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Killer Dads: The Twisted Drives that Compel Fathers to Murder Their Own Kids

Killer Dads: The Twisted Drives that Compel Fathers to Murder Their Own Kids

4.6 3
by Mary Papenfuss, Michael Daly (Foreword by)

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No crime is as horrific, as mesmerizingly perplexing, as a child's murder at the hands of a parent. In most cases, the perpetrator is the father. A veteran journalist explores five examples of "family annihilators" in this troubling snapshot of American crime twisted by the dark trajectory of machismo in economically stressful times. Her research includes some


No crime is as horrific, as mesmerizingly perplexing, as a child's murder at the hands of a parent. In most cases, the perpetrator is the father. A veteran journalist explores five examples of "family annihilators" in this troubling snapshot of American crime twisted by the dark trajectory of machismo in economically stressful times. Her research includes some fifty in-depth interviews of victims' friends and family, an examination of police files, and detailed profiles of the researchers who track these "killer dads."

She also presents experts' theories on the causes that drive men to commit these heinous acts—ranging from economic pressures, the stress of perceived failure, and distorted egos, to the disturbing statistics on abuse of adopted children by step-fathers and the connection between murder and pregnancy.

Finally, she discusses factors in contemporary society that may foster such crimes, and measures we can and should be taking to prevent them.

Well-researched and often-shocking, Killer Dads provides disturbing insights into the dark forces that can turn family dynamics into the worst imaginable nightmare.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Spoiler alert: journalist Papenfuss’s depressing account of horrific violence doesn’t offer any insights. “I set out to gather all the facts I could on the killings, assuming the information would unlock the key to motivations and mechanisms toward murder. They didn’t.” Given that, readers who suffer through detailed accounts of savage acts of familicide, such as attorney William Parente’s 2009 killing of his wife and daughters, are likely to feel ill-used. The inclusion of the transcripts of emergency phone calls and heart-breaking photos of families in happier times appeals only to emotions, rather than to an analysis of how or why fathers end the lives they helped bring into the world. Papenfuss (coauthor, Climb Against the Odds) will open some eyes with a chapter on infanticide in the animal kingdom—particularly among primates—but given that her examples there include murderous mothers, her choice to focus just on men, even if they are statistically more likely to kill their children, is unclear. Are men and women so different that Susan Smith, who drowned her two children to sustain an affair, merits no mention at all? As is, Papenfuss’s project feels arbitrary and unnecessary. Photos. Agent: Claire Gerus, Claire Gerus Literary Agency. (June)
From the Publisher
"Informative, provocative, and challenging...this book is a must-read for those interested in criminal psychology and issues of domestic violence."

“The topic is crucial, the research exceptional, the conclusions intriguing, and the writing first-class. Killer Dads will haunt you long after you put it down.”
–MIKE PEARL, former police and courts reporter for the New York Post
“A moving and insightful look at a horrifying crime wave in which the weakest are victimized by those they love and trust. Not only does Papenfuss investigate critical cases, she puts them in a social context and makes sense of apparently senseless acts. Her writing is brilliant and clear, and the book is a real page-turner.”
–HANNAH BROWN, author of If I Could Tell You
“A chilling but important book that is distinguished by impeccable reporting and clear writing. Readers will especially appreciate the exploration of solutions to prevent any family’s worst nightmare.”
–GERALDINE BAUM, former New York Bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times
“Papenfuss stares down gut-wrenching crimes we too often turn away from to find compelling tales of love and loss, and the motivations that fuel our most inexplicable homicides.”
–MURRAY WEISS, columnist, DNAInfo.com New York, author of The Man Who Warned America

Kirkus Reviews

A former crime reporter takes on the unthinkable topic of men who murder their own children in this book that melds true crime, anthropology, and issues of social justice. Papenfuss (Climb Against the Odds, 2013) presents five main crimes, offering them variously as examples of a specific type of killer or killing: those that are driven by either a sense of rage or a perverse sense of protectiveness, "family annihilations," a cult-like level of control gone haywire, straight-up sociopathy (this the case of Scott and Laci Peterson, which the author covered for the New York Daily News), and so-called "honor killings." The descriptions--interspersed with briefer examples of equally horrific crimes--are detailed and graphic, the writing bordering on sensationalistic in a way that will both titillate and disturb. Papenfuss takes a more intellectual tone in her early chapters about the evolutionary and social underpinnings of male violence against family members, which provide a fascinating subtext for the subsequent analyses of specific crimes. From Langur monkeys in India, to fairy tales and Shakespearian dramas about dysfunctional step-parent relationships, to mass family murders in early America, she argues convincingly that infanticide is not the shocking aberration we would like to think it is, but it is rather, to some degree, encoded into our biology and culture. She supports this hypothesis with a barrage of statistics (which, while compelling, hamper her readability) and points out problems within the law enforcement, social welfare, and criminal justice systems that impede our ability to evolve beyond the brutality of our primitive selves. Papenfuss's progressive slant is apparent, as she may very well intend it to be--she quotes several activists and system insiders who argue that meaningful reform will require government funds that are now, they say, being misdirected [234-235]--but for the most part she does not speak in platitudes, and she effectively outlines the complexity of the problem and the elusiveness of solutions. She deftly handles, for instance, the politically-charged issue of Islamic "honor killings" in the case of murdered Dearborn, Michigan, teen Jessica Mokdad, and in her concluding chapter she admits, "I assumed when I got to the end of my book, some solutions to the problem of fathers killing children would be obvious. They weren't." [234] Informative, provocative, and challenging in a way that belies its somewhat silly title, this book is a must-read for those interested in criminal psychology and issues of domestic violence.

