Last updated 7th July, 2018
amilicide is defined as one family member who murders other members of their family, commonly taking the lives of all. It is most often used to describe cases where a parent, usually the father, kills his wife and children and then himself. These cases are horrifying acts which can wipe out an entire family, leaving relatives, friends, and colleagues stunned and confused. Often no outward signs were visible 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 someone they loved to kill their family, and most often, take the lives of innocent children.
Studying Familicide Cases
In a study published in the Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, by criminologist Professor David Wilson and colleagues in 2013, researchers analyzed 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 anyone never mind their entire family.
“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 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 neighbors 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 honor 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 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 voicemails for family members and ex-colleagues, apologizing 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 of 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. By all appearances, he 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 were having marital troubles and had argued, signaling 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 psychiatric hospitals and Greek jails after pleading temporary insanity. He was a broken man in dealing with the actions he took on that day. In 2008 he was acquitted of his son’s murder in Greece and in 2009 he was released from psychiatric care to return to the UK.
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 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 in these cases with an assumption of a disordered mental state from the father who has made a decision to kill his all members of his immediate 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 a personality disorder.
The case of Bruce Blackman a 22-year-old man in British Columbia is a tragic example of how mental illness can be involved in cases of familicide. In the weeks leading up to the killings, his room-mate reportedly noticed strange behavior from Blackman where he claimed to be getting messages from the Bible and believed the world was going to end.
Blackman drove to his parents’ house on 18 January 1983. Once there he shot both his parents and his younger brother with a .22 caliber 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 reason of insanity and sent to a psychiatric unit for treatment. Released from the hospital in 1995, he now has a new identity, however, must forever live with the fact that he murdered his 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 is due to the partnership breaking down, an affair in the marriage and/or difficulties surrounding access to the 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 by 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 afterward.
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 defense, 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 in 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 7 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 recognized by a neighbor 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 which looked 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”.
53-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 Philcox and 3-year-old Owen Philcox and himself.
With his anger firmly directed at his ex-wife, he had designed a bomb which he left at her house 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 honor 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 behavior. 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. He murdered his wife and daughter before setting his farmhouse on fire. 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, confirming they had been killed before the fire was set.
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 family’s 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 in England. 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 boys’ death, it was concluded they were killed unlawfully by their father and the impending custody hearing may have played 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 (serial killers, spree killers, mass murderers), leaving familicide in a unique category of its own.
Male vs Female Killers in Family Murders
In the majority of familicide 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 criminally violent act it is viewed as 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 halfway 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 behavior.
When a woman commits a violent crime, it is often assumed they are either evil or insane. There is the tragic case of Andrea Yates who in 2001 in Houston, Texas, 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 phenomenon which has proved difficult to predict and almost impossible to stop.
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- Martin, L. (2006). Focus: Fathers who kill their children. The Guardian.
- Newsweek.com. (2015). Inside The Mind Of Family Annihilators.
- 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.
- Yardley, E. , Wilson, D. and Lynes, A. (2014), A Taxonomy of Male British Family Annihilators, 1980–2012. Howard J Crim Justice, 53: 117-140. doi:10.1111/hojo.12033
Guy, F. (2015, Sept 23). Familicide and The Family Annihilator. Crime Traveller. Retrieved from https://www.crimetraveller.org/2015/09/familicide-family-annihilator/