Josh Powell took the lives of his two sons in a house fire. Powell was a 'person of interest' in his wife's 2009 disappearance. NBC's Miguel Almaguer reports.
Josh Powell’s taking of his own life and that of his two boys is rare and there is little data on what is known as "filicide-suicide," but psychiatrists say they’ve identified some reasons why -- such as spousal revenge, being acutely psychotic or altruism.
Powell died along with his boys Charles, 7, and Braden, 5, on Sunday, days after he was ordered to undergo a psycho-sexual evaluation as part of a bid to regain custody of his children from his in-laws. Authorities say he set his home on fire moments after the boys were brought to the house for a supervised visit by a social worker – who he did not let inside.
Of the types of filicide (where a parent kills a child) that researchers have identified -- spouse revenge; altruism (where a parent believes that the child will be better off dead); the parent is psychotic and there’s no rational motive -- an expert says he believes the Powell case could be one of revenge.
The sons of missing mom Susan Powell suffered neck and head injuries at the hands of their father, Josh Powell, before dying in the house he set on fire. NBC's Miguel Almaguer reports.
"The person who loses the custody fight is so upset that they feel, you know, ‘If I can’t have the children, you’re not going to get them either,’ and kills the children ... This comes closest to that category even though you don’t have an actual spouse, you’ve got the parents of the spouse," said Phillip Resnick, professor of psychiatry and director of the division of forensic psychiatry for Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine.
Powell temporarily lost custody of his children last September after authorities charged his father Steve with voyeurism and possession of child pornography. Powell, who had been living with his boys at his father’s home, was cleared by Child Protective Services in November and believed at last week’s hearing he would regain custody.
The judge’s order of an evaluation last Wednesday came as a "total shock" to him, news reports cited his lawyer, Jeffrey Bassett, as saying.
ABC News obtained what it says was a voicemail Powell left for his family members. In the recording played Tuesday on "Good Morning America," Powell said he was calling to say goodbye and apologize.
Theresa Vanderhoff lights a candle next to photos of Susan Cox Powell and her sons Braden and Charles during a candlelight vigil at McKinley Park in Tacoma, Wash., on Monday.
"Hello, this is Josh. And I’m calling to say goodbye," a shaking voice on the voicemail said. "I am not able to live without my sons, and I'm not able to go on anymore. I'm sorry to everyone I've hurt. Goodbye."
"In my experience, the spouse revenge killing is done when the final custody is awarded to the other parent so this would be a little atypical in that respect, but he may just have had a sense that he wasn’t going to prevail here," said Resnick, who has evaluated mothers who have killed their children -- such as Andrea Yates and Susan Smith -- and knew of the Powell case through media reports.
Some 350 to 400 parents kill their children a year in the U.S. – but not themselves -- and the perpetrators are about equally split between mothers and fathers. The number of cases where a parent takes their own life and that of their children is believed to be smaller, Resnick said, though adding that he hadn’t seen a specific figure on that and noting there wasn’t uniform reporting on such cases.
One of the problems is a lack of a centralized database for reporting these kinds of deaths, so researchers would essentially then have to sift through records at every county coroner’s office.
Even then, the motive might not be clear without a perpetrator to interview, said Susan Hatters-Friedman, associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Case Western who co-authored a study of a county in Ohio reviewing such cases.
"It’s really something that been understudied," she said. "It can be difficult to study because of … what data is available."
She also noted that though people often typically thought of moms with post-partum depression killing their babies, she said that older children were also victims in filicide-suicide cases.
The study, which Resnick and others also co-authored, identified 30 filicide-suicide cases by reviewing coroners’ cases in Cuyahoga County from 1958-2002. Twenty of the perpetrators were fathers. In more than 75 percent of the cases, the perpetrator had evidence of mental illness, while only a little more than half of that – 43 percent – had used mental health services.
Though the vast majority who committed such crimes would be either depressed or psychotic, "not everyone who does this is … out of touch with reality," Resnick said, noting that Powell "may have just been very angry and frustrated."
Some warning signs can be any severely depressed parent, who should be taken for psychiatric help and asked about what plans they would have for their children if they do take their own life, Resnick said.
Recent cases of a father killing himself and his children, include:
- Jan. 31: A California man allegedly shot his 9-month-old son before turning the gun on himself on a mountain road in California, following a battle over visitation with his ex-girlfriend who had gone to a judge ten days before seeking a restraining order that would mandate supervised visits. At that hearing, she had submitted an email in which he had allegedly described killing himself and his son, according to the Hi-Desert Star.
- Jan. 28: A man in Virginia and his twin 3-year-old daughters were found dead in their home in what authorities said was a murder-suicide. The girls had cuts to their necks and the father had hooked up a van to the home in order for exhaust fumes to go inside. A close family friend said there were no "red flags," but the couple was going through a divorce and custody issues, WTVR.com reported.
- Oct. 18: Authorities find the bodies of a family of four in their New York home. Police say the father shot his two children, bludgeoned his wife to death with a piece of furniture and then killed himself. The couple was in the midst of a divorce, police told The Associated Press.
Men were often more likely to take the lives of everyone in the family, rather than mothers, who tended to kill the children and themselves, said Resnick.
This was partly because "fathers tend to have a proprietary sense of ownership of the whole family," he said, noting that if a man lost his job, he could envision all of them being forced out on the street and then "decide to wipe out the whole family" to avoid that.
Fathers were also "more likely to succeed at suicide" than women, Resnick added, because they "use methods like shooting and hanging, and women use methods like overdosing, which are less often successful. So men use more violent, more lethal methods, and they die more often."
Authorities in Washington state said Monday that they believe Powell had planned the fire. They recovered two cans of gasoline inside Powell’s rented home, and gasoline was spread throughout the house and used as an accelerant in the huge blaze.
"We believe he planned this event out and had taken certain steps," Pierce County sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Ed Troyer said during a press conference in Graham, Wash.
Kirk Graves, the husband of Powell’s estranged sister, Jennifer, confirmed to TODAY on Monday that Charles was beginning to talk about his memories of the day his mother disappeared. Powell, who denied having any role in his wife’s disappearance, claimed he had taken the boys on a midnight excursion in freezing temperatures when Susan vanished from their home.
However, Charles recently shared that he recalled seeing his mom in the trunk of the car, lawyer Steve Downing, who represented Susan Powell's parents in the custody fight, told The Associated Press.
"I’m convinced that Josh was going to do something like this and there’s absolutely nothing anybody could have done to stop him," said Graves, 39, of West Jordan, Utah.
Hatters-Friedman said hindsight, however, could be deceptive.
"I think it’s easy to look back and say something was a ‘cry for help’ even though, you know, at the time it didn’t seem like it," she said.
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