Watch for the flying of the flags

Terminal rage dissembled by increased red flag threats and violence

WESTBOROUGH, MA  November 2, 2014 A group of my colleagues and I were drawn into the chilling events of June 13, 2011 after Stephen Lake killed his family and then himself.  During the final moments of his life Lake laid out the death scene ostensibly to torture his spouse from whom he was estranged and ordered to stay away.  While police closed in, Lake killed and attempted to burn his victims in an act of emotional mayhem.

Arguably, the murderer in this case became blinded by anger and resentment at perceived disrespect and exclusion from the lives of his children. This anger had grown over the year since a protective order was issued following a violent episode in the family home. The perpetrator grew marginalized during the coming months becoming resentful and humiliated at missing key events like Christmas and an 8th grade commencement.  All the while he posted on social media sites his love for his family he grew depressed and disorganized.  12 hours before the violent ending he tearfully described feeling depressed to a family member and was advised to seek help.  Lake wrote 9 suicide notes that were found in the days after his death.

Renewed interest in retrospective study

The psychological autopsy revealed an increasing pattern of red flags in the weeks before the murder-suicide in Dexter, Maine. Greater awareness of these red flags may serve as a stopping and containment point for perpetrators of intimate partner violence.  In a sad retrospective, the Maine state Chief Medical Examiner cited that “in spite of some mental health treatment the extent of (the perpetrator’s) anger was not fully appreciated”. The research led to a call for no bail holds for some violent abusers and GPS monitoring for others.  After 3 years, these recommendations are finally beginning to emerge in the protection of victims of domestic violence in Maine. Mr. Lake was alleged to have violated the protective order more than twice.  His reported view of the “cost of divorce was the price of one bullet”.

Who can be expected to bear witness to red flags?

It is well documented that domestic violence is a secret happenstance that effects far too many families across the country.  Victims are expected to remain loyal servants of their spouses under the dissembling guise of love and devotion.  The findings published in the Dexter, Maine study reveal that people knew what to expect from Mr. Lake.  His unwinding was clear to some of his closest family members.  A paternal aunt was quoted as saying “I never thought he would take the kids” suggesting an awareness that Lake might kill his spouse and then himself – sparing the children.  Others believed Lake might commit suicide in front of his wife and children leaving them with the emotional specter of his violent death.  Instead, as the chief medical examiner cited the full extent of Lake’s anger was not appreciated.  In this case, as in many other retrospective studies of DVH red flags were not appreciated. Many believe that an order of protection is not effective in protecting victims from violent spouses who seem to ignore “stay away” orders seemingly at will and without consequence.  These are the red flags that require containment of the abuser and must serve as the frank evidence of elevated risk for domestic violence homicide.

The team of people helping 22-year old Elliot Rodger, a young man who went on a shooting rampage at the University of California at Santa Barbara in May 2014, all reached out to police and the media when they could not reach the estranged and overwrought man.  But they were too late as he had made his mark on history by then.  The the Virginia Tech shooting some red flags were missed.  Had the subtle clues the Rodger’s underlying mood been recognized the shooting may have been averted.  To read the blog from the UCSB shooting click here.

Mandated reporting for domestic violence 

As a civilized society there should be mandated reporting for those most at risk for domestic violence and the penultimate DVH as it becomes apparent.  Just as practitioners are mandated to report cases of suspected child abuse and elder abuse so too must we begin to take heed of the signs of domestic or intimate partner abuse and take action.  By doing this we may save the lives of those most effected by DV and arguably break the recurring cycle of domestic violence.  Some people wrongly believe there is nothing that can be done about domestic violence homicide. Others remark that “what happens behind the closed doors in a dysfunctional and violent household is no business of anyone else”.  To the extent that this draconian belief system prevails in the public understanding of DVH there is little chance of preventing this scourge.  As a result states are slowly changing their response protocols for DV and the police response to signs of abuse with mandated arrest for suspected perpetrators.

Risk assessment of those arrested for domestic violence is often overlooked.  However, police departments are teaming up with agencies serving the population of abuse victims like never before and are adopting tools to assess the likelihood of future violence when determining bail amounts. Bail commissioners must be educated about the cycle of abuse and domestic violence when assessing bail amounts.  The average abuse victim experiences 5-7 episodes of DV prior to calling the police. Police response to DV has slowly started to include a careful analysis of the history of aggressive events including the number and type of physical assaults that have taken place.  Some events are clearly more foreboding like choking to a point of unconsciousness, sexual aggression, threats of suicide, and the use of veiled threats of death if the spouse ever tries to leave. Other behaviors such as unrealistic jealousy may be the underpinning of current or domestic violence.  One victim told me that the abuse started as soon as she said “I do” 16 years earlier.

REFERENCES

Ronald Allanach et al., Psychological Autopsy of June 13, 2011, Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicides and Suicide: Final Report 39 (Nov. 28, 2011), http://pinetreewatchdog.org/files/2011/12/Dexter-DVH-Psychological-Autopsy-Final-Report-112811-111.pdf.

Sefton, M. (2011) The Psychological Autopsy: Provides a host of pre-incident indicators. Blog:  http://www.enddvh.blogspot.com/2011/11/psychological-autopsy.htm, taken May 26, 2014.

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