The Tragedy of Murder-Suicides

Eleven murder-suicides are committed every week.

Posted Mar 29, 2020

used with permission from iclipart
Source: used with permission from iclipart

March 15, the ides of March, has been associated with bad luck ever since Roman Emperor Julius Caesar was assassinated by people he knew and trusted on this day in 44 BCE. Nine days later, on March 24, the second season of the Chris Benoit Documentary aired a modern-day tragedy where the former wrestling star betrayed people he knew and love, killing his wife and son before committing suicide. In the nine days between, several other people lost their lives to murder-suicide. 

The Everyday Faces of Murder-Suicide

In Salisbury, North Carolina, 52-year old Christina Davis-Land was murdered by her husband, Paul Land, who then shot and killed himself; there was no documented history of domestic violence

In Norwalk, Connecticut, 27- year old Yimi Moncada killed his 5-year old daughter, 4-year old son, and himself with carbon monoxide; he and his ex-wife had been divorced since 2017 and there was a history of domestic violence dating back to 2015.   

According to Chatham County Sheriff’s deputies, 66-year old Larry Don Ray killed six relatives at multiple homes before shooting himself in the head. According to a surviving sister, there had been several phone calls about Mr. Ray’s “mental and behavior concerns” in the past six months, including his allegedly delusional belief that his brother-in-law was having an affair with his wife.  He also had a history of assault and threatening with a weapon dating back to 1993. 

A 36-year old Sugar Land, Texas woman stabbed her 4-year old son to death and attempted to take her own life. 

Tennessee mother Melanie Sue Brown killed her 2-year old son and died a few days later from self-inflicted knife wounds; Lenoir City Police Chief Don White said that the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) had “received several reports in the past three years about Melanie Sue Brown.” 

In Windsor County, New York, 83-year old Robert Heard and his 80-year old wife, Carol, were found with gunshot wounds to the head; both were suffering from medical problems. 

I could go on.

Murder-Suicide Statistics

A murder-suicide is an incident where a homicide is followed by the perpetrator's suicide, typically immediately or within 24 hours after the homicide. Although unusual, they are not rare; on average, 11 murder-suicides occur each week, resulting in between 1000 and 1500 deaths and accounting for 5% of all U.S. homicides in the United States.  

The majority of perpetrators are male (89%), most of the victims are a current or former girlfriend/wife (69%) and, in one of our every 4 cases, there are multiple victims (11.4% are children under age 18). Murder-suicides can also include coworkers, friends, neighbors, or a rival love interest. The murder-suicide can be carefully planned or the result of a heated argument; no matter what, the victim is rarely a knowing or willing participant. 

Is There a Homicidal-Suicidal Personality?

No, but many individuals who commit murder-suicide have some commonalities that were evident long before their lethal actions. One of them is poor self-control. There is a pre-existing history of domestic violence in at least 30% of relationships that end in a murder-suicide.

This is probably an underestimate; at least one study found that, although domestic violence had been previously reported to police 25% of the time, interviews with surviving friends and family members found evidence of it in 70% of the victim’s families. 

I suspect that even among perpetrators without a history of relationship violence, there were previews of rage witnessed by the other partner; Phil Hartman, for instance, who was murdered by his wife, Brinn, repeatedly told friends about his wife’s anger problems. 

A history of chronic, and often untreated depression, is another common denominator. A 2016 study of 60 murder-suicide perpetrators found that 62% had been previously been diagnosed with a mental health professional (almost all with depression), a third had been prescribed antidepressants at the time of the murder-suicide [by their general practitioner], and a quarter had between 1 and 4 previous suicide attempts. Less than half, however, had ever seen a mental health professional. 

A Recipe for Murder-Suicide: Threat of Loss + Pre-existing Conditions

The circumstances around that threat are often different depending upon the age and circumstances of the perpetrator:

  • Age 20-35: Murder-suicide perpetrators in this age range typically target current or former intimate partners.  In the relationship, the perpetrator tends to be controlling and possessive if not psychologically and/or physically abusive. On the one hand, he treats her with disrespect and domination; on the other, his entire sense of self is dependent upon the relationship.  Against this backdrop of ambivalence and emotional dependence may be a history of alcohol and drug use, sexual jealousy, and previous homicidal or suicidal threats. The partner separates or breaks up with the perpetrator, which triggers frantic attempts to reconcile. If these fail and perpetrator has access to firearms, this can result in a perfect — and deadly — storm.  
  • Age 35-55: Middle-aged suicide perpetrators are often facing some kind of personal crisis that evokes intolerable feelings of shame, embarrassment, and rage. Perhaps it’s insurmountable financial pressure or the threatened loss of status in the community. Perhaps it’s increasing insecurity and jealousy over a loved one’s success or the threat of a younger, more attractive rival. Whatever the triggering event, the perpetrator’s ego and pride become clouded by depression and cognitive distortions and his coping mechanism follows suit. This is the person who, recently fired from his job and facing bankruptcy, channels his suicidal rage and depression into plans to kill his five young children and wife before killing himself because he convinces himself that they would be better off dead.    
  • Over the age of 55: In the majority of murder-suicides in older couples, the perpetrator is a depressed, controlling husband who shoots his ill wife. The wife does not want to die and is often shot in her sleep; if not, there are usually signs that she tried to defend herself. Warning signs include changes in the perpetrator’s behavior or mood consistent with depression, i.e., loss of interest in usual activities, increasing social withdrawal, talking about feeling helpless or hopeless, and so forth. The triggering event is likely to be some form of physical or emotional separation; this can range from a spouse’s declining physical or mental health to increased marital conflict and talk of divorce.   

The Bottom Line

The vast majority of murder-suicides are born out of desperation and depression, not devotion.  They occur in the context of a controlling, yet emotionally dependent relationship that is threatened in some way and are, I suspect, committed by a partner who wants to end his or her own pain but who — deep down — can’t bear the thought of loved ones living happily without him.