Psychology of a Murder-Suicide: What Makes a Person Kill, Then Kill Themselves?

September 28, 2017
By: Catherine Townsend

Photo by: Inside Edition / YouTube (screenshot)

Inside Edition / YouTube (screenshot)

When a broken-hearted husband murdered his wife before killing himself with an electric drill after she ended their marriage on Facebook, police found suicide notes in his car. One of them, which was addressed to his 13-year-old daughter, expressed sorrow over the affair—but also anger that he had been “forced” to kill.

Another day; another murder-suicide headline.

National statistics indicate that there are between 1,000 and 1,500 murder-suicide cases per year in the U.S.—which indicates that 5 percent of all homicides are followed by suicide.

Below are some of the risk factors cited by experts in murder-suicide cases:

Being male. KCUR interviewed Overland Park Forensic Psychologist Dan Claiborn, who explained that of the estimated 1,500 murder suicides that take place in the U.S. each year, 90 percent are committed by males.

Domestic violence. Around one-third of partner homicides end with the killer committing suicide.

From national and international data and interviews with family members of murder-suicide perpetrators, experts have determined that a history of domestic violence, a male partner being some years older than the female partner, a break-up or pending break-up, and suicidal contemplation by the perpetrator are all also key risk factors.

This was apparently the case when Merchant Marine Officer Kyle Lafferty, 25, shot his girlfriend, OSU student Heather Campbell, before turning the gun on himself.

Police said that the couple had been heard arguing before shots were fired, and classified the incident as a “domestic related situation.”

History of substance abuse. Drug and/or alcohol abuse are major factors that can lead to homicides and suicides. According to Claiborn, in around 40 percent of murder-suicides the perpetrator is someone who is “jealous and abusing substances.”

In May 1998, Brynn Omdahl got into a heated argument with her husband, famed comedian Phil Hartman, about her drug use. At around 3 A.M., while high on cocaine, she killed him by shooting him point-blank with a .38 caliber handgun. She drove to a friend’s house and confessed what she had done — and, after police arrived, she shot herself in the head.

An inciting incident. Though incidents like financial hardship, job loss, or breakups are not the cause of murder-suicides, experts have found that in many cases, something that happened during the two weeks prior to the incident seemed to push killers over the edge.

For example, Steven Dym, the New York man who killed his wife and daughter in August 2017, had recently been accused of inappropriately taking money from properties he managed, according to court documents.

And Megan Short, who was found dead with her husband Mark Short and their children, Liana, 9, Mark, 5, and Willow, 2 (main photo, above), was reportedly planning to leave her husband and move out of the family home on the day she was murdered. Instead, Mark fatally shot his entire family — including the dog — and then turned the gun on himself.

Depression. A history of depression and suicidal thoughts is another risk factor, as is being highly emotional, impulsive, and self-centered.

Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings pilot who purposely crash-landed a plane, killing himself and 149 other victims, had been treated on numerous occasions for depression.

In 25 percent of murder-suicide cases, there is more than one victim. Experts believe that in some of these instances, the killer’s ego may not allow them to imagine that their partner or other loved ones could go on without them.

Being over 55. Older adults have homicide-suicide rates that are twice as high as younger adults. In the past, many of these cases were considered to be consensual suicide pacts, but many experts say now that often, murder-suicide acts are a result of desperation and depression.

Almost all homicide-suicides in older persons involve a husband who kills his wife before killing himself—often because of a perceived threat to the relationship. This could be a pending move to a nursing home or assisted-living facility, changes in health, or marital conflict.

Eric Harris (left) and Dylan Klebold (right) in surveillance footage taken from Columbine High School

Eric Harris (left) and Dylan Klebold (right) in surveillance footage taken from Columbine High School

Eric Harris (left) and Dylan Klebold (right) in surveillance footage taken from Columbine High School

Desire for fame and rage at the world. On the other hand, many killers who target strangers or peers are narcissists who feel that they have been somehow wronged by the world.

The Columbine shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris would seem to fit into this category—though many experts believe that Harris had a superiority complex, while Klebold’s documented history of depression and suicidal thoughts may have been more of a motive for him.

Adam Lankford, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama, said that in his research on mass killers who also took their own lives, he has found “a significant number of cases where they mention a desire for fame, glory, or attention as a motive,” according to The New York Times.

Before Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza killed 20 children, six adults, and himself in 2012, he wrote in an online forum, “Just look at how many fans you can find for all different types of mass murderers.”

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Read more: KCUR, Psychology Today

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