Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Murder-Suicide: Common Characteristics of Scenarios Where Murder Precedes Suicide

Photograph of the Decker Ranch, scene of a
recent murder-suicide in Southern Colorado
On June 8, 2012, authorities found two dead bodies at a ranch close to the Colorado/New Mexico border.  They discovered the body of William Decker hanging in the barn, and soon after, they discovered the body of his nephew, Robert Decker, buried in a shallow grave, one foot sticking out of the ground. Robert showed signs of head trauma, and he had been shot.

The authorities then went to the home of William Decker's sister, Billie, in Durango, where they also found her dead. She had been strangled and also showed signs of head trauma.

The current working theory is that there was a dispute over the ranch property between family members after the matriarch of the family died in April, 2012. At this point, the police are not looking for additional suspects, and they assume William Decker killed his sister and nephew and then hung himself.

Murder. Then suicide. There has been a surprising amount of research regarding this phenomenon over the last 30 years. It takes on different forms, but there are a few patterns that tend to emerge from the scientific literature. In the next several blog posts, I will write about this phenomenon in more detail. In this post, I will outline some of the common patterns that researchers have discovered over the years:

1. By far, men are most likely to commit murder-suicide. It tends to be middle aged men, although there are numerous high profile examples of teenagers killing students at school before turning the gun on themselves.

2. Typically, people will kill people they know as part of a murder-suicide. Usually, family members are the victims.

3. The most common murder-suicide situation is where a man kills his wife or ex-wife, possibly their children, and then himself.

4. Another common situation involves a parent killing his children and then himself. Sometimes, mothers will kill their children in an 'altruistic act,' thus saving the children from the pain of the world.

5. Jealousy and rage is typically involved. A husband is jealous of the estranged wife's new life. Or, a man is enraged because his mother left the ranch to someone else.

6. In rarer occasions, a person will commit mass murder as part of a psychotic episode or in the midst of  cult activities. Then, the person will kill himself. This sometimes happens as a result of workplace stress, as well.

7. There are extremely rare documented cases where an individual commits murder in the hope that he will be executed as a result. This seems like a horribly inefficient (and shockingly expensive to the tax payers) way of committing suicide. What is more common is 'suicide by cop,' where a person will shoot at police officers in the hope that the police will kill him. In some cases, the person unintentionally kills a police officer in the shootout.

Although the police have not yet concluded that what happened at the Decker Ranch was a murder-suicide, it certainly shares many of the characteristics common to such an event. William Decker was a middle aged man who had the motivation to be jealous and angry. He likely felt slighted about his mother's handling of the family ranch, and he was probably still grieving his mother's death. He killed family members and then hung himself.

In the next blog post, I will focus on the risk factors associated with murder-suicide.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


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