Many fathers who kill their families also tend to kill themselves. That was the case with Robert Bryant, who killed his wife and four children before shooting himself to death in their McMinnville, Ore., home in February 2002. Bryant had filed for bankruptcy in his landscaping business in California before moving his family to Oregon and looking for a new start. However, after finding initial success in his new roofing business, he seemed to crumble under the weight of financial woes and his perceived failure as a family provider.
Familicide often takes loved ones and communities by surprise, as relatives and friends find it too incomprehensible and horrible a crime. Unfortunately, in many cases in which fathers kill their families, the slayings take everyone by surprise because, experts say, the warning signs either never surfaced — or were overlooked.
"What we've had is that many times, you'll see families and neighbors say, 'We're shocked. He was such a family man. He was so devoted to his family.' Many of them [fathers who kill their families] come off very well. They seem so normal," said Thomas Gitchoff, professor of sociology at San Diego State University. "It's the normalcy that's the confusing factor. … We're so used to the stereotype of these men looking scary, and many of them look and appear so normal, like any common man."
Familicide could also be rooted in domestic squabbles. Authorities said Scott Peterson, who has been on California's death row after being convicted in 2004 for the slayings of his wife, Laci, and their unborn child, wanted to get out of his marriage to pursue a relationship with mistress Amber Frey. In December 2002, Bayonne, N.J., police say Willie Davis stabbed and slashed the throats of his 23-month-old daughter and infant son. The mother, Melissa Mirlas, and Davis were having trouble in their relationship, and at the time of the slayings, Mirlas and the children were staying at her mother's place. Mirlas had often taken the children and stayed with her mother when Davis drank heavily and physically abused her.
Mirlas was running errands when Davis picked up the children from her mother's. She then went to Davis' place and made the gruesome discovery.
"For someone to do this kind of thing, you have to consider that they must be extremely mentally imbalanced. Whether it was self-induced through alcohol or drug use or severe mental depression, it's horrible," said Gitchoff. "The other angle to consider is when there is trouble in the marriage and the wife threatens to leave, and someone gets so jealous they figure, 'Well, if I can't have you, then no one will.'"
Still, some experts believe that investigators cannot always trust what a familicide suspect says. They may be trying to lay the groundwork for their defense at trial.
"It's often very difficult to get to the truth in these kinds of cases because the suspect could tell you anything as an excuse," said Pat Brown, criminal profiler and founder of the Sexual Homicide Exchange. "'Oh, I was having financial difficulty.' 'God told me to do it.' Or they can say they were hearing voices or 'the devil told me to do it.' They say things to make them look nuts so that they can get the insanity defense."