Why do they do it? 20 victims of Utah murder-suicide attempts since 2013
Published: January 18, 2014 04:53PM
Updated: January 17, 2014 10:24PM

There were 11 murder-suicides in Utah last year, and 14 total victims if you count those whose killers were unable to commit suicide. In the last few days alone, there are six victims.

But while the indelible horror of events like Thursday night’s quadruple slaying can leave the impression that murder-suicides are happening more than ever, it’s not entirely clear that there’s a long-term trend.

“People have tried to go back decades and have found that it’s pretty stable,” says Heather Melton, associate professor at the University of Utah’s Sociology Department.

Yes, there were only four murder-suicides in 2012, but there were 12 in 2011. In 2010, the number dips back to five.

Forensic psychologist Mark Zelig says that news of one murder-suicide sometimes leads to others.

“There certainly is some degree of contagion,” he said. “There is something about some people on the [brink] hearing about somebody else doing it and arousing the feeling that the act is more acceptable now.”

Overnight Thursday, police say Lindon police officer Joshua Boren shot and killed his wife, their two children and his mother-in-law before turning the gun on himself. A month earlier, the man who has been described as an adoring father had taken the family to Disneyland.

Two days earlier, police say Syracuse mother Kyler Ramsdell-Oliva fatally shot her two daughters, 13 and 7, before ending her own life.

Nationwide, the Washington-based Violence Policy Center (VPC) estimates there are between 1,000 and 1,500 deaths each year from murder-suicides. About 90 percent involve a handgun, and about 90 percent of the offenders are male.

“This is not something that only happens to other people,” says Peg Coleman, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition (UDVC). “We’re all capable of great harm and great good. I’m sure at times [Joshua Boren] was a loving, loving father, and look what he was capable of.”

Coleman says Utah’s predominant values — though in many ways positive — can lead to shame, guilt and anger for married couples. In some cases, abused spouses try for too long to salvage their partnership, and when they do leave, the consequences can be tragic.

“We have such a strong mandate for a healthy marriage and a social standing based on marriage,” she says. “The fact of the matter is that pressure can lead to desperation when the marriage is unraveling.”

Coleman urges family members and partners with concerns to reach out. A trusted pal or church leader may do, but even better is an anonymous hotline — where the lone concern is your safety. The toll-free UDVC hotline at 1-800-897-5465 can be reached 24 hours a day. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, another free, 24/7 number is at 1-800-273-8255.

Office of Vital Records and Statistics data show Utah suicide rates on the whole rising every year since 2006, from 13.6 per 100,000 residents each year to 19.1 in 2012.

The executive director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Rebecca Glathar, says barriers like insurance coverage, negative experiences with treatment programs and a lack of awareness lead to often preventable problems. Hopefully, she says, officials will reassess the mental health support system in light of this week’s crimes.

“Too often in tragic cases like these, and I can’t speak to this specific case, but all too often, individuals have sought help and have been unable to get the help that they really needed,” she said.

A related problem, says Zelig, is that perpetrators often don’t betray any hint of their depression away from home.

“They go to work and do what is required there, and nobody can pick it up,” he said. “That is often the case that they can compartmentalize the pathology [depending on] the environments that they’re in.”

The 2012 VPC report says so-called “family annihilators,” as Boren is accused of being, are often depressed and, due to financial problems, believe their family is better off dying along with them. But sometimes it’s just pure malice.

“I think it depends, and particularly when it’s a woman killing her children and then herself, that’s when you hear more about that delusional altruism going on, that they’re doing them a favor and the world is a horrible place,” Melton said. “I think you’re going to have a different motivation when there is a history of violence … a sense of, ‘You can’t do that, you can’t leave me.’”

mpiper@sltrib.com

Twitter: @matthew_piper

Tribune reporters Michael McFall and Jessica Miller contributed to this story.