Studies put the number of murder-suicides as high as 1,500 a year. A database assembled by MCIR shows that more than 1 in 7 murder-suicides in 2019 and 2020 involved the killings of children. Credit: Shutterstock Credit: Shutterstock

By Norma Hilton
Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

In the picturesque California neighborhood of Paradise Hills sits an ordinary, one-story, light beige house with a dark wooden roof. This is where Zeth, 11, Zuriel, 5, Enzi, 3, and Ezekiel, 9, died at the hands of their father in a murder-suicide. He also killed their mother, Sabrina Rosario.

This suburban nightmare was just one case of murder-suicide that made headlines in the last few years. But parents killing their children is more common than most people think. Every year, about 500 arrests are made in cases where these “filicides” occur.

Studies put the number of murder-suicides as high as 1,500 a year, most of them men killing their intimate partners. A database assembled by MCIR shows that more than 1 in 7 murder-suicides in 2019 and 2020 involved the killings of children. More than 9 out of 10 children were killed by their parents. Most of these incidents took place in the South, with Texas, California, Oklahoma and Florida taking the top spots.

The youngest child killed in 2020 was just 5 months old.

‘You know I’m never going to leave you alone’

After filing for divorce in June 2019, Rosario was overwhelmed with a stream of abuse from her estranged husband, Jose Valdivia. The harassment escalated quickly. On Nov. 6, Valdivia sent her a picture of a handgun – placed in front of several empty beer cans and a bottle of alcohol, according to court records.

He texted her repeatedly, sometimes sending messages minutes or even seconds apart. On Nov. 8, just a week before the attack, Valdivia called her 11 times between 7:34 a.m. and 7:40 a.m. That same night, he texted her he was coming over. Fifteen minutes later, even with no response, he showed up at her house unannounced.

She’d told her estranged husband she would file a restraining order against him if he continued this behavior. But he brushed her off. “A restraining order is not going to do nothing,” he said. This barrage of unwanted contact continued until the very end. On Nov. 14, 2019, two days before the attack, Valdivia sent Rosario a message: “You know I’m never going to leave you alone.” She filed for a restraining order the next day.

Rosario felt threatened. She was worried for her children’s safety. “I am requesting that our children be protected in this order…it is not in the children’s best interest to be around this kind of domestic violence,”  she wrote on her child visitation and custody filing, court records show.

Rosario and her four children were killed the day after she filed for the restraining order.

“I think of murder-suicides specifically in the context of domestic violence,” said Ruth Zakarin, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. “I cannot recall an instance where a murder-suicide didn’t involve intimate partners, current or former, or family or household members.”

Some perpetrators kill their children to retaliate against a current or ex-partner, according to a 2007 review of filicides in the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. Fathers killing their children or “paternal filicide” has its own category. The review found they are more likely to kill very young children and children in later life. Fathers were also almost twice as likely to take their own lives after killing a child than mothers were.

The analysis of the MCIR 2019 and 2020 murder-suicide database shows all the fathers who had a history of domestic violence and restraining orders or protection orders against them killed their children. During the pandemic, this number doubled from 14% to about 28%.

On the other end of the spectrum, some perpetrators have major psychiatric illnesses. These are called pathological filicides, according to the same study. Cory Godbolt spoke in court and blamed the devil for his actions on the night he killed eight people in the south Mississippi towns of Brookhaven and Bogue Chitto.

‘Something could have been done to stop tragedy from occurring’

Murder-suicides like Cory Godbolt’s 2017 rampage in Mississippi may share characteristics with mass shootings like that in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 elementary school students and two teachers dead, according to Adam Lankford, a professor of criminology at the University of Alabama. In both types, four or more people may sometimes be killed. Guns are also usually the weapon of choice for both.

“Mass shootings are often premeditated crimes in which there were multiple warning signs observed by friends, family members, teachers, or other witnesses. This means in many cases, something could have been done to stop tragedy from occurring,” he said.

Alcohol abuse and mental illnesses are distinct risk factors for murder-suicides, according to a 2009 study into murder-suicides. Domestic violence is another factor that increases risk of murder suicides, the same study found. The pandemic likely worsened this as many people had to shelter in place – sometimes in households with domestic violence. MCIR’s investigation found that, in 2020, more than four of five murder-suicides happened in the home and 96 perpetrators had a history of domestic violence.

These issues in combination with recent separation or impending divorce, are often major contributing factors in murder suicides, including filicides. According to a 2009 study into filicides in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, “depression often follows a breakup and then triggers the murder-suicide event”.

But in many cases these warning signs are missed, especially within law enforcement and the legal system. As of today, no national database tracks murder suicides, so there is no way of really knowing how many children died. Some states did not report any data, some reported incomplete data or left out whole years to the FBI. This is because the process of reporting children killed in homicides is voluntary. In California’s Butte County for example, a 2014 study in the National Library of Medicine found the detectives and the court did not keep track of the number of restraining orders or respondents.

