Murder-suicide: looking at the grisly numbers

Vast majority of cases involve members of the same family

Published August 13, 2017 - 8:08pm
While murder-suicide is technically on a statistical downswing, the killer close by may go undetected before exploding in a deadly rage.
Grisly numbers show recent notorious murder-suicides in Nova Scotia were statistically rare but are textbook cases.
Closest family members expressed shock at the July 24 Clam Bay murder-suicide of popular and upbeat Ronald Ivan Baker and Laura Gaudet Baker. Police say Ron Baker shot his wife before setting their home on fire and killing himself.
Earlier in the year, PTSD-stricken retired Canadian Armed Forces Cpl. Lionel Desmond, 33, shot his 52-year-old mother Brenda, his wife Shanna, 31, and their 10-year-daughter Aaliyah before turning the gun on himself in Upper Big Tracadie.
Both cases follow well-established patterns in the ultimate domestic violence — a phenomenon known as either murder-suicide, or homicide-suicide.
“The victims are mostly female; the perpetrators are mostly male. Most victims tend to be spouses or partners,” said Simon Sherry, a researcher at Dalhousie University.
When it comes to murder-suicide, dead men tell no tales. Since there is no suspect to interview, investigators are often left to piece together the motive puzzle.
A Statistics Canada study by Shannon Brennan and Jillian Boyce connected the dots between homicide-suicide and domestic violence.
Generally, murder-suicides are relatively infrequent in Canada, accounting for six per cent of all homicides between 2001 and 2011, the report found.
When murder-suicides do occur, however, most involve members of the same family.
“Family-related murder-suicides represent the most fatal outcome of family violence. In addition to the deaths of at least two family members, they typically can have a devastating impact on members survived by the deceased as well as the surrounding community,” Brennan and Boyce said.
The most common trigger for murder-suicide is the breakdown of the relationship, and threatened separation, in the context of romantic relationship, Sherry said.
“A person is also substantially more likely to commit suicide after killing a romantic partner than after killing another person,” Sherry said.
Police surveys showed the most frequently cited motive was an argument between the victim and accused, or feelings of frustration, anger or despair on the part of the accused, followed by jealousy or revenge.
Personality traits that increase the faint likelihood of murder-suicide could include a high need for control, and a strong sense of entitlement and proprietariness over one’s partner, Sherry said. His own research found perfectionism to be a contributing factor in suicides.
One deadly combination for murder-suicide is extreme possessiveness in the context of depression and substance abuse, Sherry said. Throw in actual or threatened separation and a history of domestic violence, and that’s an even more dangerous cocktail.
Declining health, where one or more are seriously ill, can be a trigger point for the elderly, in particular.
Revenge can be a motive for homicide-suicide, particularly in the workplace or an academic setting.
“Many have to do with domestic distress or dissolution, or some perceived or actual injustice, with a theme of revenge. That revenge theme can play out in the workplace,” Sherry said.
In more than 40 per cent of cases, the perpetrators were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
In the case of Canadian actor Phil Hartman, his wife Brynn was reportedly on cocaine when she killed him in 1998, then killed herself after alerting a friend.
Canadian wrestler Chris Benoit murdered his wife and young son in 2007, hanging himself two days later. Depression and brain damage from concussions were believed to have been factors in the crime.
“You’re also going to see mental health figure prominently in cases of homicide-suicide. Most often, depression will be involved. Substance abuse is implicated not uncommonly in homicide-suicide. In some cases, the perpetrator may be dealing with psychosis, which is a break from consensus reality,” he said.
Jealousy or revenge accounted for the primary motive in close to half of the murder-suicides involving separated spouses, the StatsCan study suggested.
According to the study, half of the spousal narratives mentioned that the couple had either separated (26 per cent), were in the process of separating (nine per cent) or had expressed a desire to separate (15 per cent). In situations where there was a desire to separate, in eight of 10 instances it was the victim who had expressed this desire.
In general, arguments and frustration, anger or despair were the most commonly cited motives for murder-suicides involving children, accounting for more than two-thirds of all motives.
The next most commonly cited motive was revenge or jealousy (24 per cent). In six per cent of murder-suicides involving children and youth victims, there was no apparent motive for the killing.
Motives varied slightly by the relationship of the victim and the accused. Jealousy was cited more frequently as a motive in murder-suicides involving children when the accused was their father.
As with spousal murder-suicides, the dissolution of a relationship was also a prominent theme within the narratives of parent-child murder-suicides.
Reports cited a deadly trio of jealousy, the threat of separation and ongoing domestic violence in the 1998 case of talented child actress Judith Barsi, who was shot and killed along with her mother, by her father. Barsi had multiple TV and film roles, voicing Ducky in The Land Before Time and a main character in All Dogs Go To Heaven.
Murder-suicides appear to cut across demographic and socio-economic strata, Sherry said.

