Could Tampa Bay’s recent rash of murder suicides be contagious? Experts say yes.

Published October 2 2018
Updated October 6 2018

A father guns down his wife and teen daughter and then himself in the family’s Lakewood Ranch home. Hours later, a sheriff’s deputy shoots his wife in Land O’Lakes and uses the same gun to take his own life.

The recent cases led the news. Over the next five days in the Tampa Bay region, three more murder-suicide cases and one attempted case would follow.

Could news coverage of the earlier cases have been on the minds of killers in the later cases?

Experts told the Tampa Bay Times they suspect a copy cat or so-called contagion effect at work along with the already volatile mix that usually fuels murder suicides: angry or depressed men with access to guns.

"I think to have this many with such short intervals between them in one metropolitan area is very good evidence that this is a cluster that is a consequence of media coverage," said Park Dietz, one of the country’s best known forensic psychiatrists.

"Of course, the coverage did not cause the jealousy, the depression, the relationship difficulties and the probable substance abuse that really underlies what happened here."

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Publicity surrounding a suicide has been repeatedly and definitively linked to a subsequent increase in suicide, especially among young people. Evidence suggests that suicide "outbreaks" and "clusters" are real phenomena; one death can set off others. This contagion effect can work the same with murder-suicides, experts say.

"A high profile murder-suicide given a lot of prominent media attention increases the likelihood that subsequent murder-suicides will occur," said Madelyn Gould, a professor of epidemiology in psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center who has studied suicide contagion.

There’s no way to know if news accounts triggered the killers in some of the Tampa Bay cases but the sheer number is suspicious, experts said.

"I imagine that the media coverage was related to the spate of murder-suicides," Steven Stack, a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit who has studied suicide, responded. "Six cases is a lot in a short time frame."

There is no comprehensive national data collection system, but studies estimate that 1,000 to 1,500 people are killed in murder-suicides in America each year, which is a small fraction of all violent crime cases. Research has found most murder-suicides are committed by men with a gun, and the crimes usually happen in the home.

The news media typically report on these types of crimes but some cases get more attention than others depending on the circumstances. The first two cases in the Tampa Bay string of killings, which started Sept. 23, were each compelling in their own right.

In Lakewood Ranch, James Bennett killed his wife and 16-year-old daughter, compounding the death toll and cutting short a child’s life. In Land O’Lakes, Kirk Keithley, a Hillsborough sheriff’s deputy who swore to protect the public, fatally shot his wife Samantha and then himself while their four children were in the home, investigators said.

Of the four local cases that followed, two also involved a husband fatally shooting his wife. In another, a man shot his on-again, off-again girlfriend, then himself. She survived, he did not.

In the sixth case, a woman fatally shot her domestic partner, then herself.

Authorities have not released motives in any of the cases. But news coverage of previous cases could trigger people already thinking about suicide or murder, said Dietz, the forensic psychiatrist. His firm, Threat Assessment Group in Newport, Calif., helps companies interrupt and investigate suicide clusters.

"Maybe they had been thinking of just killing themselves or their domestic partner, but now they have a role model for doing both," he said.

Dietz is among many experts who urge the news media to keep this potential effect in mind when covering mass murders and murder-suicides. Experts recommend journalists stay away from sensationalist headlines and avoid reporting graphic details or lengthy biographies of the killers. They say news outlets should also feature stories less prominently in newscasts and on web sites and the printed edition.

"The newsworthiness of an instance is unrelated to the risk of publicizing it," Dietz said. "Just because it’s newsworthy doesn’t mean it’s safe to sensationalize it or give it top billing. In fact, the opposite is probably true."

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As the grim headlines stacked up in recent days, Lariana Forsythe, chief executive officer of CASA, a domestic violence center in St. Petersburg, also wondered about a copycat effect. She said that would add another element to the already complicated issue of domestic violence.

"What stands out to me about the recent cases is they’re called murder-suicides, they’re not really called domestic violence, and to me that is really one of the root causes of why this is all happening," Forsythe said. "We’re not addressing the core issue. I think the media could really help by calling it what it is."

More often than not, she said, a long history of abuse precedes acts of violence.

"It usually doesn’t happen in the blink of an eye," she said. "There are people who would have seen signs or symptoms."

On the positive side, Forsythe said the coverage might spur family and friends of domestic violence victims who have seen those signs, or the victims themselves, to seek help and hold abusers accountable before something terrible happens. She noted October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

"We really believe it’s going to take a community talking about domestic violence and getting it out of the privacy of homes to solve the problem."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

 
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