These cases are horrifying acts which can wipe out an entire family, leaving relatives, friends and colleagues stunned and confused. Often no outward signs have been made to suggest anyone was in danger or that there was a risk of an individual taking such horrific actions.
Chillingly in the UK, statistics suggest that a child is more likely to be killed by a parent than by a stranger. Termed by criminologists, the ‘family annihilator’, in most cases the killer takes his own life after the act.
There is no court case, no opportunity to find out why and whether or not this was a premeditated planned murder or an act which was spontaneous due to thoughts at that very moment. Those left behind can only speculate on what may have caused an individual to take the lives of their entire family and most often, the lives of innocent children.
“The family annihilator is usually the senior man of the house, who is depressed, paranoid, intoxicated or a combination of these. He kills each member of the family who is present, sometimes including pets. He may commit suicide after killing the others, or may force the police to kill him.” – Forensic Psychiatrist P.E Dietz (1986)
A recent case in the national news has once again brought the spotlight onto familicide and just what causes an individual to do something so tragic and so final. Brian Short, a 45-year-old millionaire business owner in Greenwood on Lake Minnesota, fatally shot his wife and their three teenage children, aged 14, 15 and 17 years old, on 7th-8th September 2015 before committing suicide.
The founder of a successful social networking site for nurses, Mr Short did not arrive for work in those following days prompting co-workers to ask police to conduct a welfare check. Their discovery of the entire family, dead across different rooms of the house shocked them to the core. It was quickly established this was a case of murder-suicide with only the injuries to Mr Short being self-inflicted.
Brian Short, according to news reports, gave no indication of any difficulties which could have led to such actions leading up to the shootings.
Studying Familicide Cases
In a study published in the Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, by criminologist Professor David Wilson and colleagues in 2013, researchers analysed newspaper articles over three decades from 1980 to 2012 where cases of familicide were reported. They found a total of 71 cases where 59 of the perpetrators were male and over half were between the ages of 30-40 years old when they committed the crime.
In contrast to other groups, such as serial killers and mass murderers, these were found to be individuals with good backgrounds. They were not known to the police or the criminal justice system; they often had good jobs, families and friends around them. They can be very successful people in their lives and not the kind of person who it is perceived would kill their entire family.
A Profile Of The Family Annihilator
As highlighted by Professor Jack Leven, Professor of Sociology and Criminology Emeritus at Northeastern University in Boston, the profile of a man who kills his family “is a middle-aged man, a good provider who would appear to neighbours to be a dedicated husband and a devoted father.”
Researchers also identified four common areas which may be the causes of such family murders; a breakdown in the family relationship and issues surrounding access to children, money worries and financial hardship, cultural honour killings and mental illness. In a large percentage of cases, the killer tried to commit suicide after the act.
These findings echo the conclusions drawn from a 2009 study by Leveillee and colleagues who examined 16 cases of familicide in Quebec between 1986 and 2000. They found that in 68% of cases the perpetrator committed suicide after they had murdered their family, furthermore that social loss, economic reasons, mental illness and intimate partner loss were the most common likely causes of murder-suicide within a family.
Steven Sueppel for example, was a 42-year-old former bank vice president on bail for embezzlement charges to the tune of $560,000 from his own bank in Iowa City, Iowa. Admitting the fraud and resigning from his position, he was distraught and devastated by the shame of his actions. In March 2009 he murdered his wife and four children before leaving numerous voice mails for family members and ex-colleagues, apologising and expressing the shame he had brought upon his family was “too much to bear”.
He had beat his wife to death and led his children between the ages of 3 and 10 years old to the garage, where he tried unsuccessfully to kill them and himself with carbon monoxide poisoning. When that failed it is thought he beat the children to death in the same manner he had his wife. Steven Sueppel called emergency services and told them to go to his house, he then drove his car into a concrete pillar on the Interstate, killing himself when his van exploded into flames.
