Familicide 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. It is a crime that has invoked horror and fascination in equal measures. For those with an interest in why such horrific crimes take place and how an individual can murder their own family, such cases are explored in detail.
Familicide is commonly intertwined with the term ‘family annihilator’ stemming from the act itself, that of family annihilation. Most researchers agree that this act is a form of mass murder due to the multiple victims involved.
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Chillingly in the UK, statistics suggest that a child is more likely to be killed by a parent than by a stranger and 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
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 varied definitions of the term ‘familicide’ can make a comparison of studies and cases challenging. Familicide sits among a number of types of family murder, all
Studying Familicide Cases
A research study published in the Howard Journal of Criminal Justice in 2013 by Elizabeth Yardley, David Wilson and Adam Lynes has been particularly influential in this field. They 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.
Yardley, Wilson, and Lynes reported that 57% of cases they studied occurred inside the family home compared to 17% in an isolated country spot no doubt pre-selected by the offender. In 32% of cases, the method of killing was stabbing followed by 15% of cases involving carbon monoxide poisoning from a car exhaust. Most offenders were employed and aged between 30 and 39 years old at the time of the murders. In 68% of cases, the male annihilator committed suicide after the murders.
Professor David Wilson has stated that “family annihilators have received little attention as a separate category of killer” and they are “often treated like spree or serial murderers, a view which presupposes traits, such as the idea that the murderer ‘snaps’, or that after killing their partner or children the killer may force a standoff with the police“, which is not an entirely accurate representation of these killers.
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.
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.
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 social loss, economic reasons, mental illness, and intimate partner loss were the most common likely causes of murder-suicide within a family.
Two more recent literature reviews carried out into familicide also provide some key points when focusing on the profile of a family annihilator.
Psychologist Sharon Mailloux found offenders to be predominantly male and in a long term relationship with possessive tendencies over his family, in her literature review published in 2014 in the Journal of Family Violence. Employment issues, problems with substance misuse and a history of domestic violence also featured across the cases she studied. Divorce or separation was found to be a trigger point.
In 2017, Anna Liisa Aho, Anni Remahl and, Eija Paavilainen from Tampere University in Finland examined the background factors that may be involved in familicide in Western countries. They found familicide offenders were mostly highly educated men with psychological problems, depression, self-destructiveness and substance abuse issues. Past violent behavior and unsteady social relationships were also prevalent.
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.
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
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.
Young Familicide Offenders
Cases of familicide most often reported in the news and featured as case-studies when researching the phenomenon focuses on adult offenders who kill their partner or ex-partner, their children and sometimes other family members. There are cases however of young familicide offenders, that is offenders who murder multiple members of their family when they are still only adolescents.
Adolescents who kill family members usually means teens who kill their parents, a phenomenon termed ‘parricide’. However, when multiple family victims are involved the definitions used for such cases become varied and unclear with familicide and parricide being used interchangeably across different studies. Despite this, the findings when a spotlight is placed on such adolescent offenders are interesting in light of what is known about the more familiar adult male familicide offender.
Published in the Journal of Family Violence in 2016, researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the FBI took a closer look at young familicide offenders between the ages of 14 and 21. They studied 16 cases where these adolescents and young adults killed or made a serious attempt to kill their families.
In keeping with research on adult offenders, they found 84% of offenders to be male. Interestingly they also found evidence of 50% of the offenders telling others beforehand that they wanted to kill their families. In most cases of adult male familicides, no prior warning is established and certainly no reporting to others of their desire or thoughts about killing their families. It was found that 75% of familicides carried out by young offenders were planned shooting attacks and
Jacques Marleau, Nathalie Auclair and Frederic
The Canadian researchers examined a sample of youthful familicide cases which took place between 1984 and 2000 taken from the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit database. Cases were included in the study where the offender was under 21 years old, killed or attempted to kill all family members living in the family unit, involved at least 2 victims and attacks happened in one place over the course of one day. Of the 16 cases included, 75% saw all family members killed and 25% of the cases were attempted familicides where some or all victims survived. 75% of cases involved single offenders with remaining 25% being multiple offender cases including siblings acting together or one offender acting with the assistance of friends.
In total 19 offenders were examined. 40% had a history of aggressive behaviors towards their families and 47% of offenders had long-standing substance abuse problems. Only 2 offenders had history of mental illness.
Their findings did not support the notion that most familicides occur suddenly with no pre-meditation or planning. They found almost all young offenders in this study had expressed homicidal ideation in the past and had planned the murders. In most cases after the murders, they reported, these offenders displayed behaviors that were ‘overt in appearance of normality and remorse was rarely observed’.
