Sunday, August 19, 2012

Article: Brevard murder-suicides take alarming upswing

Three months ago, Tonya Thomas shot and killed her four children and then herself at their Port St. John home, a tragic incident that was one of five murder-suicides so far this year in Brevard County.

The five incidents, resulting in 13 deaths, shows an increase in the county, which typically has one or two murder-suicides a year, according to records. Local law enforcement officials said many of this year’s cases show a different, and alarming, trend from years past.

“The thing that’s been a little bit different is they aren’t based on someone having a medical issue,” said Lt. Tod Goodyear, the head of the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office homicide unit. “That, predominantly, in the past has been a larger number of them, rather than the relationship ones like this.”

There is no state or federal agency that formally tracks the incidents of murder-suicide, though studies have shown that most murder-suicides are between significant others or intimate partners in severe cases of domestic violence.

“Every one is shocking, it’s absolutely of incredible concern,” said Cindy Mitchell, executive director of the Salvation Army Domestic Violence Program. “Ultimately the responsibility for these murders falls on the perpetrator, but if we can try and plan the safest way out, hopefully lives can be saved.”

Though motives for such tragic incidents can be difficult to determine, officials have said only one this year was likely because of medical issues. This year’s cases:

Tuesday: A friend found the bodies of Charles Garrick, 53, and Arlene Garrick, 57, at their home on Butia Street on Merritt Island. Sheriff’s officials said Charles Garrick shot his wife before taking his own life. A motive is unknown.

Aug. 6: A man shot his former girlfriend, and then himself, at an apartment on League Avenue in Melbourne. The man had previously been arrested in a domestic violence case.

July 8: Sheriff’s deputies said a man shot his significant other, who had her bags packed in an apparent attempt to leave him, before killing himself.

May 15: Tonya Thomas, 33, of Port St. John shot and killed her four children — Joel Johnson, 12, Jazzlyn Johnson, 13, Jaxs Johnson, 15, and Pebbles Johnson, 17 — before turning the gun on herself at their Bright Avenue home. Police had been called to the home before, and one of the children was scheduled to appear in juvenile court the day after the shootings.

April 13: Sheriff’s officials suspected James Dempsey, 53, and his wife, Leslie Dempsey, 61, planned a murder-suicide because of their ongoing medical problems. They were found dead of gunshot wounds at their home on an unpaved section of Ponderosa Road.

Since 2002, records show there have been 21 incidents of murder-suicide in Brevard resulting in 46 deaths. The May killing is still considered an open case as investigators await toxicology results from the autopsies.

Dr. Donna Cohen, a professor at the University of South Florida’s Florida Mental Health Institute, has researched murder-suicides for more than 20 years. She says that in Florida and nationally, there has not been a notable increase in murder-suicide rates.

“Three core characteristics to murder-suicides (are) mental health problems in the perpetrator, frequently depression; a strong attachment to the victim; and a perception that the relationship is being threatened (or) severed,” she said.

The Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C. organization that advocates for gun regulation, has collected data on murder-suicide based on Internet news reports for the first six months of 2011. The study, published in a report titled “American Roulette,” found 313 murder-suicide incidents resulting in 691 people killed in the United States in that period.

“We estimate they happen about 10 times a week,” said Kristen Rand, legislative director at the Violence Policy Center. “That’s still, in the grand scheme of things, a small statistical number.”

The analysis found that Florida had the second-highest number of incidents in that time, at 27. California led the nation with 34 reported incidents. Rand said those numbers were likely at the top because of higher populations.

Of the nationwide total, about 90 percent involved firearms . About 80 percent of the incidents occurred in a home, and women were more frequently the victims than the aggressors, according to the VPC report.

Officials have said that financial problems and medical issues also can be factors leading to murder-suicides. In the study, 72 percent of all murder-suicides involved an intimate partner.

“The most common precipitating event is a breakdown in a relationship,” Rand said. “The majority involve domestic violence. ... The most striking thing is that the patterns do just repeat themselves over and over and over again.”

The statewide Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence recently began tracking media reports of murder-suicide. Coalition spokeswoman Lisa Wiseman said in their analysis, many of the murder-suicides that involve domestic violence issues “come back to issues of control.”

“We know that is indeed a pretty significant red flag for how dangerous and lethal the situation is,” she said.

Mitchell said agencies such as the Salvation Army Domestic Violence Program provide services that can help prevent these fatalities.

“Domestic violence advocates are trying to help victims escape safely,” she said. “We provide safety planning to help strategize the best way to leave safely.”

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