Familicide is a very difficult concept for any of us to get our head around. We have all faced problems and difficulties in our lives but very few us resort to such drastic and terrifying actions. What makes one individual decide to murder their family before themselves is a question still being asked.
“People don’t want to think about it because it makes them feel very vulnerable. When most people think of crime, they typically think of something happening in the street, being mugged or robbed or attacked by a stranger. People don’t want to think it is more likely to happen in their own home. It’s supposed to be a safe haven, an enclave where we can feel secure.” – Professor Jack Leven
John Hogan was a 32-year-old man from Bristol with a wife and two children who by all appearances was happy and successful in his professional and personal life. In August 2006 without any warning while on a family holiday in Crete, he threw his six-year-old son, Liam Hogan, off their fourth floor apartment balcony, killing him instantly. He then jumped off the 50ft high balcony himself with his 2-year-old daughter Mia Logan in his arms. Both he and little Mia survived the fall with broken bones.
After the tragedy it was revealed the couple where having marital troubles and had argued, signalling an end to the marriage, just before John Hogan took the actions he did. John Hogan was accused of murder and attempted murder and spent three years in a psychiatric hospitals and Greek jails after pleading temporary insanity. By all accounts a broken man in dealing with this actions he took on that day, in 2008 he was acquitted of his son’s murder in Greece and released to return to the UK from psychiatric care in 2009.
While one man tries to come to terms with the fact he murdered his own son and tried to murder his daughter in the most horrific of ways, Natasha Visser, the children’s mother and her family have been left angered by a not guilty verdict and the decision to allow him to return to the UK as a free man with no convictions. It is understood John Hogan entered in-patient psychiatric care upon his return to the UK and has agreed not to try and contact his daughter. The Crown Prosecution Service chose not to retry John Hogan for murder in the UK.
Mental health is often questioned within these cases with an assumption of a disordered mental state from the father who has made a decision to kill his entire family. In Leveillee’s 2009 study, they found that 68% of those who killed their family had a history of depressive symptoms and 38% showed borderline traits of personality disorder.
The case of Bruce Blackman a 22-year-old in British Columbia is a tragic example of how mental illness can be involved within cases of familicide. In the weeks leading up to the killings his room-mate reportedly noticed strange behaviour from Blackman where he claimed to be getting messages from the Bible and believed the world was going to end.
He drove to his parents’ house on 18 January 1983. Once there he shot both his parents and is younger brother with a .22 calibre rifle. He called his elder sisters, who no longer lived in the family home, and fatally shot them and his brother-in-law when they arrived. Found walking near the crime scene he was arrested and charged with murder. Bruce Blackman was found not guilty by insanity and sent to a psychiatric unit for treatment. Released from hospital in 1995, he now has a new identity, however must forever live with the fact that he murdered his entire family in 1983.
Researchers have focused on any link between borderline personality disorder and familicide and while some evidence was found that could conclude a causal link, in such a rare crime it is difficult to draw any solid conclusions as to the role of such mental disorders within this crime.
The Family Annihilator Is Almost Always Male
It cannot be ignored that in an estimated 95% of cases the perpetrator is male and the ‘head of the household’. This traditional idea of the man providing for and looking after his family may be one factor when he no longer feels he is meeting this role adequately, often if finances or employment breaks down.
Another key factor in these types of killings appears to be a rage from the male when he feels he has been wronged by his partner, whether this be due to the partnership breaking up, an affair in the marriage and difficulties surrounding access to his children. There can be a revenge aspect where he leaves the mother alive to suffer after he takes the lives of her children; however this is by far not the main reason, as perceived by some, for this type of murder.
