home in Rumney on Aug. 31, 2018. (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz) Elizabeth Frantz—For the Monitor

  • Lily, 9, sits by the couch with her grandmother, Donna, at their home in Rumney on Aug. 31, 2018. (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz) Elizabeth Frantz—For the Monitor

  • Lily, 9, lays on the couch with her grandmother, Donna, at their home in Rumney on Aug. 31, 2018. (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz) Elizabeth Frantz—For the Monitor

  • ABOVE: Lexi holds a jewelry box containing items that belonged toher late mother, Sarah Balch.

  • Donna Renkert redresses a burn injury for her granddaughter, Lily, at their home in Rumney on Aug. 31, 2018. (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz) Elizabeth Frantz—For the Monitor

  • The gravesite of Sarah Balch is seen in Warren on Aug. 31, 2018. (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz) Elizabeth Frantz—For the Monitor

Monitor staff
Published: 2/2/2019 11:15:53 PM

Sarah Balch feared her two young girls, ages 5 and 2, would grow up believing it was acceptable for a husband to hit his wife and call her derogatory names.

She didn’t want the girls to believe abuse in marriage was “normal” or that in wedlock, a man owns his wife.

Five years into the relationship, Sarah laid the groundwork to leave her husband, Matthew, writing him a two-page letter, dated June 12, 2011. Although a newlywed, she wanted a divorce from the man she felt had disrespected and devalued her.

“I want nothing more in life than to be happy and laugh and spend time with my girls but I do deserve to have a life of my own as well and that I feel I do not have,” Sarah, 25, of Penacook wrote.

“I feel like I am your personal property, that because we are married you now own me,” she continued.

Matthew, 22, told Sarah he would rather strangle her to death than allow her to be with someone else, according to police reports. He didn’t want her to have the opportunity to start a new life – a separate life.

In the hours before Sarah planned to leave, Matthew walked toward her, lifted his bolt action rifle and pulled the trigger. Sarah was instantly killed in front of 2-year-old Lily and 5-year-old Lexi in the driveway of their Elm Street home on the morning of June 14. Matthew then turned the gun on himself, just as police arrived.

Growing up, Lexi, now 13, had seen her stepfather hit her mother.

“I didn’t know that was wrong,” she said. “I was told, ‘what happens here stays here.’ ”

On that particular June morning seven years ago, she awoke to an argument and heard her mother and stepfather run down the stairs. Then, there were gunshots followed by her sister’s screams.

“It’s something that you can never forget, and it’s something that’s never going to go away. It may get better, but it’s never gone,” Lexi said. “When something like this happens, it doesn’t just affect one person; it affects everyone.”

Sarah, like so many women, had found herself at a painful crossroads in her relationship. She knew she needed to leave Matthew, and that she wanted a different life for herself and the girls.

For years, she kept the details of her abusive relationship from family and close friends. As she tried to work on her marriage, Matthew promised to change. Only as she prepared to leave Matthew did she disclose to loved ones the extent to which he had harmed her, both emotionally and physically.

Her father, Michael Renkert, said he hopes his daughter’s story will help foster conversations about the prevalence of domestic violence in New Hampshire and the social barriers that prevent women from coming forward, especially in a culture where abuse of women is often too easily dismissed.

Michael, his wife and the girls – who were adopted by their grandparents – say in keeping Sarah’s memory alive, they want victims to know they aren’t alone in the fight, and that there are resources to help keep them safe, whether they choose to leave or stay.

“People think if they don’t address it then it’s not happening, and that’s just not true,” said Michael, who now lives in Rumney. “It’s gone on for so long – a guy smacks a woman so she must have deserved it. All of these excuses don’t help anyone.”

June 14, 2011

At 7:50 a.m., Sarah made one last phone call to her mother-in-law, Diane Balch. Through tears, Sarah said she was in the yard because Matthew had assaulted her and not let her shower, according to the attorney general’s report.

Diane told Sarah to call 911 and then said, “I’m on my way over. I love you.”

Four hours earlier, Matthew and Sarah had been in a heated argument. He called Diane to say, “You better get over here or your grandchildren will wake up to two dead parents,” records show. Diane told Matthew to stop being “melodramatic” and to go to sleep.

As Diane pulled into the driveway that morning, she saw Matthew approaching Sarah with a high-powered rifle. Attempting to use her truck as a buffer, Diane pulled in between Matthew and Sarah. A moment later, she heard a gunshot.

From just outside the house, Lexi yelled, “Daddy, why did you shoot mommy?” as Lily screamed.

Within 12 minutes of Sarah’s murder, Matthew turned the gun on himself.

Concord police records contain no prior reports of domestic violence involving the couple and no significant police contact with Sarah or Matthew, both graduates of Merrimack Valley High School.

An investigative report on the murder-suicide shows both Sarah and Matthew suffered from anxiety and depression and had abused opioids in the past. Toxicology tests revealed that at the time of his death, Matthew was on Suboxone, a narcotic commonly abused by users although intended to treat opioid dependency.

Family members and friends told investigators that drug use had drastically changed the dynamics of the couple’s life together and further worsened their marital problems.

