On the same weekend Canadians marked the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, in which 14 women were murdered, Ottawans were informed of the identity of yet another woman’s death at the hands of a man.
Alem Haile was found stabbed to death in the basement of her Gloucester home early Thursday morning. Police also found the hanged body of her husband, Yassin Mender, in the house. Investigators described the deaths as murder-suicide — the city’s seventh homicide of the year. The couple, aged 51 and 60, respectively, had three children.
Police and paramedics descended on the couple’s residence in the Beaconwood Village complex along Naskapi Drive in Gloucester at about 6:30 a.m. after one of the children, 16-year-old Ben Mender, called police after finding his parents’ bodies. An hour earlier, he’d locked himself in his bedroom following his father’s attempt to stab him.
The couple, originally from the African country of Eritrea, were known to police, who had been been previously called to their residence. But they were not known to the domestic assault unit.
For their part, neighbours said they knew little about the couple, but neither saw nor heard anything to suggest extreme violence. “You start thinking what you could have done if you had noticed any signs,” Phara Vincent, a health crisis nurse who lives in the Beaconwood complex. “We never noticed any domestic disputes or anything like that.”
Such tragedies, experts say, are uncommon, and hard to anticipate, much less prevent. There were 344 murder-suicides in Canada between 2001 and 2011, according to a 2013 Statistics Canada report. More than three-quarters — 77 per cent — involved at least one victim related to the accused.
Spouses accounted for the largest proportion of these murder-suicides, with women and those aged 15 to 24 having the highest risk of being victims. In 97 per cent of cases of spousal murder-suicide, the accused were men.
Shooting was the most common cause of death in spousal murder-suicides, with more than half — 53 per cent — of the victims dying from gunshots. This was followed by stabbing at 22 per cent.
Psychologists and criminologists say that regardless of the relative rarity of spousal murder-suicides, there are some discernable patterns — everything from a wife seeking a divorce from an angry and insecure husband and a man feeling humiliated at the failure of his marriage, to a husband who has previously vented suicidal or homicidal inclinations.
A recent American study by Jacquelyn Campbell of Johns Hopkins University determined that intimate-partner violence had previously occurred in 70 per cent of murder-suicide cases. “Prior domestic violence is by far the No. 1 risk factor in these cases,” she says.
Wife murders aren’t, for the most part, crimes of passion, but the endpoint of longtime predisposing factors in the life of the man involved, says American psychologist David Adams, author of Why Do They Kill? Men Who Murder Their Intimate Partners. “Many elements of their crimes are foretold by their past behaviour in intimate relationships.
“The most common type of killer was a possessively jealous type,” he says. Many of the men who commit murder-suicide, as well as those who kill their children, seem to fit that profile. “The killers don’t perceive a viable life for themselves beyond the relationship.”
Other experts point out that spousal murder-suicides are often characterized either by a husband who seeks to control the relationship, physically, economically and psychologically, or who closely identifies his wife’s life with that of his own.
Such men, who may already have suicidal tendencies, feel they can only kill themselves after killing their families, says Richard Gelles, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. They base their sense of self-worth on the success of their marriage and socio-economic status. “Their suicide is an all-encompassing suicide. They don’t see that their life is different from the lives of their family.”