1 week, 7 deaths in Phoenix: What to understand about murder-suicide

Police cleared a blockade around a Phoenix home where they say the 47-year-old widower of a former Maricopa County attorney shot his romantic partner and her mother before turning the gun on himself on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2023.
Police cleared a blockade around a Phoenix home where they say the 47-year-old widower of a former Maricopa County attorney shot his romantic partner and her mother before turning the gun on himself on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2023.

Over six days, seven people died as a result of two separate domestic murder-suicides in metro Phoenix.

On Sunday, Christmas Eve, Phoenix police said 47-year-old David DeNitto shot and killed Maryalice Cash, 47, and her mother, Cynthia Domini, 83. He then turned the gun on himself. DeNitto was the widower of former Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel.

On Dec. 18, in a separate, unrelated incident, Bryan Fitz shot and killed his estranged wife, 49-year-old Sage Fitz; his son, 12-year-old Baynen Fitz; the family's dog; and 62-year-old Carmen Buscemi, according to Phoenix police.

According to Mesa-based forensic and clinical psychologist Dr. Erin Nelson, murder-suicides can stem from a myriad of reasons: extreme stress, clinical depression or loss or perceived loss, to name a few.

Here's what to know about domestic murder-suicides and what warning signs to look out for.

What is a domestic murder-suicide?

An incident is labeled a domestic murder-suicide when one family member or other household member kills another member before ending their own life by suicide, according to the FBI. It also includes cases where the victim was a former intimate partner of the perpetrator.

Murder-suicides are rare. But when they do occur, they can traumatize the surviving family, disrupt a community and leave more questions than answers.

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Close to 600 murder-suicides occur yearly in the United States, accounting for 1,000 to 1,500 deaths, according to the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit organization based in Washington D.C. Sixty-five percent of murder-suicides involve intimate partners, and 81% occur in the home.

The FBI states that the three most common characteristics of domestic murder-suicides include a man and a woman who were intimate, a firearm as the murder-suicide weapon, and the man dying by suicide shortly after murdering his partner.

Nearly all intimate partner-related murder-suicides are committed by firearm, according to a 2019 study on factors contributing to homicide-suicide.

What are the demographics of perpetrators, victims?

The FBI states that most perpetrators in these cases match the same demographic group of suicide victims in the U.S. — adult and older-adult white men who are not Hispanic.

"When it comes to domestic homicide, suicide, the overwhelming majority of the perpetrators are male, and victims are either female or children. Filicide is the other major category," Nelson said.

Filicide is the act of killing one's own son or daughter.

Cases of intimate partner violence usually increase during periods of "extreme stress," which indicates that during the holidays, an uptick can be predicted.

"Holidays certainly tend to, unfortunately, lead to a significant amount of distress that can manifest in interpersonal violence," Nelson said.

Data also suggests during major sporting events or in uncomfortable conditions, such as in the heat of the summer, cases can spike as well.

An additional factor that distinguishes domestic murder-suicides from other types of violent offenses is that the perpetrators are often older than the victims.

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At its core, this violence can cut across every type of socioeconomic strata and each level of education.

"Nobody in any religious denomination, culture, amount of money or education is immune from these types of offenses," Nelson said.

What are the motives behind murder-suicides?

There are three potential underlying reasons for domestic murder-suicides, according to the FBI.

First, there might be a negative relationship dynamic between the perpetrator and the victim. This may include abuse, infidelity or a perceived injustice.

"Predominantly, the most common is, you know, occurrences in the face of a loss, like around a breakup or fear of infidelity or loss, or actual infidelity or loss," Nelson said. "There's also a lot of personality pathology. So whether, you know, somebody who's very possessive or angry or feeling like some sense of perceived injustice, those are the sorts of factors that you would look for."

Second, the perpetrators feel they need to protect the victim from the stigma or shame of a planned suicide, or the potential consequences of something the perpetrators have done.

Lastly, if the victim is suffering mentally or because of an illness or disability, the perpetrator might feel they need to relieve the victim of their pain.

In some cases, this can fall under a sort of "merciful ideology," according to Nelson. In a situation revolving around someone with a terminal illness or in pain, the perpetrator can "generate some sense of themselves that they're doing an act of good and that they want to die together."

What are the risk factors?

The FBI states there is little guidance on recognizing the warning signs of a domestic murder-suicide.

However, according to Nelson, some of the risk factors to watch for are people with a history of intimate-partner violence, risk of suicide or violence and clinical depression.

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Clinical-level depression is the most commonly seen mental health concern when dealing with murder-suicides, Nelson said. Data suggests that offenders don't often have as high of a premorbid likelihood of criminal history as with other types of violent crimes, she said.

"This is absolutely not a type of crime that we see often in people who have a thought disorder or a psychosis. That's not what we see," Nelson said.

Rather, the perpetrator is more likely to have a mood disorder and depression, combined with a sense of desperation and despair.

More customary risk factors include financial stress, loss, psychosocial stressors such as work, family problems and substance abuse, Nelson said.

Suicide, crisis hotlines for Arizonans

Services for Arizonans in crisis include:

  • Dial 2-1-1 at any time to reach the free 2-1-1 Arizona information and referral service and connect with free resources available locally throughout the state.

  • Solari Crisis & Human Services offers a free, statewide crisis line 24/7/365. Dial 844-534-HOPE (4673). Help is also available 24/7/365 via text by texting “hope” to 4HOPE (4673).

  • Dial 988 to reach the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Help is available in English and Spanish. It's free and confidential for those in distress who need prevention or crisis resources for themselves or loved ones.

  • La Frontera Empact Suicide Prevention Center's crisis line serves Maricopa and Pinal counties 24/7 at 480-784-1500.

  • Teen Lifeline’s 24/7 crisis line serves teens at 602-248-8336 for Maricopa County and 1-800-248-8336 statewide.

  • The Trevor Project Lifeline serves LGBTQ youth at 866-488-7386 or by texting START to 678-678.

Domestic violence

Resources for Arizonans experiencing domestic violence include:

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: 1 week, 7 deaths in Phoenix: What to understand about murder-suicide