Why Ordinary People Murder Their Families

It seems unfathomable that an ostensibly stable and loving man could kill the people he loves most; but unfortunately, it is more common than we may like to consider. Last month, Mark Meeks, 51 from Whitehall, Ohio killed his wife and two children after he lost his job. That case came just one week after Ervin and Ana Elizabeth Lupoe of Los Angeles committed suicide after killing their five children. The Lupoes wrote in their suicide note; "after a horrendous ordeal, my wife felt it better to end our lives; and why leave our children in someone else's hands ... we have no job and five children under eight years with no place to go. So here we are." These cases shocked a nation still absorbing the news of Bruce Pardo, 45, who dressed as Santa Claus, attacked a Christmas Eve party hosted by his ex-wife's parents and killed his former spouse and 8 of her relatives before setting the house on fire. Pardo later killed himself. (Article continued below...)

Known as "family annihilators", these people, most always men, have a profound need for control that drives them to destroy their family when they can no longer provide for them financially or when the family has been divided by divorce. (With men who commit murder-suicides there tends to be a catalyst such as a financial or personal defeat that they view as catastrophic, while women who kill loved ones are more likely to have a history of mental-health conditions like postpartum psychosis, as in the case of Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who drowned her five young children in 2001.)

The Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research group, estimates that there were 1,108 murder-suicides in the United States in 2007, the overwhelming majority of them carried out by men. And though these most recent available statistics do not indicate a rise in such crimes from 2006 to 2007, with an economy shedding thousands of jobs a month, some experts believe that we may be facing a set of stressful economic circumstances where more men or even women could find themselves considering the unthinkable.

NEWSWEEK's Raina Kelley spoke to Jack Levin, professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University and author of "Serial Killers and Sadistic Murderers: Up Close and Personal" (Prometheus Books), about how seemingly ordinary men wind up committing terrible acts and why we may need to brace ourselves for more of these crimes as the recession tightens its grip. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What is a family annihilator?
LEVIN: A family annihilator is usually the husband/father (certainly one of the family members) who kills the family unit, not just his wife or one of his children, but every member of the family. The motive for the crime may be clear or not; but the annihilation indicates that the family [as a whole] is the victim.

What could the motive for such a crime possibly be?
Typically the motive is either revenge or altruism. We like to think that we're safe with our loved ones but the largest number of mass killings in the U.S. occurs in the family. [Second is the workplace, third is at schools] About 30 percent of mass killings are within the family.

Can you explain how seemingly average people wind up committing such an extreme crime?
There are certain factors that we find in almost every annihilation, especially the ones where the motive is revenge: There's a catalyst that is seen as catastrophic in the mind of the killer. The percipient is usually a nasty divorce or child-custody battle. There's a loss of a relationship. There's an externalization of blame. The killer believes that the spouse is responsible for the destruction of the family unit. The children are killed because the husband blames the wife and kills everything associated with her … first the children go and then the wife—everything associated with the person is considered evil.

When the motive is altruism, the catalyst is usually financial disaster. The killer is convinced that he no longer has the ability to take primary responsibility of his wife and his children. He may have lost his job in an economy that's going south. He may have lost almost every penny in the stock market like many other people today. The husband/father feels that he will never again be able to find another comparable job and thus won't ever be able to take care of his family. He feels a responsibility for the well being of his family and their current existence is so miserable that they would be happier in the hereafter where they can reunite after death.

When the neighbors and relatives are called after this kind of annihilation, the message is always one of shock and surprise. What they don't understand is that he did it out of a perverted sense of well-being. He intends to take his own life but first he's going to make sure that his family members are taken care of. He can't leave his children behind. He doesn't want them to suffer with the consequences of his act.

Are these men mentally ill?
That's the saddest thing of all–we're not talking about psychotics. They don't suffer from schizophrenia or a profound thinking disorder or mental illness. You can't say that they're psychopathic. They have a superego; they're remorseful, not manipulative or crafty. A person who plans methodically to kill his family is usually not insane, if he were; he'd be too confused [to commit the crime.] This seems to come out of nowhere. It's shocking and you can't predict it—there really aren't any red flags. They don't have a character or personality disorder.

But there has to be something going on. Killing your family is not a "normal" response to a bad situation, no matter how horrible.
Almost all of these guys have suffered long and cumulative frustrations leading to a prolonged despair. They don't go "crazy." The frustration grinds down their ability to cope with further frustration; that's why a particular incident may be the last straw; but it doesn't make them crazy. It's immoral and its hideous from the point of view of a normal person and nobody ever said they were normal. Most of them are methodical and plan these attacks for months before the murder. They are chronically depressed; but the second and a very important facet of this situation is that they externalize blame. If they really blamed themselves alone, they'd take an anti-depressant or commit suicide. They may blame their spouse or he may also kill his co-workers too. In 1999, Mark Barton killed nine fellow day-traders at two firms in Atlanta as well as his wife and two children. He left a suicide note with his two children that said, "they would better-off dead." Ultimately, the husband or father can no longer cope with the depression and frustrations.

Are there additional factors that contribute to this kind of crime?
Social isolation—many of these guys have nowhere to turn when they get into trouble. Many of these killers have traveled thousands of miles for a new beginning or a new start so they don't have any kind of support system in place. But these are also the kinds of men who will not take help. They are the commander in chief and will not go to foot soldiers. They want total control and can't share responsibility. And then there's access to and training in the use of firearms—which also explains why so many men do this. When women kill, they tend not to kill large numbers and are more likely to use poison or fire or strangulation; they don't usually use guns. In England and Scotland, they have far fewer of these crimes; but most are committed with knives and thus the body counts are lower.

Does the husband or father usually commit suicide in these cases?
Suicide is on the mind of many of these killers but they don't always follow through. It's easier to kill others than it is to kill one's self even if the others are loved ones. Some guys are motivated to commit suicide but can't follow through. Others commit suicide-by-cop and then occasionally you find a guy who can't even do that and he lets the states do it via capital punishment. The Santa Claus killer [Pardo], certainly did not intend to kill himself [Pardo] had tens of thousands of dollars and an airline ticket strapped to his legs]; he burned himself so severely when he set his former in-laws house on fire that he killed himself.

Is there any way to see this kind of crime coming?
Scientists are like meteorologists, we're usually wrong at predicting future behavior. On the other hand, the warning signs are there—but we should be using warning signs to access people who are troubled long before they become troublesome. If you wait until they are in crisis, it's too late. You can't wait until somebody wants to commit murder; you have to provide help years earlier. Get to people when they're troubled, not troublesome. I do warn women to be careful early in the dating process—if you're dating a man who is [unusually] jealous and possessive, it isn't cute that he loves you so much. When you're getting a divorce or he loses his job, it can be extremely dangerous.

Are these family annihilators remorseful?
So few of them have spoken, most are dead. But from what I've seen, they never feel like villains, they feel like victims.

With the economy in its current state, are we going to see more of these crimes?
I don't think there's any question about it, assuming the economy doesn't brighten, we're going to see more mass killings in the family and in the workplace. But it'll never go to zero, we have to be willing to reach out—not only to children but to adults who are having trouble making the transition to middle age. It's a good argument for gun control.