Tuesday, June 14, 2011

True Crime Tuesday: Man Kills Wife, Self

Man Kills Wife, Self.

It's a headline depressingly familiar enough so that a reader can often predict the turning points of the newspaper story. “Divorce.” “Custody dispute.” “Restraining order.” “Police were called.” “Neighbors say...” Here in Maine, a state that averages 27 homicides a year, we've been rocked this past week with two of these gruesome stories. The first was reported on June 6 by Mark LaFlamme of the Lewiston Sun Journal:

Winslow man kills wife in front neighbor's home, then self after high-speed chase on Interstate

GRAY — A woman was shot and killed by her husband in Winslow on Monday night, and he committed suicide after a chase with police that ended in Gray, Maine State Police said late Monday.

State police identified the couple as 30-year-old Sarah Gordon and 32-year-old Nathaniel Gordon, both of 4 Marie St. She was shot on Marie Street and he fled the scene in his car, police said.

State police say that the husband chased his wife down the street and shot her and killed her in front of a neighbor's house. The shots were witnessed and heard by neighbors, which were reported to police.

Nathaniel Gordon shot himself inside his car after police put down a spike mat, causing him to crash along the Maine Turnpike, roughly 100 yards from Route 26, shortly after 9 p.m.

Sarah and Nathaniel Gordon were the parents of a son and daughter, ages 8 and 9. The children were placed in the custody of a grandparent Monday night, according to police.

...This was the seventh homicide this year in Maine and the third homicide related to domestic violence, according to police.

According to Maine's Attorney General, roughly half the murders in in our state each year are related to domestic violence. In Maine, unless you're living with your killer, you're safer than you are in any other state in the union.

Agencies like the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence have been working aggressively to lower the state's most significant non-drug-related crime problem. They provide law enforcement training, general education, advocacy for victims, and encourage the exchange of information between DV groups, medical responders, and police. The approach works: MPBN reports the rate of domestic violence in Maine was down for the third year in a row, according to the recently-released crime statistics of 2010.

The statistics for 2011 may be quite a bit grimmer. The headline in Monday's Bangor Daily News:

4 dead in Dexter; Police: Man shot wife, 2 children before killing himself

DEXTER, Maine — A Harmony man who was upset that he had not been allowed to attend his son’s eighth-grade graduation later this week shot and killed his estranged wife and their two children Monday before committing suicide, Maine State Police said.

The bodies of Steven Lake, 37, Amy Lake, 38, and their children Coty, 13, and Monica, 12, were found in the living room of the first floor of a house at 173 Shore Road, according to Maj. Gary Wright of the state police. It appeared all had died from shotgun wounds, he said.

“It was clearly a domestic violence homicide,” Wright said.

The Lakes had been feuding for the past year and were in the process of getting a divorce. Steven Lake was scheduled to be tried in Piscataquis County Superior Court in July on four charges, including criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon and domestic violence criminal threatening.

--Diana Bowley, BDN Staff

Maine isn't the only place now seeing an increase in these nightmarish stories. In Portland and Philadelphia, in Salt Lake City and Scotland, domestic violence is sharply up, fueled in part by the economic stresses of the long recession. Couples are strained by financial woes, left hopeless by unemployment and trapped together in unsellable houses.

So what can you and I do about this? There's donating money or supplies to shelters, of course, but what else? The Maine Attorney General's Office has some thoughtful suggestions: establish a domestic violence policy at your workplace, to assure victims they will receive practical help if they come forward. Find unconventional intervention points: the hairdressers, the grocery store, the library. Our local elementary school has domestic violence information posted in the nurses office, and will take reports from parents picking up kids. Become a mentor to boys and girls, helping to break the generational patterns of violence. Be a good neighbor – keep your eyes open for signs of abuse and be the person willing to make a call. A local officer came to the Lake's house because someone on her street was worried that she hadn't seen Amy Lake or the children. In this case, it was tragically too late, but at another time, the “nosy neighbor” could save a life.

Finally, I wonder what I and my fellow crime fiction writers can do in response to stories like the Lakes' and the Gordons'. I believe one of the great strengths of our genre is to report unflinchingly on current social ills. I think the first in-depth information I ever had on the meth epidemic or international sex trafficking or identity theft came from crime fiction. But portraying domestic violence poses a challenge to mystery writers, precisely because it is so unmysterious. There are no red herrings and alibis, only rage and control and violence. I don't have any answers as to how to make a compelling whodunnit out of this all-too-prevalent crime. But I know I'll continue to ask myself the question.


  1. Warning: this is a long comment.

    I do not know if this qualifies as domestic violence, probably relationship violence, but during my college years, a student was killed by her boyfriend and then killed himself, all in front of the police. She was trying to break up with him. The shockwaves the rippled across the college was far-reaching. The main question on the campus was “WHY?” I remember one of the college newspaper reports examining the warning signs, if there was any. The conflicting responses ranged from “Well, he seemed a little possessive, but maybe he wasn't…” to “He seems like a nice guy, he did not seem like the type…”

    WHAT do you do when you witness/know/suspect someone who you know or/and care/love is in an abusive relationship? Being someone who was in a less than ideal, probably abusive relationship, and was in for years before finally getting out, I STILL do not have an answer. Only that I wish that people who knew did not all tell/ask me, “Why don’t you just leave?” Because reality is not that simple, I wish it was. Leaving does not always mean safety.
    I hope that my experience being in the abusive (yes, I am admitting it was abusive) relationship has made me less judgmental. When things were going terribly, terribly wrong, I was afraid to say anything, ask for help, because I remembered the comments and judgments.