“The male view of the family is very black and white, and doesn’t reflect the increasingly dynamic role that women can play in the economy and in the institution of the family itself.” – Criminologist, Professor David Wilson
Research into family annihilators is still in its infancy. The rarity of cases coupled with most killers taking their own lives does not allow for research to take place into this phenomenon easily. Professor Neil Websdale, a Professor at Northern Arizona University is one academic who has studied these crimes in his book “Familicidal Hearts: The Emotional Styles of 211 Killers”. For him, this idea of the male societal role and no longer meeting that role is a common trait among family annihilators. He follows the more traditional view of the reasons behind male father figures killing their families being rage, revenge and altruism.
He has categorized such family killers into two groups; the “livid coercive” killer who is motivated by anger and rage. They show control issues and may have abusive tendencies achieving their self-worth through exerting authority within the home. Should this marriage begin to fail maybe because of such controlling issues and the wife and children try to leave, a lack of control and feelings of humiliation could prompt such acts of violence against his family. The “civil reputable” killer in contrast is motivated by altruism where his identity is wrapped up in his family. Committing murder against all family members is therefore a way of saving them from the hardship and shame of financial troubles and bankruptcy and they will almost always commit suicide afterwards.
If suicide after the act fails, in most cases which reach a court, the perpetrator will almost always plead some form of insanity as a defence, however not all believe this is an adequate explanation for such acts. As in all types of mass murder there are different motivations and different methods of murder.
“These are executions. They are never spontaneous. They are well planned and selective. They are not carried out in the heat of the moment or in a fit of rage. They are very methodical and it is often planned out for a long time.” – Professor Jack Leven
John List was a father of three in 1971 New Jersey who shot and killed his wife, all three children and his mother before fleeing and building himself a new life. A 46-year-old accountant, John List struggled to maintain his employment and pay his mortgage and had been stealing money from his elderly mother. Police officers discovered the bodies of his family inside the family home on 7th December 1971 along with a note he had written to his pastor, expressing his concern that there was ‘too much evil’ in the world and he had taken the lives of his family to ‘save their souls’.
With his car found at Kennedy International Airport it soon became clear Mr List had fled but despite extensive searches he could not be found. In 1989 the TV program ‘America’s Most Wanted’ became involved in the case and presented a show featuring his story along with an image of how John List may have looked 18 years after he was last seen. John List was arrested 10 ten days later after being recognised by a neighbour as a man who lived next door with his wife going by the name of Robert Clark.
Upon his arrest, he denied being John List until confronted with fingerprint matches. Convicted of murder, he was sentenced to five life sentences. In a television interview in 2002, John List claimed he did not take his own life as he wanted to be reunited with his family in heaven. He died in prison aged 82 in 2008.
What Causes An Individual To Murder Their Entire Family?
In more recent research the possible causes of familicide have been expanded with a view that not all cases fit into the revenge and altruism categories. In many cases, it appears the father feels he no longer wants to live or that he just cannot go on and decides to take his family with him. As described by Professor of Psychiatry Phillip Resnick at the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, familicide is an act of ‘extended suicide’.
Professor David Wilson’s research looking at cases over a span of 30 years grouped their case studies into four categories looking at the motives behind the killings.
These are individuals, usually fathers, who place blame on others for their actions. They often blame the mother of their children for being the cause of the family breakup or for preventing him from having access to his children. They see themselves as the provider of the family and if they are unable to meet that role they can enter dangerous territory.
Often they are looking to cause pain and suffering to their partner or ex-partner and can use their children to do this. Fathers who fall into this category can kill their children and leave the mother alive to ensure maximum pain and suffering. As they blame the mother, they can often make contact just before they commit the murders to tell her what they are about to do, knowing there is nothing she can do to prevent it.
The case of 33-year-old Gavin Hall who in November 2005 killed his 3-year-old daughter by drugging her with antidepressants and then smothering her with a chloroform soaked rag, fits into this category. After unsuccessfully trying to take his own life he was put on trial where it was revealed he had just discovered his wife was having an affair. Chillingly after he killed his daughter he sent a text message to her mother, Joanne Hall with the words “Now you have the rest of your life to deal with the consequences”.
