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Family Killers Defy Explanation

A sociologist says such people may be failures seeking to save relatives from perceived shame, or believe that they can't control them.

June 01, 2003|Joseph B. Frazier | Associated Press Writer

PORTLAND, Ore — PORTLAND, Ore. -- The three family murders were chillingly similar in detail, a few months and not many miles apart. In each, a deeply religious and financially troubled father killed, or is accused of killing, his wife and children.

But there, the similarities seem to end.

Sociologists say little is known about familicide, but upstanding people are just as likely to do it as someone with a clouded past.

One sociologist says current thinking puts family killers into one of two camps: failures who kill their nearest and dearest to save them from perceived shame, or those who kill them because they can't control them.

Christian Longo may have a foot in each camp.

Longo, 29, an admitted forger, liar, con man, thief, philanderer, rubber-check artist and more, was sentenced to death April 16 for killing his wife and three small children and dumping their bodies in two coastal bays in 2001.

A defense witness, psychologist Steven Scherr, testified at the sentencing hearing that Longo suffers from a "narcissistic personality disorder," generally characterized by one who is obsessed by self-love and has an excessive interest in his own comfort and importance.

The prosecution contended that Longo thought that his family was in his way and killed them to enjoy a more uninhibited lifestyle than favored by his careful Jehovah's Witness church.

Longo liked nice cars, good wine and cheese, things out of his reach with his job history. He was working at Starbucks when he killed his family. When he was arrested at a Mexican beach resort, he was trysting with a female German tourist and smoking marijuana.

Edward Morris, 37, was a family man who so abhorred violence that he home-schooled his three children to keep them away from it, his father said. He and his family were pillars of the church that played a central part in their lives. If anything, neighbors said, Morris and his wife were overprotective of their children.

Morris is accused of killing his family in the Tillamook State Forest; it was a year and a day after the body of the first Longo child was found.

Michael McGrady, a friend and neighbor, can't figure out what might have made Morris snap.

"I've never seen anything wrong with him," he said. "He had a good head on his shoulders."

In February 2002 at a small house in the hills outside McMinnville, Robert Bryant, losing an uphill battle to provide for his wife and four children, killed them all with a shotgun, then took his own life. He, like Longo, had been drummed out of the Jehovah's Witness church and faced financial ruin.

Keith Durkin, who teaches criminology and sociology at Northern Ohio University, said criminologists who interview people involved in familicide face a major problem "because their data is only what [the criminal] tells you."

Detailed studies of familicides are lacking, he said. "But there appears to be two main motivational types, and they are so new they don't even have names yet."

One he calls the "reversal-of-fortunes person."

"He might be the model father, the model husband, the model citizen. But his business goes bad, he experiences personal failure and to save his family from what he perceives as shame, he kills them," Durkin said. "They think, 'I'm no good, blah, blah, blah, I'm worthless.'

"It's an almost sociological form of suicide that takes the form of homicide," he said.

The other, he said, is "a horrific offshoot of domestic violence. It's a controlling mentality, the ultimate expression of control. If he can't control his wife and family, he will kill them."

Clifford Bryant, founding editor of the journal Deviant Behavior and a professor of sociology at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, credits British psychologist Haverlock Ellis with the observation that "the seed of atrocity is within us all."

"When people get their backs to the wall, they can do extraordinarily horrible things," Bryant said.

Specialists are exploring two other theories also relatively new to American academics.

One, Bryant said, is the "amok" theory.

"People tend to use it in a half-comical fashion, 'He got drunk and he ran amok.'

"But it was a very real thing in the 1600s and 1700s and was recognized as a pattern of mass violence," Bryant said.

"Here, an individual develops a series of problems he cannot deal with ... and emotion burdens build up to a point that he literally explodes," he said.

"The only way to solve the problem is to go out in a blaze of glory, if you will. We see it most frequently in Southeast Asia, but it has some validity here."

Usually, Bryant said, it involves people the assailant knows and trusts because the emotional involvement tends to be intense.

The other theory he calls "fantasy engulfment," in which people live fantasies day after day. "Sometimes fantasies take over and they can't tell where fantasy stops and reality begins," he said.

"There is no particular type of person," he said.

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