Karthik Rajaram of California, despondent over financial setbacks, murdered his wife, children, and mother-in-law this week.
The press coverage of the crime links this tragedy to the economic crisis gripping the world. As a TV newsman remarked, it is, perhaps, a sign of the times.
That does seem quite probable. It is no coincidence, in my view of things, that a man who placed such importance on living in a gated community and driving a luxury car would find himself driven to such an act by financial losses. Apparently unable to live a less than prestigious lifestyle, he became suicidal and homicidal.
I have studied historical reports of family annihilators, and they do seem to spike in the 1890s, a time of economic difficulties worldwide. I have found many cases from that time. But other cases seem to bear no relation to the economy. The bottom line is that the economy may well be a factor in certain cases, but it does not adequately explain them.
These cases can be roughly divided into several types, by my reckoning, and often overlap:
* Severe and prolonged mental illness explains some cases, like the Amityville horror.
* Some cases are the culmination of years of profound physical abuse in a home, and the murders are the ultimate act of domestic violence. I think of Charlie Lawson.
* Greed motivates some to insure and then kill their families, including Frances Elaine Newton, put to death in Texas three years ago, and Robin Lee Row, on death row in Idaho.
* Some of these crimes can be triggered by financial difficulties. This case in California looks like one; John List was another. I believe that these sorts of cases are actually much less common today than they were in days past. The traditional male role placed extraordinary burdens on men that thankfully their partners help shoulder today. Even where there is a financial challenge, though, that can never fully explain these acts.
* Some cases evolve out of sexual abuse of children; when caught, some molesters wipe out the whole family. I think of George Hassell, who did it twice -- once in California and again in Texas. The Whittier Museum in Whittier, California, has opened an exhibit on that city's crime history. It includes accounts of George Hassell's annihilation of his California family. Frank Girardot of the San Gabriel Tribune recently wrote a feature on the exhibition. Meanwhile, a book is in the works about the Hassell case; I'll have more details here as it nears publication.
I think the media is correct to assume that this California case fits the historical pattern. I wouldn't wonder if, in these trying times, we start to see more of these cases, even if it's not always safe to presume that financial troubles alone triggered the rampage. Hopefully the press will cover these matters intelligently and present assumptions as such, because no matter what the contents of a suicide note, sometimes we never learn what was truly going on behind closed doors.