In June 2008, a land rover sat on a lonely road with its engine humming. Inside lay the bodies of seven-year old Amy and three-year old Owen Philcox, gassed by the fumes from the pipe that has been placed through the back window from the exhaust.
Next to them lay Brian Philcox. Their father has taken their lives and his own on Father’s Day after the breakdown of his marriage. At his home, waiting for his estranged wife, is a homemade bomb, designed to detonate when she innocently opens a letter he has left for her, addressed to ‘The Bitch’.
Fifty-three year old Brian Philcox is another example of a self-righteous killer. In June 2008 in Cheshire, England, he picked up his children on Father’s day for a day out and after driving them to a secluded spot in Snowdonia, South Wales, he drugged them and pumped exhaust fumes into the car, killing 7-year-old Amy Phlicox and 3-year-old Owen Philcox and himself.
With his anger firmly directed at is ex-wife he had designed a bomb which he left at her house designed to detonate as she opened a note he had left her. The bomb failed to go off and his ex-wife was unharmed.
These are people who believe they have been let down by those around them, most often their partner and their children. They may believe they are not good enough or they not meeting his standards or beliefs. Some cases of honour killings can fall into this category where a father may be unhappy with his children’s choices and does not feel they are being true to their cultural and traditional religious customs.
The murder of 17-year-old Shafilea Ahmed by her parents in 2003 in Warrington, Cheshire is one such example. A young girl struggling to find her identity living in Britain while maintaining her Pakistani cultural roots and heritage, her father disapproved of her behaviour. After drugging her and flying her to Pakistan for an arranged marriage, Shafilea drank bleach to avoid the ceremony. After her return to the UK she went missing until her body was found in marshland in Cumbria in 2004. In 2010 her older sister revealed the truth of what had happened to her sister.
She had been held down and suffocated by her father while her mother looked on. Both parents were convicted of murder and sentenced to a minimum of 25 years in prison.
For these individuals their family are an extension of their economic success in life and should any part of that economic status break down, for example a job loss or financial hardship, their family no longer serves this function. The case of Chris Foster in Shropshire in 2008 is a tragic and devastating example of this category of family annihilator. A millionaire businessman, Chris Foster was married with a 15-year-old daughter.
The ferocity of the fire was intense and when fire crews did make it to the house it took 12 crews and several days to contain the fire and ensure the area was safe. In what was originally thought to be a devastating house fire, it was soon revealed to be a much deeper horror.
Christopher Foster was in financial trouble and was on the verge of losing his home, a fact he had kept hidden from those around him. The bodies of Kirstie Foster and Jill Foster were found with gunshot wounds, killing them before the fire had been started.
Possibly the most chilling aspect of this case was the CCTV at the family’s home which captured Chris Foster walking through the grounds of his house with a .22 rifle, shooting the families horses and dogs and pouring 200 gallons of petrol around the outbuildings and through the house. Chris Foster’s body was found entwined with his wife’s. He had died of smoke inhalation suggesting he had finished his task and climbed into the bed next to his wife and waited to be consumed by the smoke of the fire.
These individuals often believe their family and especially their children are under some form of threat or they need protecting. It may be they fear social services may come and take the children away or circumstances involving the police or the legal system which they fear is a threat to their family. In these cases, they kill, in their minds, to protect the family from the outside threat.
Graham Anderson was 36 years old and facing a custody hearing regarding his two sons, Jack aged 11 and Bryn aged 3 in Tidworth, Wiltshire. Shortly before the hearing, while the children were staying with their father for a visit, he smothered both after drugging them with sleeping pills. Graham Anderson then hung himself.
While Mr Anderson was known to have substance misuse issues there were no signs he was a risk to himself or the children and both families have been left shocked and devastated at his actions. During the inquest into the boy’s death, it was concluded they were killed unlawfully by their father and the impending custody hearing may have playing a part in Graham Anderson’s actions.
