Nearly every mass shooting in the past few years has been perpetrated by a man with a history of abuse. So where’s the public outcry for this chronic threat to women’s lives?
Familicide—it sounds biblical. An act of retribution from another time before our own where the family is killed by the patriarch. Yet familicide, and the perpetrators of it, are becoming increasingly common in America. So common, that every week in America men are killing their wives, children, possibly other family members, almost always in mass shootings.
The #MeToo movement has shone a klieg light on sexual violence against women. Yet lurking in the wings, awaiting its own spotlight is the most common crime against women, domestic violence, which often includes sexual violence and sometimes murder.
Familicide—defined as “a dramatic, violent event in which a person commits a murder or murders, and then shortly after commits suicide,” according to American Roulette: Murder-Suicide in the United States, released in June 2018—is the most extreme form of domestic violence. News media most often use the term murder-suicide, but experts refer to men who kill in this way as “family annihilators” and the act itself, “familicide.” Ninety-four percent of the victims of familicide are female.
Even though October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, familicide has yet to make headlines beyond individual cases. The cases that do make headlines, shocking as they might be, are only in the news fleetingly. One such case was the August 13 murder of Shannan Watts and her daughters Bella, 4, and Celeste, 3. Shannan was pregnant with her third child, a boy, Nico, when her husband, Chris, murdered all of them. Shannan was a young mother with a large social-media presence. When Chris reported her and their children missing, national news media was flooded with photos and videos from her Facebook and Instagram accounts. The picture America saw for a week was of an attractive, happy family and the search for the missing mother and children was extensive. But when Chris Watts reported his family missing, they were already dead. The little girls had been put in oil tanks where Watts had once worked and his wife was buried in a shallow grave on the grounds.
It took a week for police to discover the bodies. The family’s quiet Colorado neighborhood was shaken. No one, not even close family friends interviewed by the media, imagined the family was anything other than the joyful, close-knit clan that Shannan posted online.
Domestic violence remains a covert and largely unreported or under-reported crime. Yet according to the Centers for Disease Control, one in three women will be a victim of domestic violence at some point in her lifetime. Fifty-five percent of all murdered women are killed by a spouse or intimate partner. Former partners or estranged spouses account for 15 percent of other murders of women. More than three women are murdered every day in America by a currently intimate or former partner. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports are equally sobering: 1.3 million non-fatal domestic violence victimizations occurred annually from 2006 to 2016 in the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, male perpetrators constituted 96 percent of prosecutions for domestic violence, the majority of whom were, like Chris Watts, men under 40.
Fear of reprisal was cited in more than a quarter of all cases for women not filing a complaint with police. Reprisal is the threat held over women by abusive spouses or partners; familicide is that threat carried out. According to a 2015 study in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, domestic homicides and family annihilation are “the most extreme form of domestic violence and one of the most common types of homicide.” Roberta Hacker co-founded the Philadelphia Women’s Death Review Team and was president of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PACDV). As executive director of Women in Transition, the nation’s longest-serving agency for abused women, Hacker has addressed the impact of male violence in interpersonal relationships for more than 30 years, including domestic violence murders and familicide.
“Familicide is a threat that men hold over women in abusive relationships,” she explained.
“Those of us who work in the domestic violence movement all know that the risk of death for a woman is worst when she says she is leaving her partner/spouse or filing for divorce. It increases exponentially when she does leave. The precursor to this violence is often foreshadowed, as these men generally will threaten the children, and they will injure the family’s pets or property to show the woman how dangerous they are and how serious they are.”
Hacker said ready access to guns has made domestic-violence killings like familicide both easier and more common. She also explained that guns are often used to threaten women. Statistics support Hacker’s assertion. Firearms are used to kill more than two-thirds of spouse and ex-spouse homicide victims. Domestic violence assaults involving a firearm are 12 times more likely to result in death than those involving other weapons or bodily force. Abused women are five times more likely to be killed by their abuser if the abuser owns a firearm.
Familicides account for the majority of mass shootings in the U.S. each year. Only 12 percent of mass shootings are public—which means 88 percent of mass shootings are familicides—a truly shocking statistic. If the majority of mass shootings are actually domestic-violence killings, why isn’t that headline splashed across every newspaper and news site in America? Where is the Venn diagram of domestic-violence shooters, mass shooters, and family annihilators? Nearly every mass shooting in the past few years has been perpetrated by a man with a history of domestic violence.
