AMEYA Spratley could take care of herself. That's what she told her family. That's what she believed. She was small, slim but "feisty," her father said.

"Meya's strong," Will Spratley said. "If you had told me that one day we'd be sitting here talking about Meya, I would have said, 'No, no, no . . .' "

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Ameya's longtime boyfriend allegedly stabbed and strangled her on Jan. 11 in their southwest Center City apartment while their 3-week-old son lay in a bassinet nearby. Her father found her partially clothed body in a closet the next day and he had to be dragged away from the scene.

"My baby was cold. All I wanted to do was put a blanket on her," Spratley sobbed during a recent interview. "I didn't want to leave her. I felt like I'd left her so many times before, I couldn't leave her again."

Police say that Ameya, 27, was the city's first domestic-violence-related homicide victim of 2010. Keith Moore, 24, was arrested and charged with her murder.

The slaying and arrest garnered little media attention. Like so many victims of domestic violence, Spratley was overlooked. People turned their heads.

"It would be different if it was a stranger who had committed the crime," said Jeannine Lisitski, executive director of Women Against Abuse. "I don't want to say that domestic violence is accepted, but people don't see it as black and white. If a stranger punches me in the face on the street, everyone agrees he should be locked up. If someone I know punches me inside my home, they're not so clear.

"We need to move from making the assumption that the victim is somehow culpable, to holding the perpetrator accountable. Violence in the home has long-lasting effects, not only on the victim and the perpetrator, but on the child witnesses."

Spratley's death may have been the first domestic homicide in the city this year, but if 2009 is any indication, she'll be joined by dozens of others.

In 2009, Philadelphia police tallied 37 domestic homicides, a jump from 21 a year earlier. The jump comes as overall homicides have dropped steadily over the past two years.

There have been four domestic homicides so far in 2010, police said.

Police said that they're making institutional changes to better address the problem. Deputy Commissioner Patricia Giorgio-Fox said that the first step is improving the department's first response.

"We need more in-depth, accurate data-gathering by the police officers," she said. "Then we want a quicker, more concise and aggressive investigation with quicker arrests. The whole process has to be prioritized and tightened up."

To that end, the department is working with organizations like Women Against Abuse and the Women's Law Project to create a risk-assessment form for each domestic-violence call. Victims would be asked questions about an abuser's history and the use of weapons or threats.

In other cities, that information is given to a related social-service agency. Here, Giorgio-Fox hopes to partner with anti-abuse organizations.

"We have to find a way to triage these and put them in some kind of order," she said. "We get way too many of them."

But there is no way to eradicate the problem, meaning that there will always be a family like Ameya's, left to mourn and to wonder what they could have done differently.

Tracy Elliott, Ameya's mother, is now caring for her 5-week-old grandson and Ameya's two older sons, ages 9 and 11. Elliott implores anyone in a violent relationship to get out, to stop trying to handle it on their own.

"Tell them to think of their mother," she said. "Ask them if they want her to go through what I'm going through right now."

Signs of violence

Spratley's family never liked her boyfriend, but not because they thought he was hurting her. He was unfriendly, they said, slightly off, seemingly flat.

"She didn't bring him around us," said Elliott, who lives in West Philadelphia. "He didn't speak. He stared."

Spratley's father also didn't want Moore in his home. Speaking from his neat North Philadelphia apartment, where a makeshift altar to his only child fills one corner, Will Spratley can't bring himself to say Moore's name. He sometimes struggled to find a word for him, falling back on "that person" or "this individual."

"I didn't want him around, but out of respect for her, I didn't say anything because she loved him," Spratley said.

Ameya's mother also felt that she couldn't do anything to break her daughter free.

"Being a parent, you kinda just have to step back and wait for them to call you," said Elliott. "You got to let them live their lives."

Moore and Spratley had begun dating about seven years earlier. She stood by her man as he was in and out of jail on various drug charges. He was never arrested on domestic-violence charges - and no one knew he was hitting her - until early last year.

In April, a fight between the couple spilled out onto the street near their apartment on 16th Street near Christian. Spratley ended up with a black eye. Moore was arrested for simple assault.

When Will Spratley saw his daughter's bruised face, he cried.

"I said, 'Tell me this is the last time. If you need me, I'll go to court. You can come home,' and she said, 'Daddy, I'll take care of it,' " Spratley said. "Then she dropped the charges. She told her friends, 'Don't tell my dad.' She was trying to protect me. Why was she trying to protect me?"

The killing

On the morning of Monday, Jan. 11, Spratley and her baby returned home after spending the weekend with her aunt. They visited with Kimberly Freeman, 31, Spratley's best friend, who lived down the street. The two women watched a movie and then made plans to do laundry later that day.

Spratley was tired of Moore's behavior, Freeman said. He was supposed to meet with his parole officer on Jan. 18 and Spratley wanted him to ask for help finding other housing.

But she wanted to give him the chance to see his son, since she'd taken the baby away all weekend.

"She took a deep breath and said, 'Sometimes, you know how you just dread going home?' " Freeman said. "I told her to stay but she said, 'No, I have to let Keith see the baby. It's been two days.' "

She and the baby returned about 1:30 p.m. to the second-floor apartment they shared with Moore. A few hours later, when school ended, Spratley's two older sons showed up at Freeman's house. She went with them back to their apartment.

Moore was in bed, a blanket over his head, Freeman said. The infant was sleeping nearby. The bedroom was messy with clothes on the floor. A chair was overturned. Freeman asked about Spratley.

"He said, 'She went to the store. She's coming back,' " Freeman recalled.

Freeman said she was taking all three children to her house. She packed up the baby's formula and diapers. Moore made no move to stop her. When he uncovered his face, Freeman saw that he had deep scratches on his face and neck. Freeman left Spratley message after message. The next day, after Freeman sent the children to school, she called Ameya's mother, father and sister. She called a bunch of their friends. No one knew where Ameya was.

The family filed a missing-persons report. They called local hospitals to see if she'd been admitted. They gathered at Freeman's home and tried to get into Spratley's apartment, but no one answered the door.

They did run into a neighbor. He hadn't seen Spratley, but he'd heard the couple fighting recently.

"The other day, he was up there throwing her around like a football," Elliott recalled the man saying.

When some friends saw Moore on the street, they shepherded him back to Freeman's and asked him, again, where Spratley was.

"I begged this boy to tell me where my baby was, and he kept saying, 'I don't know. I don't know. She's up 60th Street. She went shopping. I don't know,' " Elliott said.

Will Spratley lost his temper. He rushed at Moore, yelling, "This is my daughter! This is my only child! This is my pride!" Ameya's friends kept him from attacking Moore, who seemed lifeless. Spratley took Moore's house keys and ran back to his daughter's apartment.

There, he and his daughter's friends began searching for any clue as to where she'd gone. Looking in the closet, one of them saw her foot and began to scream. Spratley ran over and pulled away the stray clothes covering his daughter's body. He cried for her to wake up, to just please wake up.

What's left

She had named her infant son Keithan, after his father. Her family doesn't call him that. The boy is Ethan now. He's living with Elliott, who said that she is adjusting to midnight feedings.

"You do it because you have to," she said.

Ameya was thrilled when she found out she was pregnant, her family said. She was excited to have a permanent home for her sons. She wanted her youngest to grow up with both parents living together, something she hadn't had.

Now, he could grow up without either of them.

"I promise you, Ethan will know his mother," Spratley vowed. "Even if he can't touch her. Even if he can't be with her on his birthday. Ethan will know his mother and he will know his mother loved him."