The Highland Park man accused of abducting his 2-year-old son from Rahway on Friday and killing the boy's mother was once charged with strangling his romantic partner.
But like many domestic violence cases in New Jersey, the strangulation charge was dismissed as a part of a plea deal that kept the suspect out of a prison — even though research has shown that survivors of strangulation are more likely to become homicide victims later on.
Now a family is mourning the loss of 24-year-old Yasemin Uyar, whose body was found late Saturday in a wooded area off Interstate 40 in Tennessee.
Authorities expect to charge Tyler Rios, 27, of Highland Park, with killing Uyar. He is being held in Tennessee, where authorities on Saturday found him with his son, who did not appear to be physically harmed.
The little boy had been the subject of a widespread Amber Alert on Friday after he and his mother disappeared. Police initially found the boy and the father together hundreds of miles away in Monterey, Tennessee, but not Uyar.
Rios so far is facing first-degree kidnapping charges in Union County. Homicide charges are pending and prosecutors expect to announce when he will make his first appearance before a judge in Elizabeth.
Rios has appeared numerous times before judges in the past two years.
During the pandemic in 2020, Rios spent several months in the jails of two counties. But judges never sent him to prison, always releasing him with conditions of probation.
Court records obtained by New Jersey 101.5 show a history of domestic violence, including a 2018 charge of trying to strangle a victim.
It is not clear how many women Rios has been accused of abusing because court records protect the privacy of victims. But Uyar's mother in 2019 wrote on Facebook that Rios had once choked her daughter until she passed out. She also said that Rios in 2019 had locked Uyar and their son in a bathroom while in Arizona and threatened to punch her.The mother said Rios broke Uyar's phones but not before she could text her family to call 911 on her behalf.
In April, Superior Court Judge Colleen Flynn, sitting in Middlesex County, sentenced Rios to three years of probation after he pleaded guilty to third-degree aggravated assault on a domestic violence victim.
The 2018 strangulation charge, for which a grand jury had handed up an indictment, was dismissed as part of the plea deal with prosecutors, court records show.
Court records also show he spent 88 days in county jail in that case. But Rios was back behind bars again in October, this time in Union County.
After spending more than 70 days in jail, Superior Court Judge Joseph Donohue in December sentenced Rios to one year of probation for violating a domestic violence restraining order.
The judge also:
In 2019, Rios was arrested in Arizona on charges of assault and unlawful imprisonment, according to records shared online by Uyar's mother, who at the time candidly wrote on Facebook about her fear that Rios had killed her daughter during the standoff situation.
"I call 911 and give the address and explain the long DV history. I hang up and wait. I pray," Karen Uyar wrote just a few years before her daughter would be found dead in another state.
"Several calls later from Officer Hunting, she says words that tore at my soul and made me believe my worst fears [may] have happened. 'The apartment is silent, we can see him walking around occasionally.' Silent. The apartment is silent. Our only thought is ... He killed them."
Nearly half of all domestic violence cases in New Jersey get thrown out. Among the reasons is that victims are often terrified to cooperate or unwilling to press charges against someone who is a part of their family.
Victims' advocates, however, also say the Municipal Court judges, who often hear many of the domestic violence cases first, are ill-prepared to deal with such a complex matters.
State lawmakers, meanwhile, have been trying to amend the state's bail reform law to make non-fatal strangulation one of the charges that would allow judges to keep suspects locked up before their trials.
“Strangulation is a unique type of violence,” state Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, a sponsor of the bill, said last year. “Even if it doesn’t result in death, the statistics show that it’s very likely to result in death the next time. And there always is a next time.”
The bill remains in committee after being reintroduced in the latest legislative session.
According to the New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence, someone accused of choking a partner is seven times more likely to kill someone later. And in 43% of domestic violence homicides, the victim had been a strangulation survivor a year earlier.
Law enforcement is well aware of the heightened risk that strangulation survivors face.
In 2019, the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office launched a program to alert first-responders about this red flag and train them on how to address the victims.
A victims' advocacy group in that county reported receiving nearly a dozen calls a month involving some level of attempted strangulation or suffocation.
“What they’re learning across the country is strangulation or suffocation is the last step that somebody will typically take before a murder is committed, before a homicide is committed, we want to really shine a light on this," Monmouth County Prosecutor Chris Gramiccioni told New Jersey 101.5 at the time.
In 2019, victims advocate Nicole Morella told New Jersey 101.5 that strangulation survivors often experience even more subsequent abuse.
“They're so fearful of this person killing them that they may be reluctant to report it and they may be reluctant to seek out the services to get out of the relationship because they believe the threat that they’re going to be killed," she said at the time.
Loved ones began suspecting something was wrong Friday when little Sebastian did not show up for daycare and his mother had not reported to her work shifts.
Police went to Uyar's Rahway home on Friday to check on the family but found nobody there.
On Saturday night, the family learned the crushing news about Uyar's death.
Her mother urged people on social media to remember her daughter as more than "just a [domestic violence] victim."
"She was a Daughter, Sister, Mother, Aunt and Cousin," Karen Uyar wrote on Facebook. "Her life will be Celebrated as her greatest gift to this world, Sebastian will still need ALL of our love and support."
Sergio Bichao is the digital managing editor of New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-775-9793 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.