Like Devin Patrick Kelley, the mass murderer who, on November 5, 2017, went to the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and murdered 26 people and injured 20. Kelley had gone to the church to murder his estranged wife, mother-in-law, wife’s grandmother, and other members of his wife’s family. The massacre was considered the worst mass shooting in Texas history.
Most cases of familicide only make the local news where they occur. It is only when family annihilators include other victims outside their family that these stories go national, as in the September 13 familicide that happened in Bakersfield, California, when Javier Casarez, 54, had armed himself with a .50-caliber gun, and left his house in the early evening, heading to T&T Trucking, where his ex-wife, Petra Maribel Bolanos De Casarez, 45, worked. He fatally shot his Petra, as well as two of her male co-workers, and then himself.
News reports indicated the shocking details that the family intends to inter the two together and that a GoFundMe for burial costs included the killer. Many questions remain about the Bakersfield killing, some raised by local media, about when and how Casarez purchased the gun used to kill himself and his five victims. But as Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood told the L.A. Times, “If you look at the time frame of when this occurred, it appears to me to be very calculated.”
In fact, most familicides are calculated, said Hacker, with the murders planned in advance by the killer. A sampling of recent familicides tells a grimly repetitive story:
April 13, 2018, Georgia: Steven Pladl killed his infant son, the child’s mother, his daughter, her father, and himself.
May 17, 2018, Texas: Justin Painter shot his ex-wife, three children, his ex-wife’s boyfriend, and himself.
June 12, 2018, Orlando: Gary Lindsey Jr. killed his four children and himself and critically wounded a police officer after barricading his house after a fight with his wife, who was not at home at the time of the shootings. The youngest child was one.
July 8, 2018, Alabama: Bob Orsi shot his wife, four children, set the house on fire, then killed himself.
July 10, 2018, Delaware: Matthew Edwards shot his wife and three children, then himself.
July 31, 2018, New York City: James Shields shot his wife, ex-wife, 7-year-old son, and then himself
Each of these incidents is its own horror story. Why isn’t anyone demanding greater attention to and solutions for this chronic risk to women’s safety?
“It’s commonly known that domestic violence is all about power and control, and when a woman leaves, a man has lost his power and control,” explained Hacker. “But why do some men become family annihilators, while others move on to a new victim? More data could help us save lives.”
The Violence Policy Center (VPC) is a national non-profit educational organization that conducts research and public education on violence in America and has been tracking the murder-suicide/familicide phenomenon for more than 20 years. A study published by the VPC in June says that 11 murder-suicides occur in the U.S. each week, and more than 1,300 Americans were killed in murder-suicides in 2017, with more than 91 percent using a firearm. There were 296 murder-suicides nationwide that resulted in 663 deaths in the first six months of 2017. Of these, more than 65 percent included the murder of the killer’s intimate partner and 82 percent occurred in a residential setting. During this six-month period, murder-suicides occurred in all but six states and the District of Columbia. Doubling the total number of fatalities results in a yearly estimate of 1,326 murder-suicide deaths for 2017. “Murder-suicides occur daily across our nation, claiming the lives of spouses, intimate partners, children and co-workers. The disturbing findings in our study make clear the need for a comprehensive national data collection system that measures the full extent of murder-suicide in our country,” said VPC legislative director Kristen Rand.
Data collection would reveal the breadth of the killings, but not how to prevent them. Hacker says research into these killings and what separates them from other domestic violence crimes is essential. The VPC culls their data from local reports state-by-state. How many cases are not being reported or recorded cannot be determined without a national database for such crimes.
The startling numbers and the fact that no governmental agency—not the FBI, Department of Justice, nor the Centers for Disease Control—is tracking these incidents point to the need for a domestic violence movement. How often does the local news report a shooting or familicide as “a domestic”—as if domestic violence is not as serious as other violence? Yet Bureau of Justice Statistics shows over 20 percent of violent crime is domestic violence. The BJS defines non-fatal domestic violence as “rape, sexual assault, aggravated and simple assault” committed by an intimate partner or family member.
The first study of family annihilators in the U.K. was just five years ago. The U.K. data mirrors that of the U.S.’s VPC with concerns that familicides are basically ignored even as they are becoming more frequent, and urges more attention to the issue. The study details four specific types of family annihilators and their rationale for the mass killings. “Family annihilators have received little attention as a separate category of killer,” said Dr. David Wilson, one of the paper’s three authors, and director of the Centre of Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University. The study spanned 1980 through 2012 and determined that in nearly every case, men were the perpetrators. “In all of these cases masculinity and perceptions of power set the background for the crimes,” said Wilson. “The family role of the father is central to their ideas of masculinity and the murders represent a last-ditch attempt to perform a masculine role.”
