Divorce, Custody Disputes and the Terrible Epidemic of Murder-Suicide

Nicole LevyMassachusetts family law attorney Nicole K. Levy examines the intersection of divorce, family disputes and murder-suicide in Massachusetts.

Out of all of the consequences of a divorce or family dispute, by far the most devastating is a murder-suicide. Unfortunately, these tragedies can and do happen, often with alarming frequency. Stopping an individual bent on homicide is not always possible, but there are steps that individuals can take to prevent a family situation from escalating to the point of violence and/or death.

Knowing the risk factors that often appear beforehand can help someone understand just how dangerous things have become. It is important that in all matters, safety is a priority for all parties involved, including the children. If you ever feel unsafe or are threatened, you should call the police or obtain and 209A. If you feel your partner is creating an unsafe situation, you must remove yourself as quickly as possible. Taking the necessary steps can hopefully prevent a situation from escalating to something worse.

Murder-Suicides in Divorces and Family Disputes

The vast majority of murder suicides involve romantic partners, with male perpetrators most often killing female romantic partners. Children are killed somewhat less frequently.

The unique dynamics of Probate and Family Court cases – which often involve disputes between family and loved ones, rather than strangers – can cause tensions to escalate quickly in family related litigation, with horrible consequences. Not all murder-suicides involving romantic partners arise out of active divorce or child custody cases, but many do.

Recent Murder-Suicide Cases in Massachusetts

Media coverage of recent murder-suicide perpetrators in Massachusetts include:

  • Gyrth Rutan (2018) – Maddilyn Burgess died on Aug. 9 in what authorities are calling a murder-suicide. Her body was found inside the trunk of a car driven by Gyrth Rutan.
  • Jeffrey Houston (2018) - Authorities have released the identities of a husband and wife killed in an apparent murder-suicide in a rural Massachusetts town.
  • William Scaccia (2017) - A 49-year-old father with a history of domestic violence allegations shot and killed his 6-year-old son, then turned a handgun on himself in an apparent murder-suicide late Thursday, police and the Norfolk County District Attorney’s office said.
  • Antonio Cardos (2016) - On Wednesday night, investigators found the bodies of 53-year-old Rosa Goncalves and 61-year-old Antonio Cardoso in an apartment on Mason Street. Police believe Cardoso murdered Goncalves and then killed himself. Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz says the couple was in a long-term relationship.
  • Gelcino Souza Oliveira (2016) - Elisete Benevides, 51, the sole resident of the Winter Street home, and Gelcino Souza Oliveira, 50, of Beverly, were found dead on the home’s side porch. Both suffered from knife wounds, and police said Oliveira’s were self-inflicted.
  • Kevin O’Connor (2016) - Waltham Police officers surrounded a Forest Street home Sunday where they are investigating an apparent murder-suicide allegedly involving a former police officer with the department.
  • Nelson Delarosa (2015) - Police are investigating what is believed to have been a murder-suicide late Tuesday night in Lawrence.

It should be noted that murder-suicide is only one part of much broader pattern of romantic-partner violence, such as the recent murder of a Marshfield, Massachusetts woman by her former husband, who subsequently attempted to escape arrest.

The Statistics: Murder-Suicides in Massachusetts and the United States

There are no official nationwide statistics for murder-suicides in the US. According to a 2015 study by the Violence Policy Center (VPC), “[m]ore than 1,200 people died in murder-suicides in America in 2014 and 93 percent of the killers used a gun”. The same study found that 72% of murder-suicides were perpetrated by an intimate partner. “The majority of the victims of murder-suicides were women, and the vast majority of the killers were men”, VPN reported.

There are plenty of estimates that can enlighten us on how family issues lead to violence. According to the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey for Massachusetts, nearly half of women and a quarter of men have experienced sexual violence of some sort. Another report, this time by the nonprofit advocacy organization Jane Doe Inc., identified 266 homicide victims whose deaths were related to domestic violence in Massachusetts between 2003 and 2012. The report found another 74 perpetrator deaths.

The vast majority of the perpetrator deaths in these cases—88 percent of them—were murder-suicides. Another 7 percent involved the perpetrator being killed either by police response to the altercation or by someone else. The state of Massachusetts is not immune from scenarios like this. In just the past year, one murder-suicide happened in Foxboro, and another in Montgomery.

Studies indicate that about one-third of intimate partner murders end with the suicide of the murder. (It is worth noting, however, only 0.06% of suicide attempts involve murder of a third party. Most suicide attempts involve self-harm only.)

Common Factors: Domestic Violence and Male Perpetrators

Many of the murder-suicides that occur have factors in common. The majority of murder-suicides that can be linked to family or marital issues. According to the figures provided by Jane Doe Inc., 231 of the 262 perpetrators of domestic violence homicides were men, or 88 percent. This is not to say that the murder victim in all of these was a woman. Some murder-suicides that stem from family disputes involve a man killing another man who was suspected of intruding into the family dynamic.

