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Murder-Suicides: A Downward Trend in Virginia

Three cases appear across Fairfax, Arlington, Falls Church this week, but the jurisdictions have combined for five murder-suicides in last two years; incidents are hard to predict, experts say

Three Northern Virginia murder-suicides in the last two weeks have left police and residents with many unanswered questions.

Over the last two years, the number of murder-suicides in Virginia overall has dropped by 12 incidents: In 2010 there were 33 events that yielded 35 murders and 33 suicides, according to the Virginia Violent Death Reporting System.

In 2011, there were only 21 murder-suicides with 25 people murdered in the incidents.

Marc Leslie, coordinator for the statewide reporting system, run under the Department of Health Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, said there is not enough data to say whether the number of murder suicides will decrease from 2011 totals; countywide numbers were also not available.

But following the latest on Wednesday, police from three agencies have been scrambling to find motives in incidents in their jurisdictions.

The first of the three was . Arlington Police , two days before an Oakton resident apparently shot his housemate before turning the gun on himself.

Officers from Arlington County and City of Falls Church police declined comment on their events; Fairfax County police did not respond to requests for comment.

That number brushes below the five murder-suicides between the City of Falls Church, Arlington and Fairfax County has seen over the past two years combined. In Falls Church and Arlington, the latest two events were the only murder-suicides reported in that time frame. There were three reported in Fairfax County over the last two years: On March 27, a and in July 2011,

Jay Albanese, a professor and criminologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, said there are generally a handful of triggers for murder-suicides: a joint pact where both parties agree in advance (which are uncommon, he said); a suicide bombing, which Albanese said is also uncommon; a plan to escape guilt, or, self-punishment for the murder just committed of another; or because of depression from a bad situation.

“Depression is often the trigger, but there is usually a context of risk factors, including history of substance abuse, a sizable age difference between older man and younger woman, history of abuse in the relationship, history of martial problems, and access to a gun,” Albanese said. “Of course, there are always exceptions, but these events often are committed by men who are frustrated with their life situation, they lack adequate coping and communication skills to handle it or adjust to their situation, and their intimate partner or spouse is often the target due to their access, blame placed upon them, their enabling behaviors, or other reasons that may have nothing to so with the objective facts.”

Retired homicide detective Bill Carter said solving murder-suicides could be as difficult or easy as the physical evidence available.

With no one to physically answer questions, Carter, who spent 32-years with the Lubbock (Texas) Police Department, the last 10-years in homicide, said officers often have to depend on what’s left at the scene.

“Motive is important but what I’ve learned in my investigations is to follow the evidence,” said Carter who investigated five murder-suicides in his career. “The key to solving a murder-suicide is following the physical evidence.”

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