    I thought about whether I should comment or not. I still feel a deep sense of shame, shame that I could allow myself to be in such a terrible situation. The abuse went on for years. And the isolation. Abuser behavior 101, isolation. Abusers isolate those whom they are abusing from family, friends, and support systems. It is doubling tragic when the abused start isolating themselves. I know, because I did it myself. But I am speaking up now, even though I am speaking anonymously, because I believe this is important, and that it strikes a raw nerve. There is no type. I never thought or/and believed I would EVER be in such a situation, but I was.
    “But portraying domestic violence poses a challenge to mystery writers, precisely because it is so unmysterious. There are no red herrings and alibis, only rage and control and violence.”
    Maybe so, but calculation and manipulation are two main elements of domestic violence. Or relationship violence. A lot of the times the abuser would behave perfectly, charmingly towards the outside world, only turning on his/her targets when they are alone. If physical abuse, only hitting where bruises cannot be seen. And violence and abuse takes so many other forms than physical abuse.

  2. Appreciate your sensitive post. A heartbreak, truly. If we only had the answers.

  3. Julia, thanks for bringing this to our attention. And anonymous, so glad you posted about your experience. You describe the fear and isolation and shame so clearly. So glad you were able to get out!

    I guess the one thing we hope to do with all our stories is make people think about things they don't usually see, and offer some hope?

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful post on a horrific subject, Julia. My oldest sister was in such a relationship for several years. I'm happy to report that she ran at one point, and has been happily married to a decent man fora couple of decades now.


  5. As a lawyer I did Pro Bono (free) work for a Domestic Violence shelter writing Protective Orders. What a frustrating experience. No amount of threats were enough to make the women leave. The abusers are beyond sick, but to save the abused you also need therapy for them. Battered women syndrome is all too real. So often I'd get to court and my client wouldn't show or refused to sign the order. Yet, the abusers were usually nice to the neighbors, so I would have no witness whatsoever. And what broke my heart were the kids caught in the middle.
    I often wondered what had gone wrong with the abusers--what made them think they can act this way? I could only conclude it was society. We still hide behind the claim "It's a family matter." But it isn't. It's a criminal matter. One day I'll write a thriller about it when I figure out how to make a difference.

  6. One of the challenges for a writer is an accurate portrayal of a woman who is a victim. Reader don't awlays respond to female characters who are cowed, both physically and psychologically. People who don't fight back are considered cowardly, spineless, etc., unless the author is gifted enough to portray that the character *can't* call the police or a friend or family, because fear is that intense. We have numerous resources to help people, it is true, but when it comes right down to it, making the call for help is a solitary and terrifying decision. In fiction, portraying that level of fear while still making the character sympathetic is a challenge.

  7. It's such a difficult problem--with so many people owning guns, it only takes one out of control moment and tragedy occurs. Sometimes it is a clear consequence of years of abuse and other times it's a fairly ordinary person who flips at being denied access to his children or having everything taken from him in a divorce.
    Unfortunately the police often won't intervene until there are clear signs of violence, and restraining orders do nothing.

  8. Julia--very thought provoking. Thank you..and thank you anonymous, too. We're glad you're here, sister.

    Jamie--keep us posted!

  9. What a tragedy. I can't help but wonder what effect this will have on the children of the first couple, the ones who are now with a grandparent. The children of the other couple had such short lives. I don't know if I could write about this kind of thing, but I admire those who can.

  10. Excellent sensitive post! Nancy Pickard wrote a mystery novel about domestic violence in her Jenny Cain series, Marriage Is Murder. But I'm not aware of anyone else who's been able to do this. You've set an interesting challenge before us, Julia!

  11. Alice Munro's "Dimension" is a story that haunts me. Not a mystery of course, but a crime story.

  12. Chris Bohjalian's recent (2010?) book Secrets of Eden also grappled with this issue.

    At the bottom of this post I've linked to a Huffington Post blog by Chris in which he discusses the same phenomenon Julia points out: In the lovely, rural, relatively crime-free states of Northern New England, despite incredible work by groups like the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, a large percentage of the murders each year are DV murders. It makes you want to weep, but posts like this one inspire us to act.



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  14. There are two main factors which result in these murder/suicides.
    I. The mistaken impression that the male is more often the abuser.
    2. The special status and consideration given to women, many of whom take advantage of this by abusing a man for years until he has a total breakdown and reacts in desperation to end the
    situation. You might ask "Couldn't he have simply informed police?"
    NO! He would be laughed and sneered at .... and if police spoke to his wife, she would claim that he'd been beating her for years. She would be believed, he would be arrested and charged, government funded support groups would then guide her through the proceedings .... including coaching in what to say and how to appear for best courtroom effect.
    The man's suffering would be compouded if his wife had gambled away all the money and left him in debt (lawyers don't work for free). Since there would be no true investigation the judge would then give the woman credibility, and the home, and the car, and the kids ... etc:
    A case in point is "The Hadley Inquest" which can be referenced online.
    I didn't call police ... I emailed the Provincial Premier which brought the same result.
    Now at 76 years old and in poor health I can only try to warn others.

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