Sunday, April 17, 2011

Oak Harbor, OH: 5 die in apparent murder-suicide in Ottawa County

OAK HARBOR — Sitting at her computer early Saturday morning, Joan Atwater heard an unusual call come over the police scanner. A man was going to kill himself. He had already killed his children, the dispatcher said.

Then she heard the address, 964 Leutz Rd. Her grandson’s home just next door.
She panicked.
She called her grandson, Alan Atwater, 31, 20 to 30 times, she estimated, but he never picked up. Ms. Atwater, 66, opened the blinds, looking across the lawn to the Salem Township home she and her husband rented to her grandson and his wife, Dawn M. Atwater, 30.
Atwater turned on the outside light momentarily and then turned it off. That’s when, she said, he must have turned a gun — the one he apparently used to kill Dawn and their three young children just moments earlier — on himself.
The 911 call came into the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office at 12:11 a.m.
“There’s been a terrible ­accident at my house,” Atwater told the dispatcher. His voice was calm and steady. “My wife and three children are dead.”
He then told the dispatcher they died from gunshot wounds. He was getting ready to kill himself.
“Did you kill them?” the dispatcher asked.
“Yes,” he responded before hanging up.
Sheriff deputies were at the home setting up a perimeter within minutes. There was no activity inside the home. They never heard a final gunshot.

Deputies used a loudspeaker, calling out to Atwater by name, and tried to reach him by telephone. There was no response.

At 2:52 a.m., almost three hours after the initial call, police broke into the white two-story farmhouse through the front door. They found Dawn; Ashley Atwater, 4; Isaac Atwater, 2; Brady Atwater, 1, and Alan Atwater dead in an upstairs bedroom. Brady was in a bed, the rest of the family on the floor, Sheriff’s Capt. Olen Martin said.

Ashley’s birthday was just two weeks earlier.

“Obviously this is a tragedy,” Captain Martin said. “Three young, innocent lives taken. And [Dawn] Atwater.”

The family dog, Duke, a golden retriever, was spared, Ms. Atwater said. The dog is staying with a family member.

Sheriff Bob Bratton said the situation was “extremely critical” and the deputies and special response and command team had to be sure the call wasn’t a hostage situation or a set-up for an ambush before forcing entry.

Authorities said there is no indication anyone else was involved. They could not say if a note was left.

A hint of trouble
Captain Martin could not say if the family members were killed in the same room or if the bodies were moved after the fact.

Alan Atwater, an only child, told his grandfather, Neil Atwater, 75, whom he called “Chief,” on Friday that he and his wife “had to get things straightened out.”

Neil Atwater understood that to mean the couple were having a disagreement.
Whatever problems the couple, who married Nov. 4, 2005, were having, they didn’t appear to be serious, Ms. Atwater said.

Neil Atwater last spoke to his grandson about 6 p.m. Friday. Alan was taking some of the children to Tiffin to pick up a chair the family was having redone.

“They came back, they unloaded the chair, and I never knew [anything] was going on,” Neil Atwater said. “We never thought anything like this was going to happen, no way.”

Dawn Atwater posted on Facebook a photo of herself, Alan Atwater, and her stepdaughter, Mandie Atwater, 12, from the day of their wedding. She commented that the newlyweds were not smiling because they fought on their wedding day.

Mandie was not at the Leutz Road home yesterday; she spent the previous weekend with her father. Yesterday, she was at her mother’s home somewhere in rural Lucas County, Sheriff Bratton said. The girl’s parents, who were never married, shared custody, the sheriff said.

A happy man
Family and Oak Harbor residents who knew Alan Atwater said he was a kind, happy man. He had a smile that would light up the room.

“I’m going to miss his smile,” Ms. Atwater said. “He was always a happy-go-lucky kid.”

Alan Atwater worked part time on the family farm where corn and beans are grown on their 100 acres, Ms. Atwater said.

Alan Atwater’s full-time position was at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station, where he worked in the maintenance department as an instrument and control technician, said Todd Schneider, the plant’s spokesman. Mr. Schneider would not say how long Atwater worked at the plant, but Ms. Atwater said it was at least five years.

One week ago, Atwater returned from a five-week job at another nuclear plant, Sheriff Bratton said.

Atwater earned his associate’s degree in engineering from Terra Community College, Ms. Atwater said.

Amy Middleton, who works at Happy Hour Pizza in downtown Oak Harbor, said Atwater used to come into the bar and pizza shop every Tuesday for their pool league.
“He was always really nice and friendly,” she said. “He was very smart.”

Ms. Middleton said she hasn’t seen Atwater in years.

A mother and wife

Dawn was quiet, a stay-at-home mother who also baby-sat her nieces and nephews, Ms. Atwater said.

Attempts to reach Dawn’s family were unsuccessful. Her Facebook page says she was a 1998 graduate of Oak Harbor High School.

The family were members of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ but did not attend regularly, said the Rev. David Voll. He said Atwater had been in several weddings there for his friends from high school.

A comment from Erin Greener Walleman on a Facebook photo of a smiling Atwater holding Brady reads, “This is the Alan I remember … he loved his kids.”

Neil Atwater said “something drastic had to happen” from the time the family returned from picking up the chair until violence erupted inside the home.

Ms. Atwater said she was unaware that her grandson had a gun, but two men who worked at the plant with Atwater told Ms. Atwater that he did.

A clean record

Sheriff Bratton said Alan Atwater did not have a conceal-carry permit, but because of his clean record, he would have qualified.

A murder weapon has not been identified, the sheriff said.

Atwater did not have a criminal record other than a few traffic violations, which were not drug or alcohol related, authorities said.

A sheriff’s deputy was parked in the driveway, keeping watch over the home, which will be under watch until the autopsies are scheduled to be completed tomorrow by the Lucas County coroner.

Last summer, the family installed a new wooden play set in the yard. The three brightly colored swings, caught in yesterday’s strong winds, stood out against the gloomy gray sky.

The children

Ms. Atwater said her great-grandchildren were quiet, although Ashley was becoming more talkative and Isaac was very excited whenever she came to visit.

“I was so proud of those kids,” she said, clinging to their photographs and wiping tears from her eyes.

Ms. Atwater’s husband was out looking for burial plots yesterday morning, she said.

This is the second time within six months that the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office has dealt with the killings of multiple family members.

William J. Liske, 25, is awaiting trial on charges of aggravated murder stemming from the Oct. 31, 2010, deaths of his father, stepmother, and stepbrother in their home on State Rt. 2 just east of the Lucas-Ottawa county line.

William E. Liske, Jr., 53, and wife Susan Liske, 46, were found with gunshot wounds in the head. Her son Derek Griffin, 23, had been beaten to death.

Mr. Liske pleaded not guilty to all charges, for which he could face the death penalty if convicted.

“These are the things you’re starting to see,” Sheriff Bratton said. “For some reason, this is how people are dealing with their problems.”

Seeking answers

The investigation is ongoing, the sheriff said. They want to be able to tell the family why this “shocking and unexplainable tragedy” happened.

Cell phones and other evidence collected from the family home were taken to the crime lab for analysis. Cell phones will be looked at for any phone calls or text messages that might shed light on the circumstances.

“I just don’t have an answer to all this,” the sheriff said.

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