These are categories that can overlap and are still being developed and refined for categorizing cases of familicide. Notably these are different from other identified categories of killers. For example serial killers and spree killers do not fit these profiles, making the profile of the family annihilator quite unique.
Male vs Female Killers in Family Murders
In the majority of cases it is the father who commits the act. Mothers are more likely to take the lives of their children, often believing they are saving them from a hardship and may then take their own lives, but they are unlikely to kill their husbands.
It is more expected in society and within the criminal justice system for a male to commit violent crime than a female. Males have more of a perceived psychological profile more prone to aggression and violence than women and therefore when a female does commit a criminal violent act it is viewed more shocking and more surprising. However, there have been cases of females who have committed very violent acts against her children.
The case of Stella Delores Almarez is one example. A 29-year-old married mother of four from Norfolk in Nebraska, she fatally shot and stabbed her four daughters aged 2 – 10 years old in June 1980, she then shot herself but survived. She made no attempt to harm her husband who was not present at the time of the killings. The couple were half way through a divorce and news reports suggest she was concerned about raising her children by her herself.
Charged with murder she was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. Such gender expectations have been around within criminology and crime theory for a long time with many of the theories developed being predominantly focused on male criminal behaviour.
When a women commits a violent crime, it is often assumed they are either evil or insane. There is the tragic case of Andrea Yates where in 2001 in Houston, Texas, she drowned all five of her children in the bathtub in her home before calling her husband and the police.
Confessing openly to the murders she was convicted of first degree murder at her first trial, however this was later changed to not guilty by reason of insanity in a second trial and she was committed to a psychiatric unit indefinitely where she still remains today.
Criminologists have been conducting increasing research into the phenomenon of familicide and in the process have produced many terms and definitions to describe such acts and distinguish them from each other. Familicide, the family annihilator, murder-suicides and family murders are all terms which have been used to describe cases where a family member has killed other family members.
The psychological profile of a family annihilator is a complex one and research is continuing to discover more information about the kinds of individuals and circumstances which can lead to such horrific and tragic actions. This is a profile which appears to be quite different from more familiar profiles of mass murderers, serial killers and spree killers. There is an intimacy involved with the relationships between the perpetrator and the victims of this crime.
Warning signs, if any, are difficult to spot and the modern-day nature of families and individuals to keep their lives private and their troubles to themselves only adds to the shock factor which such an incident does take place. Unfortunately this means this kind of crime and the death of entire families will continue to happen and it is a phenomena which has proved difficult to predict and almost impossible to stop.
A Taxonomy of Male British Family Annihilators, 1980–2012
Journal: The Howard Journal of Crime and Justice
Authors: Elizabeth Yardley, David Wilson and Adam Lynes
This exploratory article presents an overview of British, male family annihilators from 1980 to 2012. In doing so it provides a range of criminological information relevant to the incidents being described, and offers a taxonomy of four different types of annihilators that moves discussion beyond ‘revenge/altruistic’ categories.
- Gelles, R. (2009). The Horror of Familicide | Big Think.. Retrieved 10 September 2015.
- Martin, L. (2006). Focus: Fathers who kill their children. The Guardian. Retrieved 22 September 2015.
- Newsweek.com,. (2015). Inside The Mind Of Family Annihilators. Retrieved 21 September 2015.
- Scott, H., and Fleming, K (2014) The Female Family Annihilator: An Exploratory Study, Homicide Studies, Sage Journals, Vol 18, pp59-82.
- SFGate,. (2015). Behind dad’s slaying of family – Familicide: Experts say family murder-suicide often related to the father’s financial worries. Retrieved 10 September 2015
- Wired UK,. (2015). Study: family killers are usually men and fit one of four distinct profiles. (Wired UK). Retrieved 20 September 2015.
To cite this article: Guy, F. (2015, Sept 23). Familicide and The Family Annihilator. Crime Traveller. Retrieved from https://www.crimetraveller.org/2015/09/familicide-family-annihilator/
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