Guns are used to carry out a majority of murder-suicides where there are histories of domestic violence, according to MCIR’s investigation. Some states require those served with restraining orders to relinquish their firearms. Mississippi isn’t one of those states.

Even when those under restraining orders are required to relinquish their firearms, the responsibility of surrendering firearms falls on the person against whom a restraining order is placed. A 2010 study in Los Angeles and New York found only 12% of women whose abusers possessed guns had relinquished those guns or had them removed. But even if law enforcement successfully removes firearms from high risk individuals, respondents of restraining orders often deny possessing firearms. In many states, like California, they cannot be compelled to do so and face no punishment for refusing.

“Laws that explicitly place responsibility on law enforcement to facilitate or realize gun dispossession when people are prohibited can help address [this] shortcoming,” said Shannon Frattaroli, director of The Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy at Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“Initiatives within law enforcement agencies that emphasize law enforcement’s role in assuring dispossession – for example by setting up tracking databases to monitor when guns are removed and alert supervisors when they are not – can help incentivize efforts to follow through when orders are issued that prohibit gun possession for a period of time.”

Zakarin, who provided training on domestic violence, sexual assault, and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as how to approach survivors of interpersonal violence, said her experiences with law enforcement were challenging.

“I experienced a lot of resistance from participants, including being openly challenged on the content or my expertise. I found that training felt more impactful with the ranking officer in the room setting the example of saying the training was important and managing the resistance or challenging behaviors as they came up. Basically if the senior person in the room demonstrated buy-in, the training went better. If not, it was much harder.”

There is no way to know for sure. Law enforcement rarely if ever measures the effectiveness of this kind of training. “I can only speak to my own experiences with that, which were very challenging. I don’t have a sense of either effectiveness overall, or attempts to measure that,” Zakarin said.

‘Work together to make sure that individuals who are in crisis do not fall through the cracks’

Some states like Massachusetts are adopting “common sense” legislation. Zoe Grover, executive director of Stop Handgun Violence, says this is the best way to close loopholes in the already existing laws that make it possible for individuals, even with a domestic violence misdemeanor, to purchase firearms.

“Even if there is a substantial dating relationship between two individuals, violence between them may not qualify as domestic violence under some state laws if they do not live together or have never been married,” Grover said. “Closing loopholes around the definition of domestic violence and requiring that all firearm purchases require a background check, would be a common sense start.”

Federal law bars domestic abusers from having guns, but a “boyfriend loophole” remains for men who haven’t lived with their partners or had children with the partner.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., helped push a bipartisan effort to close that loophole and make other reforms, saying this progress “breaks a 30-year log jam, demonstrating that Democrats and Republicans can work together in a way that truly saves lives.”

Federal law prohibits people convicted of domestic violence from purchasing a gun, but only if they are living with their partner, married to their partner or have a child with their partner.

The bipartisan Senate gun safety bill, which passed the Senate on June 23 and the House on June 24, expands the definition. Individuals in a “current or recent former dating relationship” who are convicted of domestic abuse would also be prevented from purchasing a gun.

In 2019, the Justice Department launched a program designed to help communities prevent abusers from having access to guns in domestic violence cases. Then-U.S. Attorney Michael Hurst of Jackson persuaded the Justice Department to invest $6 million to help fight domestic violence in Mississippi.

When abusers threaten to use weapons, women are 20 times more likely to be killed than other abused women. The Justice Department has now expanded its program to crack down on these abusers.

Like many other states, Extreme Risk Protection Orders, or ERPOs, are another measure that have been underutilized to combat gun violence and domestic violence in Massachusetts, according to Grover. Also called “red flag laws,” these protection orders allow law enforcement and family members to petition the courts to temporarily seize or prevent the purchase of firearms for up to 12 months. Of the top 10 states leading in the nation’s murder-suicides, three of them have these laws – Florida, California and Virginia, according to an independent analysis by MCIR. Nationally, only 40% of states have the extreme risk protection order laws.

States across the United States where ERPOs are available. Credit: The Education Fund to Stop Gun Violence Credit: The Education Fund to Stop Gun Violence

But there are some states where these laws have worked. In 2018 in Maryland, a red flag law was pushed through. In the five months between the passage of the law and its implementation, law enforcement was trained to introduce families to the red flag law. Courts in Maryland can now process petitions 24 hours a day. So, firearms can be seized quickly in critical situations.

“We still believe they are an important part of the tool box,” Grover said. “Restraining orders, child protection orders, domestic violence restraining orders and extreme risk protection orders work together to make sure that individuals who are in crisis do not fall through the cracks.”

MCIR Executive Editor Jerry Mitchell contributed to this report.

This story was produced in partnership with the Community Foundation for Mississippi’s local news collaborative, which is independently funded in part by Microsoft Corp. The collaborative includes MCIR, Mississippi Today, the Clarion Ledger, the Jackson Advocate, Jackson State University and Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization that seeks to inform, educate and empower Mississippians in their communities through the use of investigative journalism. Sign up for our newsletter.

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