Michael told the Monitor he knew his daughter had suffered from substance abuse, especially during the last year of her life, but that she had taken steps to get clean. At the same time, however, Matthew – who had introduced Sarah to drugs – had grown more depressed, controlling and possessive, records show.

“She didn’t reach out for help; she kept it to herself and we missed the signs,” Michael said. “She wanted to tell him in person that she was leaving but it put her in more danger.”

Signs of abuse

The warning signs seemed more like isolated incidents than a series of red flags, Michael said. But pieced together, the incidents told the story of a relationship fraught with emotional and physical abuse.

As one investigator explained, “The text messages between them painted Matthew and Sarah’s relationship as an emotional roller coaster with periods of affection regularly disrupted by spiteful, angry attacks.”

Those angry attacks led to Matthew breaking Sarah’s cell phone on more than one occasion. Family members observed that Sarah too often had no phone or a new phone, which is common in instances of domestic abuse.

Police reviewed 100 text messages sent between Matthew and Sarah from May 20, 2011, to June 14, 2011. During one conversation, Matthew expressed anger at Sarah for spending money on a new phone after he’d broken her last one.

“It was passed off that she was a klutz,” Michael recalled.

When Lily was born in June 2009, she was one of nearly a dozen grandchildren welcomed into the Renkert side of the family. Holding Lily for the first time, Michael could sense Matthew’s watchful eye on him – and not simply because Matthew was a concerned new father. He said Matthew acted possessive of Lily, wanted to control the visit and, further, end it as soon as possible.

“Each time they visited, it’s like the visits got shorter,” he said, noting there was always a reason why Matthew and Sarah had to leave early or couldn’t come at all.

Records show the couple spent more time with Matthew’s parents, who were aware of the “tumultuous” nature of the relationship but did not foresee its violent escalation.

The couple wed in October 2010, and the fights only became more frequent.

“The mainstream thought is ‘why did she put up with this and continue to stay?’ But when you realize how often it’s just easier – and safer – to go with the flow, to make the best of the good times, because they’re not all bad, and to keep your family together … I can start to understand the position my daughter was in,” Michael said.

Dissatisfied with her marriage, Sarah tried to find more opportunities to convey to her mother-in-law, sister and close friends that she was ready to leave.

In her final letter to Matthew, she wrote, “I have told your mom on several occasions that I just don’t know if I can do this anymore and honestly I don’t have to continue being treated the way I do and I shouldn’t have to put up with it.”

On the evening of June 13, 2011, just hours before the murder-suicide, witnesses told police Matthew was in a rage because Sarah had gone out to a Concord bar with friends. She didn’t tell him where she was and refused to take his calls. He’d read her letter written the day before.

“He cried when he read my letter and didn’t know I felt that way even though I have told him multiple times,” Sarah texted a close friend just after 9:30 p.m. “...(H)e was crying and begging me no(t) to leave and that he would give me space, yet he called me six times since I left to go out.”

Two daughters

The details of June 14, 2011, fade with each passing year for Lexi and Lily, whose lives were permanently altered that morning. But the girls’ invisible wounds burn just as deep despite the passage of seven years.

Lily, now 9, lost both parents that day. When asked, she can’t verbalize what she saw and how losing her parents affected her. Rather, she expresses her pain through art.

A writing project she completed for school tells the tale of a princess who locks down the castle after hearing gunshots outside. The man is jailed until he admits wrongdoing to the king. In the end, everyone lives happily ever after.

On the day Lily proudly brought her work home to share, her nana and papa quickly saw the fictional tale’s striking similarities to their family’s real-life tragedy.

“The girls were the two most direct victims of what happened,” Michael said. “And because of what happened, they ended up being separated at a time when they needed to be together the most.”

After the murder-suicide, Lily lived temporarily with Matthew’s parents while Lexi stayed with her mother’s close friend. Custody proceedings waged on for a year before a judge awarded Michael and his wife, Donna, parental guardianship of the girls in July 2012. The Renkerts officially adopted Lexi and Lily on Sept. 25, 2014.

Each year on that day, the family celebrates with cake and shares what they’re thankful for.

“Do you remember what you say each year on that day?” Donna asked Lily.

“That I get to be with my sister!” she told her nana.

A silver heart-shaped jewelry box once used by their mother is among the girls’ most prized keepsakes. Each girl has the box for two months – and, Lily noted, they get it during their birthday months.

“I have her work badge, one of her bracelets and this is a necklace that I made for her when I was little,” Lexi said as she showed off the multi-colored beads that spell “Sarah.”

For Lexi, talking about her mother has been an important part of her healing journey. As a young girl, she attended a two-day camp on Cape Cod with other children who had lost a parent, and while there she realized she was not alone in her grief.

She wants others her age who experience loss to know that, too.

“If I could help at least one person by sharing, I would be happy,” she said.

For Lily, having her family together is most important, her papa said.

“I remember on that first morning with the girls in 2012. Lily had just gotten up and she stood at the top of the stairs with her sister and she said, ‘We made it.’ ”

If you or someone you know has experienced domestic violence, advocates are available 24/7 to provide free and confidential support through the statewide hotline at 1-866-644-3574. You don’t have to be in crisis to reach out.

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