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Experts weigh in on dark trends in Utah murder-suicide cases

Residents left flowers and stuffed animals on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, on the corner of an Enoch residence where eight were found shot to death. (Photo: KUTV)
Residents left flowers and stuffed animals on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, on the corner of an Enoch residence where eight were found shot to death. (Photo: KUTV)
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The tragedy that left eight dead in early January in an Enoch murder-suicide shines a light on an ongoing problem in Utah.

Since 2012, there have been multiple cases of mass family killings in the state.

In 2012, Joshua Powell killed himself and his two sons in his Graham, Washington home. Powell was originally from Utah and is suspected by police and the general public to have killed his wife Susan in their west valley home in 2009.

In 2014 Joshua Boren killed his wife Kelly and their two children in their Spanish Fork home.

Also in 2014, Benjamin and Kristi Strack poisoned themselves and their three children in their Springville home.

In 2015, Russell Smith killed his wife Shawna and their two children in their Roy home.

In 2017, Timothy Griffith shot his wife Jessica, her 16-year-old daughter and their 5-year-old child in their Mapleton home.

In 2020, CJ Haynie killed four of his family members in their Grantsville home.

Six murder-suicides have taken place by Utah families in the last decade. The most recent tragedy in Enoch makes seven.

A couple of cases bare eerie similarities.

Former Salt Lake City police officer and current forensic psychologist Dr Mark Zelig said that mass family homicides tend to occur from two triggers: romance, or finance.

Either the perpetrator is facing the end of a relationship, a major financial crisis, or a humiliation in the workplace.

"They’re feeling sort of hopeless in their life," said Zelig.

Eight people were found dead in a rural Enoch home last week after police said the suspect, Michael Haight shot his five children, his wife Tausha, and her mother dead before turning the gun on himself.

Tausha Haight had filed for divorce just five days prior.

"They don’t like losing control," said Zelig. "Whether it’s their relationship, or the ability to support their family."

While most mass family homicides occur at the hands of the husband or father, there are rare occurrences when another family member commits the homicides as well.

Such was the case with Haynie, who was 16 when he committed the homicides.

Dr. Zelig says cases involving other family members are almost always male, juvenile, and unplanned, unlike in cases where the husband or father is the perpetrator.

"Often times, drugs are involved," he said, "it’s more impulsive."

Sonia Salari, a professor at University of Utah, started studying cases familial homicides in 2003.

She also says there are two types of suspects in murder suicides. The ones who are homicidal, and the ones that are suicidal.

Older perpetrators tend to have more suicidal motives and decide to take their loved ones with them while younger suspects are typically homicidal.

"They tend to kill themselves to avoid prosecution," said Salari.

Signs to look out for in suspects all involve control.

Salari says that "intimate terrorists," or partners who terrorize their families, tend to isolate their victims by limiting their social interactions and threatening harm to themselves or others if crossed.

But she says that it's also difficult to spot the signs from the outside looking in.

She says without the victim coming forward to seek resources it is commonly unknown to friends and family outside the household that something is wrong.

"They are manipulative and they tend to have charisma to the outside world."

Salari says that victim resources like the Utah domestic violence coalition and filing court protective orders are the best way at preventing family homicides from occurring.

Both her and Dr. Zelig say these situations can happen anywhere, and to anyone, although Salari says there have been more cases in Rural areas that involve religious households, despite the religion itself having no correlation.

Typically, they say the suspect has a need for power and control in their life and others.

Research shows that the intermountain west region is where most of these cases occur, and the northeast it occurs the least.

Salari says this correlates to gun access in those areas.

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If you or someone you know is suffering from intimate partner violence, call the Utah Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.

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