HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla - The unthinkable confirmed.
Hillsborough County deputies say Darrin Campbell systematically shot his son, daughter and wife. Then, placed fireworks around his home Wednesday morning, doused it in gasoline and lit a fire. Finally, he shot himself in the head.
It is a tragedy that is leaving many questions. How could a father kill his children? How could a father unleash such a sinister plan? Could this have been prevented?
ABC Action News spoke to USF Professor Dr. Donna Cohen who has spent the last 15 years studying murder-suicides around the world.
Q: Walk us through statistically what you see in murder-suicides?
A: Murder-suicides are a relatively rare event. Homicides and suicides account for about 50,000 lethal deaths in the United States a year, which compared to heart attack deaths and other things is relatively small. But of that roughly 50,000 deaths about 1,500-2,000 of those deaths are resulting from murder-suicides. And a murder-suicide is when a person, usually a man, kills another person, usually one and usually a woman and then kills themselves very shortly thereafter.
Most murder-suicides occur between husbands and wives, and lovers, boyfriends, girlfriends. They are roughly 70 percent of all these murder-suicides. And then there are murder-suicides where a child is killed, an infant is killed and the perpetrator, usually again, a male, but can be a female in some cases, then kills themselves.
The latest data we have in the United States is from 2012 and shows there were roughly 600+ murder-suicides of all kinds in the United States. Of those, 26 were these family annihilator murder-suicides. So they are very rare. That roughly three percent of all murder-suicides.
Q: Why would someone do something like this to their immediate family?
A: The families today are under a great deal of stress but what happened with this family is rare and there were some things going on. There are four different kinds of family annihilator murder-suicides. One is the anomic and in the anomic that individual feels they should be doing much more to take care of their family, providing much better for them and feel like they are letting them down.
Q: It's guilt?
A: Guilt but also there is usually a financial component. Now, in this case, I cannot speculate but here is a situation that is not uncommon where the person has a job, may have lost their job, may be between jobs and whether real or not perceives, that in this case, he apparently had a new job to go to, and it could work one of two ways. One is, he could feel that there are financial needs that aren't being met. Or, he could be so depressed and upset that the new job is seen as an obstacle.
The important thing about murder-suicides is that the perpetrator doesn't think the way you and I think. They have black glasses on. They distort their world. So why do these things occur? In all likelihood, the perpetrator, living in this palatial home, taking care of his kids, may have really been hurting inside believing that he should be doing even better and believes that they're as miserable as he is. He believes and would rather see them dead than live a life that he doesn't think he can control or take care of. That is the anomic murder-suicide.
The second is a revenge murder-suicide. But there doesn't seem to be any evidence in this case of domestic violence. This is the most common form of family annihilator murder-suicide but these events aren't there.
The other is the disappointed annihilator who believes that his family has let him down in some way. So it goes beyond his inability to provide to the kids should have been doing better, the wife should have been doing better, and again it is the distortion in this perpetrator's mind.
The fourth is a paranoid annihilator who really believes something horrible is going to happen to the family and has to prevent it by killing them and killing himself.
There could be elements of all three of these four in this case and this may come out in time.
The perpetrator who annihilates his entire family is probably having some mental health issues, overwhelmed to the point of not seeing reality and even distorting reality. The second is the need to control. Need to control the family, need to provide for the family. The third is a perception that something is going to happen to make it absolutely impossible for him to do what needs to be done to keep the family together.
Now, in about a third of the annihilators, the perpetrator does start a fire. The fact that they have documented him, Mr. Campbell, buying all these fireworks and gasoline says this was clearly premeditated and murder-suicides are premeditated. This is not a spur of the
moment kind of thing. Something was going to happen in his mind, we may never know, or we might find some things emerge. There could be health issues, there could be personal issues, he could be making them up and believing they are real or there could be some things that surface and God help the families who are still surviving and having to deal with this.
So, we have a mystery but with time and information, if it is an annihilator murder-suicide, I think that we are going to find that there was something that the perpetrator clearly believed was forever going to impair his ability.
Q: Why start a fire?
A: Starting a fire is some times an indication of I don't want anybody to see the mutilated bodies. I want to destroy things, and again this is a funny kind of thinking that you and I don't use. It's a way of saying, no one is going to see the awful thing I did. They'll just see the ashes and it is almost an extended suicide in some interpretations.
Q: In murder-suicides, is it different across socioeconomic status?
A: My research and that of others has shown that perpetrators of murder-suicides generally come from middle, high-middle and upper class families. These are individuals who need to control and do things. So, part of the trigger is the loss of the ability to control. That is a critical variable in these murder-suicides.
Q: They feel the need to control or have to control?
A: Exactly. Whether they have lost control financially. Mr. Campbell may have thought they weren't doing well enough, may have thought he wasn't providing well enough for them.
Q: By all accounts from [Campbell] family friends, normal family, very successful children, according to the in-laws, very good marriage. Would there have been signs of a psychological problem that could've been missed? Would this have exhibited itself to people? Or could this have been so internalized no one would have known?
A: There aren't always signs. I mean people who commit suicide don't always show the signs, particularly these family annihilators. In the spousal, in the couples, there are usually more signs.
What we don't know and we may never know is that in this highly successful and apparently very well functioning, loving, intact family something wasn't going right. Real or unreal in the perpetrator's mind. Even though they rented this grand home, living a wonderful lifestyle, that is part of the scenario for the annihilator. It's not good enough. I have to be better. That kind of thinking may not be visible to other people and may not be communicated by the perpetrator.
It is usually after the events, I have investigated cases very similar to this, where it turned out in a very similar situation, it came to light this individual had lost a lot of money in a bet and had hid it from the family. Again, a controlling, caring husband doesn't want people to know or his family to know that he's screwed up financially or not done well. There is a lot of stuff that is hidden here.
Q: Why is it so unlikely a woman would be a perpetrator in a situation like this?
A: There is pretty good evidence that men have much more experience using guns, showing much more aggressive behavior. In family annihilations, women maybe just an nth of a percent, they do occur, and when women do this they are usually doing it because they really feel that they love their kids so much that if they can't provide for them, this shouldn't happen and they are usually very depressed. What you have is males who are predisposed to be more violent . Women can do this. To annihilate the whole family usually requires the women be severely depressed and the family will usually see that but not know what to do about it.
Q: Are there any states where you see more of this happen?
A: Probably the states with the most people. Florida, California.
Q: What about prevention of this? Can you step in at some point and stop this?
A: You can't stop all of them. As a mental health professional, the reason I am doing research on murder-suicides is to help develop better ways for families, communities and professionals to intervene and prevent them. Usually with women, there are more signs if the family member aren't afraid to get help.
Here he [Campbell] goes on a Sunday, just using this case, to buy the explosives, firecrackers and the gasoline. This occurs on Wednesday morning. This sounds like a lot of stuff to have in the house. Could somebody have discovered it? Could there have been arguments over why there is this amount of material in the house?