The killer of the Bain family was a “family annihilator” – one of a chilling list of such murderers in New Zealand. In recent decades at least nine people in New Zealand have slaughtered or attempted to slaughter two or more of their family. The death toll from their familicide stands at 44.
The “family annihilator” term was coined by Professor Jack Levin, a darling of the US television circuit and head of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University in Boston. He teaches a course called “Sociology of Violence and Hate” and is the author of the recently released book Serial Killers and Sadistic Murderers.
Levin says family killers are usually men who have “a profound need for control that drives them to destroy their family when they can no longer provide for them financially or when the family has been divided by divorce”.
Men who commit murder-suicides tend to be prompted by a financial or personal defeat that they view as major, Levin says, while women who kill are more likely to have a mental health issue, as did Andrea Yates, the Texas mother suffering from severe postpartum depression and psychosis who drowned her five young children in a bathtub in 2001.
Though uncommon, such terrible crimes are far from unheard of. In January this year, Ohio man Mark Meeks killed his wife, his two children and himself – just a few days after Ervin and Ana Elizabeth Lupoe of California killed their five children, all under age eight, and then themselves, leaving a harrowing suicide note that said they were jobless and had no place to go, “so here we are”.
Though the Lupoes might have been destitute and desperate, Levin says annihilators come in two main types: those who act out of “altruism”, apparently believing they are saving the family, and those seeking revenge.
Certain factors are found in almost all family annihilations – especially ones where the motive is revenge.
The catalyst for a “revenge” annihilator is usually a nasty divorce or child-custody battle. That was the case in another recent US familicide, when Bruce Pardo, dressed as Santa Claus, arrived at a Christmas Eve party hosted by his ex-wife’s parents and shot them, his former spouse and six of her relatives before killing himself, apparently accidentally, while setting their house on fire.
Revenge killings are often precipitated by the loss of a relationship, says Levin. “[There is] an externalisation of blame. The killer believes the spouse is responsible for the destruction of the family unit.
“The children are killed because he blames her – so he kills everything she loves – not because he hates them but because he identifies them with his spouse. Everything associated with the person is considered evil.
“He sees himself as the victim – she is the villain and the annihilation is sweet revenge.” Levin says the perpetrator kills the whole family unit, “not just his wife or one of his children, but every member of the family. The motive for the crime may be clear or not, but the annihilation indicates that the family is the victim.”
When the motive is altruism, the catalyst is usually financial – “the killer is convinced that he no longer has the ability to take primary care of his wife and children … He has a feeling of being totally helpless and believes sincerely that there will be a better life for the family in the hereafter.”
The very term family annihilator flies in the face of almost everything most of us understand is meant by the word “family”. Levin says although people like to think they are safe with their loved ones, the largest number of mass killings in the US occurs within families. (The second most common location is workplaces, the third is schools.)
Levin reports that about 90% of annihilators are a father/husband, with about 10% being a son in his late teens or early 20s.
He says if Robin Bain was involved in an incestuous relationship with his daughter Laniet, then the case reflected America’s worst family annihilator, Ronald Simmons, who killed 14 family members over the Christmas period in 1987. Simmons did so because his family was going to throw him out after an incestuous affair with a daughter that resulted in her bearing his son.
Levin says although annihilators usually killed all the members of the family they could, it was not unheard of for a mass killer to make exceptions, as in Robin Bain’s alleged note saying David Bain was the only one who deserved to stay.
Disaffected postal worker Pat Sherrill deliberately didn’t kill some people when he went on his shooting rampage in 1986, killing 14 people.
So, how common is it for annihilator killers to cover their tracks by wearing gloves? Levin says it is not the usual case for perpetrators in a murder/suicide case to try to cover their tracks. The mystery in the Bain case, where bloodied gloves were found under Stephen’s bed, is why gloves were worn during the killings and why, if Robin was the killer, his fingerprints were not left on the gun.
Levin says people too often look for a reason for the murders in the period immediately before the killing. But many family annihilators had suffered a “long period of cumulative frustration”.
“The main catalyst may be something which happened years before and they have spent years thinking about and planning the killing.
“The event which actually sparks the killing may not be obvious – it may be quite insignificant – but there is always some episode that is the final straw.”
He says David Bain did not fit either of the two main categories of “son” family annihilators: those who heard voices telling them to kill, and those who had been “physically or verbally abused by parents and just can’t take it anymore”. However, David Bain may have felt his family’s apparent dysfunctional behaviour left him socially isolated.
Levin says New Zealand is clearly not isolated from family annihilations. But he is surprised at the high number of “not guilty on the grounds of insanity” cases here. Three of the eight New Zealand killers profiled in this article were found to be insane, three committed suicide and two were convicted of murder.
“Americans just despise insanity as a defence,” Levin says. In US murder cases, just 1% of cases use insanity as a defence – with just a third of those succeeding.
He says insanity simply does not fit because family annihilations are usually planned “over days, weeks, months … The more random the mass killing, the more likely the killer is insane. With family annihilators, the killer is seeking revenge – he is only after specific victims – he is methodical and selective.”
Levin says family killers do not “talk to dogs and hallucinate” but concedes they are “clearly troubled but not at a level to be considered insane.
“That’s the saddest thing of all – we’re not talking about psychotics. They don’t suffer from schizophrenia or a profound thinking disorder or mental illness. You can’t say that they’re psychopathic. They have a superego; they’re resourceful, not manipulative or crafty. A person who plans methodically to kill his family is usually not insane – if he were, he’d be too confused [to do it].”
Instead, says Levin, the crime seems to come out of nowhere. “It’s shocking and you can’t predict it – there really aren’t any red flags. They don’t have a character or personality disorder, although almost all have suffered long and cumulative frustrations.” The use of guns is inclined to make the body counts higher, he says. Female killers are more likely to use poison, fire or strangulation.
Levin says family annihilation is likely to become more common in tough economic times – “I don’t think there’s any question about it, assuming the economy doesn’t brighten, we’re going to see more mass killings in the family and in the workplace.”