By the numbers

Statistics Canada report from Homicide Survey of police-reported data for the decade between 2001 and 2011
- 344 murder-suicides in Canada, which resulted in the deaths of 419 victims and 344 accused, accounting for 6 per cent of all homicide incidents. 195 of these were spousal.
- At least one victim related to the accused vs. general homicide patterns where 34 per cent were family related.
- More than 50 per cent involve male killing current or former spouse.
- 6per cent involve male killing spouse plus child/children.
- Spousal murder-suicide victims highest in 15-24 year old bracket (same as general homicide rates).
- Most victims of spousal-murder suicides killed by a current rather than an ex-spouse.
- In 39 per cent of spousal murder-suicides, accused had known history with police of family violence.
- Most common cause of death is shooting. Others: stabbings (22 per cent), strangulation, suffocation or drowning (14 per cent), beatings (7 per cent) and other causes such as poisonings or burns (4 per cent).
- In Canada, 71 per cent of shootings were by rifle or shotgun, rest by handgun.
- Half of dating murder-suicides committed by ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend of victim. About one-third committed by a current boyfriend or girlfriend.
- A child’s risk of being the victim of a murder-suicide decreased with age. Infants and toddlers two years old and younger most likely of all children to be the victim of a murder-suicide between 2001 and 2011, while ages 12 to 17 were least likely.
- Girls were more likely than boys to be the victim of a family-related murder-suicide.
- Most murder-suicides involving victims 17 years of age and younger were committed by parents or step-parents.
- Between 2001 and 2011, there were 17 murder-suicides where a parent or step-parent killed their grown child, aged 18 and older.
- Parents and step-parents accounted for 95per cent of those accused of family-related murder-suicides of children and youth.
- Infants and toddlers tended to be killed by their father or step-father.
- Children aged 3 to 11 were more likely than toddlers to be killed by their mothers or step-mothers.
- Most common cause of death among child and youth victims of family-related murder-suicides was shootings (29 per cent); strangulation, suffocation or drowning (23 per cent), stabbings (17 per cent), poisoning (14 per cent), beatings (6 per cent) and other causes such as smoke inhalation (12 per cent). No victims who were killed by their mothers died as a result of being shot. The most common cause of death among child and youth victims killed by mothers was poisoning (42 per cent).
- Overall, the rate of murder-suicide for grown children was fairly low (0.1 victims per 1,000,000 population between 2001 and 2011). Unlike other forms of family-related murder-suicide, males and females were at equal risk of being a victim.
- Unlike trends in family-related murder-suicides overall, murder-suicides against seniors have been increasing since the early 1990s.
- Senior victims of family-related murder-suicide were most commonly killed by a spouse. Close to half were killed by a spouse while 32per cent were killed by their grown child and 20per cent were killed by another family member, such as a sibling.
- Among senior male and female victims, females were more likely to be killed by a spouse, whereas males were more likely to be killed by a grown child.
- More than half of senior victims were killed as a result of an argument but more than one in five had no apparent motive.
- The most common theme within the narratives pertaining to the murder-suicides of seniors was the declining health of the victim, the accused or both.
- Family-related murder-suicides of children and youth have also been declining, with rates beginning to fall in the mid-1990s. Most child victims of family related-murder suicides were killed by their parent or step-parent. In general, infants and toddlers were most at risk compared to older children.
- The rate of family-related murder suicides of seniors has increased over the past 15 years.