Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Fathers Who Kill

A Father's Revenge

Map with Shelbyville, Tenn. locator
Map with Shelbyville, Tenn. locator

The sheriff in Shelbyville, Tenn., recalled the day in 1997 that Daryl Holton, a Gulf War veteran, turned himself in, reporting a "homicide times four." Holton claimed he had killed his sons and stepdaughter in his uncle's auto shop, where he worked and lived. When the police went to investigate, they found Holton's three boys and their younger half-sister, all shot through the heart. The oldest was twelve and the youngest — Kayla - only four. They also found notes written by the children telling their father how much they loved him.

Angry because his ex-wife had kept him from seeing the children for several months and unhappy that she was now with another man, on November 30

Daryl Holton
Daryl Holton

Holton told the children he was taking them Christmas shopping. He gave them lunch and accompanied them to an amusement park before taking them back to the auto shop. While the younger children played, he took the two older boys to a back area and told them to cover their eyes, according to The New York Times. He then had them line up so he could strike both from behind with a single shot from a Russian SKS semi-automatic assault rifle. He knelt down and fired several times. Then he covered their bodies and went for the others, who hadn't heard the shots, and followed the same procedure with them. He shot Kayla from the front as well.

All died before they realized what their father was doing, although one clearly felt the gun's muzzle pressed against his back. Holton later claimed he had then intended to place fire-bombs in the home of his ex-wife in Murfreesboro and to shoot himself, but instead he turned himself in. He wanted to stay alive to control the story, he said, to make sure people knew why he had done it. He expressed no remorse.

Holton's relationship with his ex-wife was reportedly tumultuous, and he had repeatedly warned her that if she ever tried to take his children, she would regret it. On several occasions, she believed he was armed, and she'd been afraid of what he might do. She'd once even gone to a shelter for victims of domestic abuse.

In 1997, she obtained an order of protection that restricted Holton's access to the children, but on Thanksgiving Day, she relented and told him the children wanted to see him. He came over on the following Sunday to pick them up, but clearly had a plan. It didn't help when he saw his ex-wife dressed up and happy without him. The children were excited to see him, presenting pictures and notes to him to show how much they loved him, but within five hours all were dead. Holton would say to the authorities that he had done what he wanted to do: he had shocked his ex-wife. "I was done."

It's a too-common story of domineering men who murder to exact revenge on former spouses, thinking thereby to have the final word. But they don't. The state has the final word, and Holton was convicted and sentenced.. He received the death sentenced on each of the four counts.

Yet some argue that on that day Holton didn't appreciate what he was doing. He was, it was claimed, severely depressed and suffering from the delusion that his children would be better off in heaven than raised by the woman he hated. It was also possible, said his attorney, that Holton suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from the Gulf War. Thus, he may have been insane when he had committed the quadruple murder. Many people think that was the only reasonable explanation, because it seemed to them that no father would otherwise do something so heinous to the children he claimed to love.

Yet Holton is not the first father to decide that dead children are better than children he can't raise himself. He's also not the first father to decide that killing his children was a fitting way to punish his ex-spouse. Since he couldn't be with them, the sentiment holds, he was justified in inflicting this terrible pain on her.

In fact, the jury did not find that Holton had been so mentally ill he failed to understand what he was doing. No appeal on his behalf was persuasive, either. He ultimately asked to have all appeals stopped so he could face the punishment. He didn't even order a special last meal.

"Someone convicted of four counts of first-degree murder, with the aggravators that were found in my case," Holton said in an interview, "the aggravating circumstances — yes, that conviction is worthy of the death penalty."

Finally, on September 12, 2007, Holton went to the electric chair. His last words, mumbled, were "Two words: I do." Then he closed his eyes and kept them closed. He was 45 years old, the first person executed by the state of Tennessee since 1960. Some people say he might well be the last person in America to die by electrocution, increasingly considered cruel and inhumane. Apparently before he died, he'd come to terms with his crimes and was ready to go.


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