Murder/Suicide: Lives of Elderly Ended by Desperation

Times Staff Writer

Pink and yellow roses still bloom in front of the brown mobile home. A blue Cadillac sits in the driveway. And on a front window, a Neighborhood Watch sticker warns intruders to stay away.

Last week in the bathroom of this pleasant El Toro home, retired aerospace executive Reid Logan killed Edith Logan, his wife of 43 years, then shot himself in the head.

At 78, Mrs. Logan was severely disabled from Alzheimer's disease, a brain disease that eventually leaves its victims deranged, incontinent and totally unable to care for themselves. Logan, also 78, was in failing health with heart disease.

When Logan could no longer care for his wife, he found a way out for both of them, homicide investigators said--murder/suicide.

The Logan deaths were the second murder/suicide in Orange County in a month. On July 16, an 88-year-old Anaheim man, in pain from a broken hip, shot and killed his blind and sick 97-year-old wife, then turned the gun on himself.

Also this month in Riverside County, a 66-year-old Beaumont man was placed on three months' probation after he tried to kill himself and his wife, who had been in a coma for six years. James C. Wilson testified that he had slashed his and his wife's arms with a razor blade because the burden of caring for her had become too great. (She died of pneumonia after the attack.)

Despite the recent cases, murder/suicide is rare--so uncommon that few agencies keep statistics on it, mental health and law enforcement officials around the country said.

Orange County Deputy Coroner Dick Slaughter said that over the last 17 years he could recall from one to three cases a year. Some involved couples in a marital dispute or robbers who killed their victims, then themselves. But most were elderly couples with at least one spouse suffering from a serious, degenerative disease.

Although infrequent, "it can happen anywhere, in any community," Slaughter said. "We've had it occur in Leisure World. We've had it in regular neighborhoods. . . . It's normally a situation where they've been married for many years. And one doesn't go on without the other. And there's pain or suffering or debilitation."

Still, as more people live longer, some gerontologists expect the incidence of murder/suicide to rise.

And Joan Dashiell, president of the Orange County chapter of the Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders Assn., agreed. Without enough counseling groups or adequate financial aid for Alzheimer victims and their caretakers, "you're going to see this (murder/suicide) happening all over the country," Dashiell warned.

Derek Humphry, executive director of the Hemlock Society, a Los Angeles group that promotes euthanasia, said the incidence of murder/suicide is already increasing.

So far this year, Humphry has tracked 19 murder/suicides across the nation--shootings, strangulations, poisonings, suffocations--compared to 12 last year and only six in 1980. All involved elderly couples, and at least one spouse was terminally ill, he said.

When people can no longer cope with a degenerative disease, "they are taking the law into their own hands," Humphry said. "It is a source of great horror that people have to end these lovely relationships by killing themselves."

For the elderly, murder/suicide is an extreme expression of frustration and hopelessness, psychiatrists and social workers said.

"The fact is that you've got this hopeless, deteriorating situation and any time you remove hope, youget more or less extreme cases of behavior," said Carl Cotman, professor of psychobiology at UC Irvine.

Added UCLA health educator Nancy Allen, who has studied murder/suicides, "The perpetrator seems to commit suicide out of despair rather than hostility. . . . It is a final effort to cope with grief, guilt, frustration, blame."

Allen read a typical suicide note, from an 80-year-old man who had shot his ailing 78-year-old wife: "This horrible act is because of ill health that has destroyed our lives. There are not words to describe the suffering that I have watched my wife endure week after week . . . . "

But if murder/suicide is an extreme response, its occurrence points up some serious issues, gerontologists and social workers said: When elderly couples are in failing health, is murder/suicide an acceptable response? Could such deaths have been prevented?

The responses are mixed.

Sanford Weimer, director for the Orange County Health Agency's mental health and drug abuse programs, considered the Logan case.

"Murder in this case is a misnomer," Weimer said. "I think the guy was doing euthanasia . . . to put her out of her misery and then kill himself."

"Let me play devil's advocate," he continued. "Was it such a bad outcome?"

Weimer said he understood the problem from personal experience. Recently his elderly aunt died and "she didn't recognize anyone for the past two years. It was a tragedy for those living to watch her turn into a complete vegetable," he said.

The Hemlock Society's Humphry argued that couples suffering from degenerative illness should have the right to practice euthanasia.

"People could make advance declarations while they're still healthy, (for instance) agreeing in advance to take a person's life if they have Alzheimer's disease," Humphry said.

But law enforcement officials and many health workers reject that approach.

The situation that leads to murder/suicide "is really tragic. Nobody disputes that," said Jay Hanks, Riverside County's assistant district attorney, whose office prosecuted James Wilson for slashing his wife's wrists.

But, Hanks said, "as a society, we can't put ourselves in the position of having other people terminate other people's lives just because they agree a person would be better off dead."

Social worker Maryon Welty, the manager of human relations at Leisure World in Laguna Hills, was shocked by Weimer's apparent acceptance of euthanasia.

She was also saddened that the Logans somehow "slipped through" a network of social services that could have made their lives less desperate.

Among the services available, Welty and the Alzheimer association's Dashiell said, are senior nutrition centers, free counseling at 13 Orange County "support groups" for the caretakers of Alzheimer's victims, inexpensive live-in companions and adult day care, available at nine Orange County centers.

Ironically, the Logans attended a senior center for meals, and concerned neighbors sometimes brought them food. But somehow no one ever informed the local Alzheimer's organization of their plight, Dashiell said.

Maybe the Logans or their neighbors never called because they weren't aware of the Alzheimer's group--or maybe no one called out of concern for the Logans' privacy, Dashiell said. She said she understood both problems but didn't want to accept the conclusion.

"Could it (the Logan deaths) have been prevented?" Dashiell asked. The answer, she said, is "Yes."

There are other options--if the caretaker in these situations can be made aware of them, health educator Allen said. "It's very tragic because these people don't know where to turn and we as a community don't have the resources for them," she said.

Home care, through a visiting nurse or adult day care, is often better for an elderly couple than sending one spouse to a nursing home, Allen said, although home care usually takes money. And in many of the murder/suicide cases she studied, "it seemed liked the money had run dry," Allen said.

Even when the money was there, the stress on those who care for chronically ill patients could be extraordinary, mental health workers said. It was so punishing, particularly with a confused and combative Alzheimer's patient, that even the most loving caretaker could become exhausted and consider violence, they said.

The incident is a long way from murder, but Dashiell remembers a day when she found her elderly mother, an Alzheimer's victim, in bed with diarrhea.

The house reeked, Dashiell said, as grimly she led her helpless mother into the bathroom and began to bathe her. "I can remember I had her in the bathtub and I screamed at her, 'God, how can I do this!' " Dashiell said.

But immediately after she screamed, Dashiell said she felt guilty. Her mother was so out of touch, so helpless. "There was this little pussycat singing to herself, totally oblivious," Dashiell said.

Though murder/suicide is one response to the stress of chronic illness, it is not the usual response, social workers said.

'If you look at a population 65 or older, most people have four or more chronic illnesses--arthritis, heart problems, hypertension, diabetes. But that doesn't mean they aren't doing fine," said social worker Julie Box of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center in Los Angeles.

"There are lots of families under stress, lots of couples caring for someone impaired by chronic illness," Box said, but only a small percentage of them resort to murder/suicide.

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