Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Lives cut short in murder-suicides

They have claimed 10 in Southwest Virginia this year. Sometimes, abusive relationships are pushed to the limits. Sometimes, another's care is too stressful.

Early Mabry, 80, slept on the couch every night after his wife got sick, worried she would wake up in need of something.

Latoria Smith kept one of her own baby shoes tucked inside a purse in her closet, but the 21-year-old felt she was too young to have children of her own.

And Agnes Handy spent 45 of her 69 years, up until the last moment of her life, worrying about her mentally disabled daughter.

All three Southwest Virginians died this year in murder-suicides. The crime has left 10 people dead in this corner of Virginia in the first four months of 2005, more than two times the number killed the same way in all of 2004.

"This is something that is going to be with us for the rest of our lives," said Tina Smith, Latoria Smith's aunt. "I just hope that no other family will have to endure the pain of having to lose such a beautiful person whom they loved all their life."

According to a 2001 study by the Violence Policy Center, murder-suicides kill 1,500 to 2,000 people in America each year. The victims are black, white, young, old, rich and poor, but the study indicates that most cases are motivated either by a breakdown in a relationship or by failing health.

Two murder-suicides in Roanoke and one in Botetourt County this year involved young, intimately involved couples with apparent relationship problems.

Court records show that domestic violence plagued Mark Anthony Lester's relationship with Smith for more than a year. On Jan. 7, Lester, 34, shot Smith and then himself in their Northwest Roanoke home.

On March 12, 30-year-old Mitchell Mills shot his wife, Wendy Mills, 29, in their house in Southeast Roanoke. Police say they had responded to the couple's home before for domestic disturbances, and relatives had encouraged them to seek counseling.

On April 23, Aaron Black, 33, shot his wife, Ashley Bowe, 28, in their new house in Botetourt County. Authorities say Bowe had plans to end the marriage the day they died.

Forensic psychologist Brian Joseph in Buffalo, N.Y., says domestic violence precedes many murder-suicides. Leanne Dudley, victim services coordinator for Bedford Domestic Violence Services, agreed, adding that abuse can be physical, psychological or sexual.

"It is about power and control, a systematic pattern of control," she said. "It is they are losing their grip of control over this other individual. I think that's what puts people in this position."

Chris Nielsen, a Roanoke County detective for 25 years, has investigated a number of murder-suicides. He said an ongoing domestic violence problem does not always precede the crime; sometimes, it is the breakup that spontaneously produces a crime of passion.

According to Joseph, when relationship breakdowns turn deadly, they end most often in murder and less often in murder-suicide. The motives for the suicides vary and can be difficult to pin down.

Generally, the killer believes there is nothing left for him in life, experts say. That may be because he is overcome with guilt and remorse after the murder or because he knows he will likely be convicted of the heinous crime.

When a batterer kills a partner, he may realize that "everyone" will know what has been going on behind closed doors, Dudley said.

"The uncovering has been done, the mask has been lifted for the whole community to see," she said. "He is not the gentleman who sits three rows down from you in the congregation."

At another point on the murder-suicide spectrum is a category involving the elderly, who are usually motivated by failing health in either the victim, the perpetrator or both, the study says.

"It is an act of kindness possibly mingled with the fantasy that they will be together in heaven in good health," Joseph said.

Last week in Christiansburg, Early Mabry shot his 79-year-old wife and then himself. Hazel Mabry had suffered multiple strokes over the past few years and her husband, who doted on her, was worn out by the stress.

"Daddy got sick in January and wasn't able to so much as stand up and feed Mama," said Ruth Sowers, their daughter. "They were married almost 61 years in September and everything he did was for Mama."

In a March 13 case in Henry County, relatives say Agnes Handy suffered health problems and feared that no one would care for her mentally handicapped daughter, Teresa, when she was no longer able to. Both died of gunshot wounds.

Roanoke geriatric psychiatrist David Trinkle said the elderly are less likely to complain of depression and stress than of physical ailments. But caregiver stress is tremendous even for the young and able-bodied.

"In the caregiver situation, a lot of times people feel trapped, they develop a philosophy that they are the only ones who can do it and do it right," Trinkle said. "They become fairly isolated in their caregiving role."

In retrospect, some relatives say they saw the warning signs for a violent end. Others had no inkling that anything was wrong.

Among the young, signs of violence or serious relationship problems should always be a red flag, experts say. Among the older population, warning signs include malaise, negativism, irrational worries and hopelessness, Trinkle said.

Some say that when these signs are present, families should consider removing firearms from the homes. At the very least, experts say, friends and families should pick up the phone and ask for help.

"In general, most of these murder-suicides can unfortunately be tracked down to a treatable illness like depression," Trinkle said. "The first thing is we always need to be better about raising awareness of depression as a very treatable and curable illness."

News researcher Belinda Harris contributed to this report.

Resources to reduce the risk

For victims of domestic abuse:

 Turning Point Hotline (Roanoke Salvation Army): 345-0400

 TAP Women's Resource Center Hotline: 345-6781

 Bedford Domestic Violence Services Hotline: 587-0970

 Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Statewide Hotline: (800) 838-8238

 Women’s Resource Center of the New River Valley, Crisis hotline: (800) 788-1123 or wrcnrv.org

 Women’s Center at Virginia Tech: 231-7806, womenscenter.vt.edu or stopabuse.vt.edu

 Domestic Violence Alternatives counseling program for men and women who batter intimate partners: 639-9040 or blueridgecounseling.com

 Domestic Violence Initiatives of the Virginia attorney general’s office: (804) 786-2071, domesticviolence@oag.state.va.us, oag.state.va.us/Protecting/Domestic_Violence/Default.htm

For the elderly and their loved ones who worry about depression, caregiver stress and financial limitations:

 Carilion Center for Healthy Aging: (540) 981-7653

 LOA Area Agency on Aging: 345-0451

For domestic violence, elderly issues and more:

 Legal Aid Society offers advice on protective orders, custody issues, divorce and support issues, Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare: 344-2080

 CONNECT, a Carilion-operated mental health hotline: (800) 284-8898

 RESPOND, a Lewis-Gale-operated mental health hotline: 776-1100

 Family Services of the Roanoke Valley: 563-5316

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