In February 2018, the Centers for Disease Control published a study with Health and Human Services on familicides involving child victims in an effort to determine cause and found that 98 percent of cases were perpetrated by adult males “and propelled by the perpetrators’ intimate partner problems, mental health problems and criminal/legal problems. These events are often premeditated and plans for the violence are sometimes disclosed prior to its occurrence.” Such disclosures most frequently involve the man telling his female partner that he is going to kill their children if she doesn’t do something specific that he wants, like reunite after an estrangement.
In June, the head of the Human Resources Department for City Council in Philadelphia, Linda Rios-Neuby, called police when her estranged husband, Haywood Neuby, threatened her and their four-year-old twin daughters. On August 17, Neuby came to the house early in the morning, asking to see his children before Rios left for work.
The headline that night on local news was “Director of HR for Philly City Council Shot Dead in Murder-Suicide.” But despite statements of sadness and outrage from both the head of City Council and the Mayor—Rios-Neuby had worked at City Hall since she was 16—and Rios-Neuby’s prominent position, there was no discussion of the threat of familicide. Discussion of “toxic masculinity” has been part of feminist theory for decades, but has yet to be tackled by governmental agencies dealing with crimes committed by men, like familicide. The overlap between mass shootings and familicides also remains unaddressed by government agencies. In July 2015, a Congressional Research Report detailed the incidence of mass shootings in “Mass Murder with Firearms: Incidents and Victims, 1999–2013.” The study is most notable for what Congress utterly ignored: suggestions made for tracking these instances of mass shootings and “offender histories of mental illness and domestic violence, and victim-offender relationships.”
Jacquelyn C. Campbell, Ph.D., R.N., is the Anna D. Wolf Chair and professor in the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing and an expert on domestic violence and violence against women that ends in homicide. In 1985, she developed the Danger Assessment, a questionnaire that is among the first tools designed to assess a woman’s risk of being killed by an abusive partner. She also developed the “Lethality Assessment Program,” which is intended to be administered by police when they arrive at domestic-violence incidents. These tools are used by law enforcement regularly, but the murders and familicides keep coming because, as law enforcement officials note, guns remain readily accessible and the weapon of choice in these killings.
In a 12-city study Campbell conducted on family annihilators, she found that intimate-partner violence had previously occurred in 70 percent of them. Campbell explained reviews of familicides after the fact result in the same data: “Prior domestic violence is by far the No. 1 risk factor in these cases.” She said people try to find other rationales for family annihilators, but this is the key point and most vital link.
Hacker says this data is well-known to law enforcement. “A police spokeswoman at a recent familicide noted that domestic violence calls are among the most dangerous for police officers. The police, who must deal with these calls on a near daily basis, know the danger while everyone else either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to know.” Campbell and Hacker both insist more public awareness is needed.
The VPC suggests a series of fixes, most importantly keeping men with a history of domestic violence from buying weapons—Devin Kelley had bought his illegally—and enforcing laws that prohibit individuals with a domestic violence conviction or who have a restraining order for domestic violence against them from purchasing or possessing a gun.
Wilson centers the main points succinctly, “The family annihilator should be seen as a specific category of murderer, for a crime which appears to be increasing. To begin solving this problem the role of gender must be recognized, acknowledging that it is mainly men who will resort to this type of violence.”
This Domestic Violence Awareness Month, connecting the dots that link mass shootings and domestic violence plus highlighting examples of such crossover shootings like Bakersfield and Sutherland Springs would be a vital step toward at least limiting the number of killings, if not ending them. Experts are all agreed that public awareness is key to limiting or ending the violence.
Hacker echoes Wilson, asserting, “Toxic masculinity is at the root of this escalating violence. Domestic violence is often dismissed because the word ‘domestic’ precedes ‘violence.’ But if you held a gun to the head of a stranger and threatened to kill their dog, their cat and their children, you would be arrested, even if you never fired that weapon. Domestic violence is a weapon and it is used against women every day. We have to have the will, as a society, to prioritize the victims over the perpetrators. That’s the only way we end this violence against women.”
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