This is the general psychological profile of the family annihilator killer. Further on, I will be writing articles about specific family annihilators such as Chris Watts, John List, etc. This will allow us to gain an in-depth understanding of this type of killer and where he fits in the profile.
The phenomenon of familicide is a rather new and unexplored area within the criminology field. Professor David Wilson stated that “family annihilators have received little attention as a separate category of killer” and they are “often treated like spree or serial murderers, a view which presupposes traits, such as the idea that the murderer ‘snaps’, or that after killing their partner or children the killer may force a standoff with the police“, which is not an entirely accurate representation of these killers. Unlike the mass murderers or serial killers, the family annihilators were found to be individuals with good backgrounds, coming from good families, usually religious. No history of offences or convictions for this type of individual.
Scholars identified 4 common areas which might be considered to be the cause of these murders : a breakdown in the family relationship and issues in getting access to the children, financial hardship, cultural honour killings or mental illness.
A study made in 2013 has shown that out of 71 family murder cases, in 59 the perpetrator was the male and 50% were between the ages of 30-40 years old when they committed the crime (Yardley, 2013). The M.O. (Modus operandi) in 32% of the cases was stabbing and in 15% of the cases, carbon monoxide poisoning from the car exhaust was used. In 69% of these cases, the male murderer committed suicide after the murders.
The profile of this specific murderer is in most cases a middle-aged man, that is perceived as a hard-working and loving husband and father. Highly educated with an undergraduate or/and post graduate degree with a good job. He is usually the senior man of the house, that might be paranoid, depressed or intoxicated, or a combination of all of these. This individual might suffer of depression, psychological problems and self-destructiveness. The family murderer usually kills each member of the family, sometimes including the pets of the house. In most cases, he will commit suicide after the killings (Dietz, 1986).
According to psychologist Sharon Mailloux (2014), this individual is a male involved in a long-term relationship, highly possessive over his wife and family. Issues with maintaining employment, substance misuse and domestic violence were traits present in the family annihilators cases. The main trigger for these killings is divorce and separation.
Moreover, Liem and Koenraadt (2008) found that most of the family annihilators had a personality disorder with dependent or narcissistic tendencies.
It is important to highlight that in an estimated 95% of the cases, the perpetrator is the head of the house hold and a male. Recent studies attempted to follow the ‘more traditional’ views of the reason behind this type of killings such as: rage, altruism and revenge. In his book ‘Familicidal hearts: The Emotional Style of 211 Killers’, professor Websdale has divided the family annihilator into two groups: ‘livid-coercive’ and ‘civil reputable’.
The livid-coercive murderer is motivated by revenge and rage caused by control issues. He will show abusive tendencies towards his family that will serve as a means of self-worth by exerting authority within the household. In most cases, the livid-coercive individual faces failure in marriage due to his abusive behaviour followed by the wife and children trying to leave. This will make him feel a lack of control and humiliation and lead to the killing of his entire family.
The civil-reputable murderer is the opposite of the livid-coercive killer. His killings are motivated by genuine altruism. By killing his family members, he is saving them from the financial troubles and hardship, and he will almost always commit suicide afterwards.
Further on, a study conducted by Karlsson et al (2019) examined 63 research papers covering 67 studies in 18 countries made between 1980-2017 including familicide cases. Their findings showed that in almost all cases the perpetrator was male and in 50% of the cases, he committed suicide. Psychological problems, break-up and relationship problems and financial hardship and bankruptcy were prevalent within the families involved.
Ultimately, another study that had a considerable impact within the understanding of this specific type of killer was made by Yardley, Wilson and Lynes. Looking at the motives behind the family murder cases over a span of 30 years, they divided these killers into 4 categories:
1. Self-Righteous Killers:
This individual is in most cases the father who often blames others, especially the mother for relationship issues or a break-up and for preventing him from having access to the children. He sees himself as ‘the provider’ and taking that away from him, will make him dangerous. Their main goal is to cause pain and suffering to their partners and are most likely to use the children in doing so. They would often kill the children and leave the mother alive to extend the suffering and ensure the maximum pain. In most cases, this type of family murderers will contact the mother prior to the murders and inform her about what they are going to do.
His killings are executions and they are never spontaneous. He plans his murders and they are not a result of impulsiveness or in a fit of rage. His killings are methodical and planned out for a long time – Professor Jack Leven
2. Disappointed Killers:
This individual believes that he was let down by those around him, most often his children and spouse. He might think that his family members are not good enough for him he is unhappy with the choices his children made that are not according to the traditional or religious customs. Therefore, he kills his entire family in order to keep his reputation.
3. Anomic Killers:
This killer considers his family as an extension of his economic success. As soon as this economic status breaks down, his family no longer serves this function, hence he will kill them all.
His view of the family is black and white, never grey. His view doesn’t reflect the dynamic role that the woman can play in the institution of family or in the economy- Criminologist David Wilson
4. Paranoid Killers:
This individual believes that his wife and children are in immediate danger or under some form of threat and they need protecting. Social Services or the police or the legal system might be perceived as a threat towards their family. Hence, he kills his entire family in an attempt to protect them from the outside threat.
In 90% of the cases, the family annihilator is a male offender coming from a good, respectable family with no criminal record. He is usually between 30 and 40 years old. This individual is perceived by the neighbours and friends as a dedicated father and loyal husband with a successful job and life. He usually suffers of personality disorders such as narcissism or dependency and has a history of psychological problems such as depression, substance misuse, paranoia, anger or difficulty to maintain a job. The main trigger for the killings is usually a break-up or financial hardship, but that depends on the different categories or subtypes of family annihilators. The M.O for this type of killer is usually killing in their own house or in a secluded area chosen by the perpetrator by using a fire arm, suffocation or carbon monoxide poisoning (along with drugging the victims). Most of the family annihilators will kill themselves after the murders but that is not a rule and that depend highly on the motives behind the killings.
The psychological profile of a family annihilator is very complex, and the research is increasing within this field. This profile appears to be very different from the more familiar profile of serial killers, mass murderers and spree murderers.
Stay tuned for the John List article in the following days.
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