In stark contrast to adult familicide offenders, in none of these young familicide cases did the offenders attempt suicide/commit suicide after the killings.
What Causes An Individual To Murder Their Entire Family?
In a more recent study, Karlsson et al (2019) carried out a comprehensive literature review within the peer-reviewed research published on familicide. They examined 63 research papers covering 67 studies from 18 countries that were published between 1980 and 2017 including familicide cases where the offender killed their current or former partner and at least one child. In almost all cases the offender was male and in around 50% of the cases the offender committed suicide after the murders. Problems in mental health, relationships, and physical health were frequently noted across the cases studied.
In most cases studied, the offender lived in the same household with all of the victims and in agreement with previous studies, problems in the relationship, a break-up
Within this literature review, two types of familicide emerged, most
- Despondent Type – the despaired offender who kills as an extended suicide. This offender kills the family due to pseudo-altruistic reasons.
- Hostile Type – the jealous offender who is motivated to kill their family out jealousy and revenge with the primary victim being the spouse.
Both types it was concluded have a sense of ‘ownership’ over their family although they have different motives for the murders. The Despondent offender possibly believes the family will not cope without him if he just kills himself. The Hostile offender is motivated by jealousy and may believe he has the control and can make such a decision for the entire family.
Another interesting area of this literature review was a comparison against other types of family murder, specifically looking at familicides in comparison to uxoricides (the killing of one’s wife) and filicides (the killing of one’s child by parents).
It was found that the most common method of killing in familicides involved firearms, and these were used much more often than in the above two types of family murders. Liem and Koenraadt (2008) reported more familicide offenders had a personality disorder with narcissistic or dependent features compared to uxoricide offenders and they had less often previously committed a violent offense. History of mental health, substance abuse, and employment status remained the same across both uxoricide and familicide cases. Familicide offenders were found to generally be younger than uxoricide offenders, more likely to kill themselves after the act and more likely to be married to the adult victim.
Familicide offenders were generally found to be older than filicide offenders, more often male and higher educated however, again history of substance abuse, mental health problems, violent offending and relationship problems remained the same across the two types of murders (Liem and Koenraadt, 2008; Logan et al, 2013; Wilson et al 1995).
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The motives behind familicide are more similar to the motives behind uxoricide i.e. narcissistic rage, jealousy, and fear of abandonment, compared to the motives of filicide. Furthermore, Wilson et al (1995) concluded that familicides actually have more in common with uxoricides as the children killed in familicides are not the primary victims (the spouse is, the same as in uxoricides).
As more research has been carried out into familicide, possible causes 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’.
Four Categories of Familicide
In the influential Yardley, Wilson and Lynes research, they looked at cases over a span of 30 years and grouped their case studies into four categories looking at the motives behind the killings. Cases may not be straight-forward in terms of falling into one of these categories exclusively and as a result, it is common for male annihilators to fall into multiple categories, something which needs to be examined case by case.
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
A difference between men and women who carry out this crime in terms of their motivations has also been noted. Leveillee et al (2007) found that men who kill their children are more likely to have done so as a form of revenge against their partner and the children’s mother.
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 she is either evil or insane. In cases of female familicide, the motivations of women can be linked to mental illness, murdering their children out of a belief that they are saving them in some way.
This was an issue which presented itself in the Andrea Yate’s case, where due to severe postpartum depression Mrs. Yates drowned all five of her young children in the bathtub of their home believing she was saving them from the devil and from wrongdoings.
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.
Some clear agreed upon characteristics of familicide are that the crime is almost always carried out by a male offender, and most often with a firearm. The correlation between a final act of familicide and a history of domestic violence within the home and family is high with a study by Anna Campbell finding that intimate-partner violence had occurred in 70% of the 408 cases she had studied.
Such domestic violence is not always reported and therefore on police records. In many cases, it is reports from family and friends that reveal such prior violence within the home with up to 75% of cases having no police involvement, and therefore no arrest records, for such incidents. It is clear however that domestic violence within the home heightens the risk for familicide occurring in the future.
Further findings from Campbell include that unemployment was indeed a risk factor for familicide, but only when there was already a history of domestic violence within the home. Losing a job on its own was not deemed to be a factor which may lead to the murder of the entire family followed by the suicide of the offender. Equally access to a firearm also featured as a significant risk factor. With the majority of familicides being carried out using a gun, access is an important issue.
Within an abusive relationship, the time at which two partners separate has been identified as especially vulnerable in relation to familicide. It is at this point that a partner may realize they are losing their family and consider taking drastic action. Jealousy and revenge may also play a role.
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 when 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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