Economy Not Full Cause of Baffling 'Familicide' Cases
February 5, 2009
By Wendy Koch
The dismal economy has been blamed for a lot even for recent cases of financially stressed fathers killing themselves and their families.
The truth may not be that simple.
Photo: Jaime Armendariz hugs girlfriend Rachel Lopez outside the Wilmington, Calif., home where Ervin Lupoe, 40, apparently distraught over losing his job as a medical technician, last week fatally shot his wife, five children and himself. (By David Zentz, AP)
Financial problems can be a factor in what researchers call "familicide," but the scholars suggest the crime is rare.
"The economic downturn is not triggering a rash of this," says Louis Schlesinger, professor of forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Hundreds of thousands have been laid off recently, he notes, and more have lost money in the stock market, without killing their families.
Since October, at least three men who lost jobs or money, two in California and one in Pennsylvania, killed themselves and their families.
The people who commit such crimes are almost always men, Schlesinger says.
"They honestly believe their family is better off dead than without them," says Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control research group.
Her group has done three studies on slayings followed by suicide, but most did not involve the deaths of an entire family. In the first half of 2007, the most recent study found, murder-suicides caused 554 deaths, including 45 children under 18. Firearms were used in nine out of 10 cases.
Most murder-suicides, 78.5%, are caused by problems between intimate partners, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A CDC report, using 2005 data from 16 states, found that financial problems were a factor in 8% of the 199 deaths studied.
Family slayings are usually one of two types, says Phillip Resnick, psychiatry professor at Case Western Reserve University. Some involve men who are angry at partners, who may have been unfaithful or want to leave the relationship, he says. Others involve men who lose their jobs or savings and, if they are vulnerable to depression, become hopeless or psychotic.
"There is a relationship (to finances), particularly when a man loses his job," he says.
"It's a combination of factors," says Sampson Blair, a sociology professor at the University of Buffalo in New York. He says suicide, spouse-battering and child abuse increase slightly in bad times.
"It's not the economic conditions per se but the stress created," Blair says. "The sense of desperation pushes them right off the edge."
He says that when people lose their jobs, they are at least twice as likely to commit suicide.
"Familicide is different," Schlesinger argues. "Most people don't kill their families when they lose their jobs."
He says no one should expect family killings to increase in an economic downturn.
Schlesinger says it's difficult to explain such horrific events. The killer doesn't live to answer questions, so unless he leaves a suicide note, the reason may be unknown.
In Spring Garden Township, Pa., John Goodman, 39, left no note before killing his wife, their 2-year-old son and himself in November. He had lost his job of six years in August.
Police don't know why he acted, but his job loss may have been a "stressor," says Police Chief George Swartz.
In Whitehall, Ohio, last week, Mark Meeks, 51, killed himself, his wife and two children. He left a note but police won't reveal its contents.
Detective Steven Brown says "financial problems were not a factor." Meeks had just been hired at a car dealership.
Also last week, Ervin Lupoe, 40, killed himself, his wife, 8-year-old daughter, 5-year-old twin girls and 2-year-old twin boys in Wilmington, Calif. He and his wife had both lost their jobs.