Candlelight vigil held in honor of 31-year-old mom of four children in Tacoma

Family and friends held a candlelight vigil in honor of Heather Cooper on Tuesday who they said was shot and killed a day earlier in Tacoma.

Police said the 31-year-old woman was found dead in a van on South Burlington Way just before 4 a.m. on Monday. There was also a second crime scene at the Holiday Inn Express on South Hosmer Street where officers located a second van that had blood and a single white, bloody sneaker that matched Cooper’s.

"I just wish it could’ve been me instead of her. She has four children you know," said her sister Jessica Handlen. "It’s going to take time because she was my best friend, and she was the only person I could call when I needed something. Heather is the most loving, caring, honest person that you’ll ever meet, and she didn’t deserve this."

Earlier on Tuesday afternoon, the suspect Ruben Rios made his first appearance in court. The 43-year-old is accused of shooting and killing Cooper.

Officers said Rios was Cooper’s boyfriend.

Handlen said she tried to warn her sister not to be in a relationship with him, but the two were allegedly together for about a year.

"She told me that the police had come one time because he had shot at her, and she had four bullet holes inside of the van and that was from not this time, that was from last time," said Handlen who worried about her sister’s safety.

According to court documents, Tacoma police officers said they saw four bullet holes on the rear passenger door of the van that looked old and unrelated.

Officers said the suspect was riding a bicycle in the area when they arrived, and they observed Rios was covered in blood and other body matter, according to court documents, which further said Rios appeared distraught and upset and appeared to be crying off and on.

Rios is a convicted felon who had an outstanding warrant out for his arrest for escaping community custody.

Domestic violence services are available in the community for survivors, family and friends and those who are unsure but want to be educated.

"I’m sad every single time somebody loses their life to domestic violence," said Abi McLane, Assistant Director of the Crystal Judson Family Justice Center. "If something does come up, you do not have to do this alone. There are professionals out here. We want to work with you, we want to make sure you have the support you need, and wherever you’re at in your process, we want to be here to work with you."

McLane said the vast majority of domestic violence cases are not physical, but there are patterns and tools abusers use to be in power and control.

Some red flags of an abusive relationship can include relationships that move superfast from early dating to a really serious committed relationship quickly.  

Another is financial abuse with controlling finances early in the relationship, taking access to bank accounts, controlling how money is spent or saying the survivor doesn’t need to work anymore.

McLane said abusers may try to intrude on a person’s social circles and use isolation to take away the capacity for the survivor to have support outside the relationship.

"So just reaching out and saying something feels off I want to have a conversation, I want to learn more about these dynamics and what they can do, can be a very powerful first step for people," said McLane. 

McLane said the pandemic provided an ideal setting for power abusers, which include isolation at home and the ability to monitor interactions. She said by the time people reached out to service providers, it was common for the situation to be very escalated. 

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"What we saw was that cases were more dangerous. We saw that there was a need for way more different types of interventions that were intense, more often," said McLane.

If you have questions or just want to talk, you can reach the Domestic Violence Help Line at 253-798-4166 where you can reach trained confidential advocates Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The YWCA Pierce County also has a 24/7/365 DV hotline at 253-383-2593.

The Washington Coalition Against Domestic Violence lists domestic violence programs available throughout the state.

The Coalition also encouraged community members who are concerned about a friend or family members to check out its Friends & Family Guide.

The City of Tacoma’s total investment in domestic violence services between 2021-2022 is $1.654 million, according to a spokesperson.

Handlen said her sister leaves behind a one-year-old, a five-year-old and two teenage girls. A gofundme has been set up on their behalf. 

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