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Four deadly domestic incidents this month in Pinellas don't constitute trend, expert says

LARGO — The crimes begin in different ways and different places, in a lipstick-red pickup truck swerving wildly down a six-lane road, or behind the locked doors of a quiet house in a leafy subdivision.

But they end in the same way: silence.

Gunshots fired in the parking lot of a Walgreens pharmacy in Largo on Wednesday punctuated the latest episode in a recent series of husband-wife murder-suicides and similar crimes in Pinellas County.

A Largo man turned his red Ford pickup into the pharmacy parking lot after what Largo police Lt. Mike Loux described as "a horrible disturbance" inside the vehicle that sent it swerving through traffic on Roosevelt Boulevard.

The unidentified man got out and fired multiple rounds from a gun into his wife, police and witnesses said. Then, he turned the gun on himself.

Just over 24 hours earlier, another couple, scheduled to move to California this week, was found dead in an apparent murder-suicide in their home on a peaceful cul-de-sac in Palm Harbor.

It was the third such incident in four days, counting a Sunday case in which a St. Petersburg man allegedly smothered his wife but then failed in his effort to kill himself by slitting his wrists. Earlier this month, a Clearwater couple also was found shot dead in their home, another murder-suicide.

Beyond establishing the basic facts necessary to rule out a double-homicide committed by an outside party, the police investigation of motive in a murder-suicide will typically be "cursory," Loux said, since there's no need to develop a case against a defendant who will go to court.

Such incidents can leave acquaintances and family members puzzling over the intimate and obviously troubled ties between the dead, or wondering how the incident might have been prevented.

"All the neighbors are in shock, because everyone who knew Steve knew him as such a lovely man," said George Ann Bissett, next-door neighbor to Stephen Walsh, 58, who police believe killed his wife, Donalyn, 53, and then himself Sunday night in their home at 1909 Forest View Drive in Palm Harbor.

The couple had planned to move to San Diego this week, and a large U-Haul van was parked in their driveway behind a row of police cruisers Tuesday, when the bodies were discovered.

"We would love to know what happened," Bissett said. "Now I guess we never will. How could we?"

In hindsight, such dramatic acts of violence can appear baffling. But there are red flags friends and family members can watch out for to prevent them, said Frieda Widera, who chairs the fatality review team of the Pinellas County Domestic Violence Task Force.

One is a spouse with a history of physical abuse — especially choking — who has access to weapons. The spouse might also have made death threats or have substance-abuse problems or a criminal record.

Several of these factors often converge in a domestic homicide or murder-suicide, Widera said. There is also anecdotal evidence in recent years that financial distress — unemployment, foreclosure, bankruptcy — has become a contributing factor.

However, none of these elements is a sure predictor of a domestic homicide or murder-suicide. In some cases, a tragedy is preceded by no signs at all.

"There's no absolute," Widera said. "We have a few cases where we have absolutely no red flags, and all of a sudden both people are dead."

• • •

The Walshes' adult children forced their way into the home on Forest View Drive on Tuesday morning after not hearing from their parents for two days. Family members at the home Wednesday declined to comment when approached by a reporter.

Stephen Walsh's aunt, Geanne Wyatt of Oklahoma City, said she has not seen her nephew since the 1990s. But she said there were no indications in his past that he was capable of violence.

"I've never known him to get into any trouble or nothing," she said. "He was always respectful in my presence. If there was ever anything I needed or anything, he was always most helpful."

Brian Loesch, Donalyn Walsh's former boss at a St. Petersburg eye clinic, described her as "a very nice individual" who was "caring for patients, easy to get along with."

The only known sign that trouble was brewing between the Walshes came Sunday night, when Pinellas County sheriff's deputies were called to their house because of an argument.

Donalyn left the house while the officers were present, only to return later, according to authorities. Sometime that night, investigators believe, Walsh shot and killed his wife with a .40-caliber Sig Sauer semiautomatic handgun and then killed himself.

Police have not identified the Largo couple who died Wednesday outside Walgreens, citing the need to notify next-of-kin before releasing their names to the media.

• • •

The recent murder-suicides might seem to constitute a trend. That's not the case, at least not yet, according to Widera. Six domestic homicides were recorded by the Pinellas task force last year, compared with four so far this year, Widera said.

The 2011 figure doesn't include Kelly Rothwell, a police cadet who disappeared last year and is presumed dead by detectives. Her boyfriend was labeled a suspect but has never been charged.

Those who fear they might be in danger from a spouse should seek help from a domestic violence program or law enforcement agency to plan their escape, Widera said.

"Some people say 'I gotta get out,' " Widera said. "But when they don't do that safely, that's when we have domestics occur. Because he's not going to let her out."

Times staff writer Drew Harwell contributed to this report.

Recent cases

April domestic murders or murder-suicides in Pinellas County

April 2: Robert Polukoff, 48, shot and killed his wife, Irene Tache Polukoff, 49, then killed himself, according to Clearwater police. They were divorcing but living in the same home.

Sunday: St. Petersburg police found 61-year-old Judith Davis dead in her home and charged husband Albert Crandall with first-degree murder. Crandall said he suffocated his wife because she suffered from chronic pain, police said, but he failed in an effort to kill himself.

Sunday: The children of Stephen and Donalyn Walsh found their parents dead in their Palm Harbor home on Tuesday, but investigators believe the 58-year-old husband killed his 53-year-old wife and then himself after a domestic dispute on Sunday.

Wednesday: A Largo man pulled into a drugstore parking lot on Roosevelt Boulevard, shot his wife and then killed himself. The couple hasn't been identified.

Call for help

Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence hotline: Call 1-800-500-1119 to plan a safe escape.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-8255 or visit www.save.org.

Suncoast Hospice: Anyone who has lost a loved one to a suicide or traumatic death can call (727) 467-7423.

In case of an immediate emergency, dial 911.

Four deadly domestic incidents this month in Pinellas don't constitute trend, expert says 04/25/12 [Last modified: Thursday, April 26, 2012 5:51pm]
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