In the instances where it was a woman who initiated the violence, the report from Jane Doe Inc. found that a majority of these situations included evidence to suggest that she was a victim of a form of domestic violence and acting in self-defense. There were very few instances to the contrary.

Another factor that frequently presented itself in murder-suicides that stem from divorces or family disputes was gun ownership. The vast majority of these killings are done with a firearm. Statistics also found that in many cases, the firearm was owned legally.

Finally, in a sizeable number of these murder-suicides, child custody was a motivating factor for the extreme tensions that culminated in violence. Unfortunately, many of these cases do not just entangle children in the situation. They can also lead to child victims:

http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/ny-metro-man-identified-murder-suicide-queens-20180731-story.html

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http://www.fox5dc.com/news/local-news/police-father-shoots-kills-3-year-old-daughter-before-killing-himself-in-suspected-murder-suicide

https://poststar.com/news/local/former-lake-luzerne-resident-dies-in-alabama-murder-suicide/article_5728324a-5143-5ebd-bcd7-c6f9122fb7e9.html

https://www.delawareonline.com/story/news/crime/2018/07/12/we-may-never-know-what-motivated-prices-corner-dad-kill-his-family/778046002/

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https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/missouri/articles/2018-03-31/family-of-3-including-child-killed-in-murder-suicide

A major 2011 study by the University of Iowa found that murder-suicide rates climbed significantly in recent years. Other findings included a comparison between murder-suicides versus conventional murder, on the one hand, and conventional suicide, on the other:

Perpetrators of murder-suicides are primarily male and victims tend to be female. Of recent studies that reported the ages of the perpetrators and victims, perpetrators tend to be slightly older than their victims. Perpetrators are primarily heterosexual men physically abusing their partners, with a history of substance abuse or mental illness. Victims tend to be heterosexual women. Interestingly, US national studies have found that the suicide rate for husbands who kill their wives is 19-26% while that for wives who kill their husbands is 0-3%.

Murderers tend to be men. Suicide decedents are also likely to be men. But, unlike murder-suicide victims, murdered victims tend to be male. In fact, the sex distribution of murder-suicide to murder victims is almost exactly opposite: ~75% of murder-suicide victims are women while ~75% of murder victims are male.

Probate and Family Court: Often Difficult Terrain for Abuse Victims

Many murder-suicides that stem from family matters are impossible to predict and seemingly come out of the blue. Under the surface, however, signs of domestic violence often lurk. Cases that do exhibit warning signs are no less terrifying than seemingly random events.

Unfortunately, in too many of these cases, the court system can be a closed door. As we have noted in the child sex abuse context, Massachusetts Probate and Family Court are often skeptical of abuse allegations, even in the face of strong published evidence documenting the prevalence of abuse in the population at large. The frequently glacial pace that of family law cases move can also contribute to heightened tensions and anger. A divorce or custody case may stretch for months, or even years, leaving the parties entangled and unable to avoid stressful encounters.

Child custody cases in the Probate and Family Court are notoriously attractive to domestic abusers, in part because judges frequently overlook a history of domestic abuse as conflict “between the parents”, while assigning parenting time to chronic abusers. Domestic violence victims involved in child custody disputes frequently complain that they are punished for having children with their abusers. Indeed, many of the avenues available to domestic violence victims without children – such as moving to another state, or changing one’s name – are unavailable to victims who share a child with their abuser.

Even when victims do take action, the clogged system (and perhaps a fear of false reporting) can leave potential victims of domestic violence, or a potential murder-suicide, unprotected. While Massachusetts judges have a reputation for granting restraining orders easily, violations of restraining orders are often handled leniently in the criminal system, leaving the perpetrator empowered and the victim feeling alone.

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Taking Precautionary Steps to Deescalate the Situation

Until there is a legal process that offers the protection needed, while still satisfying the due process concerns that arise, victims of domestic violence or people worried about the possibility of a murder-suicide in their family need to be aware of protective services outside of the courtroom. Organizations that provide this kind of protective help do exist in Massachusetts, and offer these resources that often prove useful.

However, these organizations are often very localized, making it difficult to know where to look. To help on this front, Jane Doe Inc. has an interactive tool that provides local listings for domestic violence and other family services based on your town or even zip code. Other resources are available through Healing Abuse Working for Change (HAWC), a Salem-based agency that focuses on domestic violence prevention and services on the North Shore of Massachusetts.

There are no easy answers to the problem of murder-suicide, which is driven by converging societal forces including gun violence, tolerance for domestic violence, the national mental health crisis, and the increased notoriety of mass shooters. What is clear is that the first step to solving the problem is acknowledging that the crisis exists. It is important for policy-makers, the media and ordinary citizens to contextualize each murder-suicide as part of a broader epidemic that is separate and distinct from “ordinary” murder or suicide.

About the Author: Nicole K. Levy is a Massachusetts divorce lawyer and Massachusetts family law attorney for Lynch & Owens, located in located in Hingham, Massachusetts and East Sandwich, Massachusetts. She is also a mediator for South Shore Divorce Mediation.

Schedule a free consultation with Nicole K. Levy today at (781) 253-2049 or send her an email.

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