Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Fathers Who Kill


The Department of Justice statistics suggest that approximately one-third of intrafamilial killings are done by women, and that more than 50 percent of murders of children by a parent are done by the mother. Nevertheless, when it comes to wiping out an entire family, fathers lead the pack, with adolescent sons next on the list.

Gillian Flaccus reports that during the past decade, there has been an average of 50 familicides per year in the U.S. In Fatal Families, attorney and forensic psychologist Charles Patrick Ewing devotes a chapter to familicide, devoting most of it describing cases of fathers who erased their families with violence. He describes Gene Simmons in detail, but also adds the following:

  • In 1989, Robert Lynch owned a business that went into decline. He went into debt, but then his wife got pregnant with their fourth child. Unable to cope with the extra burden, he shot them all and killed himself.
  • Bruce Sweazy had been laid off and had become suicidal. He got a prescription for an antidepressant, which he declined to take. Then one day in 1994, he used a long-handled ax to hack his wife and three sons to death before shooting himself in the chest.
  • A doctor in Philadelphia, Anthony Paul, had a severely arthritic wife, a retarded and asthmatic daughter and a healthy son. To end the sufferings of his family, but not leave his son   to be a ward of the state, he planned a suicide pact with three unwilling victims. He administered a lethal dose of medication to each of them before killing himself.

Despite the differences among these scenarios, there is a common profile of men who have killed their wives and children. Most are white males in their 30s or 40s who react badly to stress and who view their families as extensions of themselves. They typically use a firearm or knife that they have owned for some time. Often they're depressed or intoxicated. Invariably they're described as controlling and quite dependent on their families being what they envision, and believing that they are the only ones who can fulfill the family's needs.

Ewing offers a list of motives for familicide, as does Dr. Herbert Stream in Our Wish to Kill and Christine Jackman in "When Dads Get Deadly." Jointly, they cover the following reasons why men kill their families:

  • Losing control over the family circumstances/panic over powerlessness
  • Seeing only adverse circumstances ahead in life/desperation/frustration
  • Feeling overwhelmed and unable to let the family live while he dies
  • Seeing the deaths as a necessary sacrifice
  • Believing the children cannot survive without him
  • Revenge against an estranged wife, or teaching her a lesson
  • Grief over losing the family in a divorce
  • Discipline gone too far
  • Possessiveness/entitlement/ownership
  • Psychosis
  • Self-enrichment
  • Projecting their self-hatred onto the children
  • Killing witnesses to abuse
  • A joint crime with the mother—erasing the family
  • Compassion
  • Duty to the family
  • Suicide by proxy
  • Jealousy of children who are getting involved with others
  • Difficulty adjusting to being a parent
  • A long tradition of abuse in the family that just continues
  • The idea that children must serve the parent's needs

The Psychopathic Mind
The Psychopathic Mind

J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist and author of The Psychopathic Mind and Violent Attachments, says that such crimes occur as the result of a build-up of anger, frustration and planning, which undermines the fathers' already-fragile sense of self. They don't take failure lightly and cannot tolerate humiliation. Having no way to relieve their stress, they let the steam build until it just explodes into violence. Their families are generally the easiest target and they have no inner defense against the flow of rage. Once it's done, they often return to a sense of equilibrium and if they don't also kill themselves, they often feel much better.

We can see this type of behavior in different scenarios for different reasons in an overview of cases, and it all seems to amount to the same thing: men who cannot deal with stress and who will not withdraw from the world alone.


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