After murder-suicides, families left to wonder what went wrong

December 13, 2021
After murder-suicides, families left to wonder what went wrong

WARNING: This story contains graphic details of violence.

A couple is found dead in their home. Police soon confirm it is a murder-suicide.

In the aftermath, family and friends are often left to wonder what went wrong and what could have been done to prevent the deaths. Experts say much remains hidden in such cases, given there is no trial after the perpetrator dies. 

“Often the file is closed quickly, and we don’t know much about the relation[ship] between [the] men and women before this happened,” said Louise Riendeau, a spokesperson for Regroupement des maisons pour femmes victimes de violence conjugale, a Quebec organization representing women’s shelters.

“We don’t know if there was a health problem, a mental health problem. So it’s often difficult to see what happened.”

As part of a 16-month investigation, CBC News compiled and analyzed intimate partner homicide data across Canada between January 2015 and June 2020. In 61 of the 392 documented cases (15 per cent), the homicide was followed by a suicide, the investigation found

The vast majority of the victims were women, most often killed with a firearm by their male partners or estranged partners. But, without a trial, and left to rely on coroner’s reports that don’t often give a full picture, little else is known about what led to the crimes.

Louise Riendeau, a spokesperson for Regroupement des maisons pour femmes victimes de violence conjugale, says murder-suicides don’t always receive sufficient scrutiny. (Louise Riendeau)

In Quebec, there were 38 intimate partner homicides over the five-year period analyzed by CBC. Of those, seven were murder-suicides.

In one 2020 murder-suicide, Gatineau Police only identified the couple as a 63-year-old man and a 55-year old woman, but did not name them or indicate who committed the murder. 

CBC only discovered their names after inquiring with the coroner’s office.

Gaps in coroner’s reports

Although coroner’s reports can shed some light on the murders, experts say they don’t provide the full picture. Often, the coroner only focuses on what led to the death in the preceding hours, days or weeks. 

Simon Lapierre, an associate professor in the school of social work at the University of Ottawa, hopes that will change. 

Lapierre was part of a Quebec committee that recommended a checklist in December 2020 to ensure all coroner’s reports contain specific details — such as past criminal charges, mental health or addiction issues or controlling behaviour. 

The checklist should improve the consistency of the reports, and give a better overview of what happened and any warning signs that were perhaps missed, Lapierre said. 

Watch | The warning signs that could lead up to instances of violence:

Warning signs leading up to domestic homicides

Maud Pontel, who works at a Montreal transition shelter, says perpretrators often exhibit a pattern of control leading up to violence. 0:40

Quebec coroners began using the checklist as a reference in October. A spokesperson said the move is part of an attempt to ensure their reports aid in coming up with solutions.

So far, the coroner’s office has completed reports for five of the seven murder-suicides in Quebec that occurred over the five-year period between January 2015 and June 2020 — before the committee made its recommendation. 

One of the coroner’s reports flagged the husband’s jealousy and controlling behaviour, which got so severe in the months leading up to the murder-suicide that the victim had quit her job.

In another case, the coroner noted that the victim had confided in a loved one that her spouse had threatened to kill her just two weeks before her death. She did not make a complaint to the police. 

“If the woman or the children are worried, if they are afraid, we need to take it really seriously because those are major, major risk factors,” said Lapierre.

Shame and disbelief

Shame is another a barrier in learning more about murder-suicides. Family and friends are often reluctant to speak out afterwards, overcome with grief, denial and incomprehension, said Maud Pontel, who is the coordinator at Alliance MH2, which offers second-stage shelters for women around Quebec who need a longer stay than what can be offered at an emergency shelter.

“It’s extremely difficult to understand how a person can go that far by killing someone and killing themselves after,” said Pontel. 

But, relationships that end in a murder-suicide are usually defined by psychological abuse and control, she said.

“It’s like, ‘I’m killing you and I’m killing myself. So there’s no way for you to exist after me.”

Pontel says it’s important to recognize that anyone can be a victim.

She brought up the recent slaying of Lisette Corbeil, who was allegedly killed by her ex-partner last summer in Contrecoeur, a town northeast of Montreal.

Lisette Corbeil was a prominent member of her community in Contrecoeur, Que. The local chamber of commerce, where she worked, said her death leaves ‘a great void,’ and her ‘presence, smile and immense generosity will be missed on a daily basis.’ (Lisette Corbeil/Facebook)

Corbeil was well-established in the community and had a wide network of business associates and friends. 

“It can happen to your neighbour, to your colleague, to your sister, to your relatives,” Pontel said.

Coercive control is a warning sign

Separation, divorce or a change in custody arrangement are major risk factors when it comes to intimate partner homicides, Lapierre said. The same is true for murder-suicides. 

Professionals also need to be on the lookout for a history of violence, he said, but added that violence isn’t actually the biggest red flag for a potential partner homicide. Research shows in many of these cases, there isn’t physical abuse, but there is a lengthy pattern of controlling behaviour.

Of the seven murder-suicides CBC analyzed, there was only once case where the perpetrator had prior assault charges.

Simon Lapierre is an associate professor in the school of social work at the University of Ottawa and one of the founding members of the Feminist Anti-Violence Research Collective. He wants people to take the warning signs of partner violence more seriously. (Simon Lapierre)

For years, anti-domestic violence advocates have pushed for the federal government to recognize coercive control as a crime. 

Pontel said this is important because many women may not recognize they are victims. Adding it to the Criminal Code may persuade them to come forward and press charges, which could save lives, she said. 

Recently, the Quebec government announced that in all the regions across the province, there will be a mechanism to make sure police, mental health professionals and social workers better collaborate if there is a risk of homicide.

Lapierre and other experts welcome the change, but say everyone — family, friends and colleagues — needs to be more vigilant about intimate partner violence and take warning signs more seriously. 

“Sometimes it’s really hard to think it could happen,” said Lapierre. “But it does happen and often it happens to people that we think it would not happen to.”

Support is available for anyone affected by intimate partner violence. You can access support services and local resources in Canada by visiting this website. If your situation is urgent, please contact emergency services in your area.

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