The reporter assures us that these murder-suicides with arson are rare, but I just posted about another one in West Virginia earlier today. How rare are we talking about? Maybe they USED to be rare....Maybe they're just undercounted?
Fathers who kill, then burn, their familes: Why is it happening here?
Published: Friday, February 10, 2012, 6:53 PM
Updated: Friday, February 10, 2012, 6:56 PM
By Kimberly A.C. Wilson, The Oregonian
As harrowing details emerge about the last moments of 7-year-old Charles and 5-year-old Braden Powell, their sudden, fiery deaths at the hands of their father may seem all too familiar here in the Pacific Northwest.
That's because the case marks the third time since April that disgruntled fathers in Washington or Oregon have allegedly killed all or most of their families, set their homes on fire and then either killed or tried to kill themselves.
The boys died shortly after arriving at Josh Powell's Puyallup-area home last Sunday for a supervised, court-mandated visit. He slammed the door on a social worker after the children were inside, used a hatchet on his children and set the house on fire. All three died.
The situation echos two other recent cases. Last Easter Sunday, police say Tuan Dao poured gasoline around his foreclosed Vancouver home and burned up himself and five of his six children. A daughter and his estranged wife, who were elsewhere, survived. Then, in July, Jordan Criado of Medford allegedly stabbed his wife and four children before setting their bungalow ablaze.
Firefighters pulled all from the burning house but his wife and children died. After a month in intensive care, Criado survived and was charged with multiple counts of aggravated murder.
News coverage of parents who kill their children may splash large across cable television screens, but they are among the rarest of killings, experts say.
So why are they happening in this part of the country? And why kill everyone, set your home afire before killing yourself? So far, there doesn't appear to be a scientific answer to that question. But one veteran crime writer speculates that it may come down to a final, perverse statement:
"A conflagration like that, and the others, very well can allow them to shake their fists at the world, saying, 'you pushed me this far, damn you,'" said Ann Rule, author of several non-fiction books about notorious crimes and criminals.
Use of fire is rare
According to the Centers for Disease Control, out of roughly 16,400 violent deaths in 2008 in the 16 states that track such data, fewer than 4,090 were classified as homicides, 430 fell under the category of intimate partner-related homicide, and 175 were murder-suicides.
The CDC's National Violent Death Reporting System reveals 308 incidents that year in Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin met the definition of familicide -- the deliberate slaying of a domestic partner along with two or more children within a 24 hour period, followed by suicide.
Fire and burning played a part in just seven of those cases.
Whatever they are called in the media -- family mass murders, family annihilations, family oblitirations -- familicides "are very rare events, highly unusual, extraordinary really," said Louis B. Schlesinger, professor of forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.
Add arson to the mix and you have a cluster of puzzling crimes that have set law enforcement, forensic pathologists and domestic violence experts searching for answers, he said.
"Burning the house down is not typical in familicide. It just leaves nothing left for anyone to piece things together," said Schlesinger, who is working on a study with the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit about youthful offenders who commit familicide.
Dr. Joe Bloom, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University, sees the three cases in Oregon and Washington as similar but distinct.
"You have similar events and the dynamics overlap but there are things that are going on in the family to the persons, that are often unique in their own ways."
Dao was in financial trouble and in the middle of a divorce. Criado, a convicted sex-offender before he became a father, was unemployed and in a troubled marriage, too. Powell was a "person of interest" in the disappearance of his wife, Susan Powell in Utah in 2009, and appeared on the verge of losing custody of his boys.
But while such cases are rare, experts point out that the phenomenon is nothing new.
They have been studied for more than 40 years by Dr. Philip Resnick, director of the division of forensic psychiatry at Case Western University. He remains the go-to analyst on the topic of parents who kill.
He says that in 95 percent of the cases, the perpetrator is male, and fathers are far more likely to kill the whole family.
In cases where the parents take their own lives, a skewed altruism may be at work, Resnick said, based on the belief that children are better off with them in heaven.
But the Powell killings this week, coming more than two years after the Susan Powell disappearance, tread unfamiliar ground, he said.
"It is quite atypical to have someone kill their wife and then kill the rest of the family (much) later," Resnick said.
A science of hindsight
But the study of familicide is often a science of hindsight.
For more than two years, Josh Powell remained a "person of interest," shadowed by the search and investigation. Then a judge ruled last week that the boys should remain in the custody of their maternal grandparents, pending a psycho-sexual evaluation and polygraph test of Powell as a result of incestuous child porn found in the Puyallup home where he, his father, and sons had lived.
Four days later, Powell sparked the fatal fire.
Debbie Caldwell, 49, who cared for the boys for 18 months at her Daydreams & Fun Things child care center in a Salt Lake City suburb, said she feared he would harm them.
"I just broke in tears Sunday morning, I couldn't believe that my worse nightmare was happening... that he'd kill the kids."
Her term for Powell? "Eraser killer: they take everybody out of their lives."
True-crime writer Rule has written about hundreds of familicide cases. But the added element of arson stumped her during a visit to Portland to promote her latest New York Times bestseller, "Don't Look Behind You."
"The Powell case shocks me more than any case since I found out Ted Bundy was a killer," said Rule, who wrote the definitive book on the Northwest's most prolific serial killer.
Asked about the three cases in the Pacific Northwest, she said: "What I see with fire is rage, rage and the need for a final dramatic ending that will make people sorry."
Since the death of the Powell boys, Rule -- who authored "Small Sacrifices," a powerful account of what drove Diane Downs to shoot her three young children on a dark road outside Springfield in 1983 -- has dropped plans to write "Deadly Neighbors, Fatal Friends," about Susan Powell's disappearance.
"I always said I'm not going to do another book about children because it's so hard for me," she said.