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Prometheus Books
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The Twisted Drives That Compel Fathers to Murder Their Own Kids


Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2013 Mary Papenfuss
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61614-744-0





—James, 2012 phone interview with the author

James is a soft, hulking man with a boyish face who spends afternoons and evenings bent over a tiny seed-bead jewelry loom on a desk or on his metal frame bed at the state prison that's his home for the next several decades. Beneath a bright, cold overhead light and the warmish glow of a tiny desk lamp on his wispy brown hair, the 31-year-old convict carefully threads minuscule pieces of colored glass or rainbow-hued plastic on a needle and line, meticulously adding bit by bit of red or gold, green and blue in intricate patterns to create bracelets and pendants in a ten-by-twelve-foot room behind electronic doors and a tiny window that he shares with his "cellie." He uses beading patterns the convicts trade, or those he has gleaned from books, and he sometimes sketches his own patterns to recreate an arresting image he sees during the day, like the spiky yellows of the heavy dahlia heads that recently lined a row of one of the gardens in the sunny field where prison cattle used to graze. He has made a tiny American-flag pendant, an iris-patterned bracelet, and earrings using Native American designs provided by an inmate member of the Crow nation.

The intensive labor on the loom is James's calm after a murderous storm, an emotional tsunami that seems now like a half-remembered dream. The beading quiets his mind. "I'm usually too fidgety to read," he tells me in one of several phone conversations we've had about his crime and his life behind bars. "It focuses my brain and I'm calmer and can think about things." Not everyone can do seed-beading in the prison, where crafts are a necessity for inmates killing endless years in stir. It takes keen eyesight, and dexterity not well suited to the many thick fingers in the prison. He's worried about what he'll do if he gets arthritis later on in his 55-year sentence. It runs in his family. James spends other hours picking up litter, sweeping the cement pathways outside, and cutting the grass on the prison field. In winter he shovels snow. It's a cherry job at the prison because it affords several extra hours outdoors. He has to watch his back, though, because his particular work assignment is so coveted that other prisoners might tell lies about him to get him bounced off the detail so they can get it for themselves. As appealing as the job is, for months at a time, he usually works less than 20 hours a week, which still leaves long stretches of time to fill when remorse can suddenly fill James with dread. "I can't shake this feeling of sadness," he tells me.

James enjoys talking to the guards, seeing what's happening in their lives. Most are civil, though some are "meaner and more ill-mannered than the inmates they look after," James believes. His fellow cons gets annoyed when he chats up the guards. "There's a real us-and-them attitude here, and some inmates get mad at me because I'm friendly to the guards. I don't get it. Why make things uglier than they have to be?" he asks me. One guard told James recently that he "doesn't seem to be the kind of guy who belongs behind bars," James recounted. "I didn't tell him what I was in for." James considers himself a "normal" person with "control issues" who made a "big, big mistake." He's on antidepressants because "my life here is pretty depressing," he notes. The other inmates often confound him. They're hard to read because, he suspects, many of them are grappling with severe mental illnesses. "They're your best friend one minute, then trying to beat the crap out of you the next," he explains. He had a cellmate for a time who was "too hyper; he made me nervous," says James, so he asked to move out. He gets along with his current cellie, who has been in one prison or another since the age of 16. James has taught him how to string seed beads. The two never talk about their crimes.

James communicates with his elderly mom, who lives in Kelowna, British Columbia, but it's hard for her to travel to see him. He never hears from his sister, Tammy, who stood by helplessly when James's young victim died. Before the murder, they used to talk weekly, and he was closer to her as an adult than to any of his other three siblings and stepbrother. "It's hard for me," says James. "But it's probably much harder for her to deal with what happened."

James is being held in the protective custody West Block section of his prison, some five acres from the 1,500-man "mainline" facility, because his crime was so horrible his co-convicts want to murder him. He has asked me to use only the name James to identify him in case a copy of this book gets into the hands of fellow inmates. He knows his crime would be easily discovered through an Internet search, but cons at his prison have only e-mail access and can't search the Web. He also believes prisoners won't easily identify him from photos reprinted here because he's slightly older now and his appearance has changed. From his first day alone behind bars in an intake prison facility, other inmates, told of his crime by the prison guards, shouted to James from inside their cells what they planned to do to him when they got the chance.

James cut the throat of his five-year-old stepdaughter, Clare Shelswell, a heart-wrenchingly cute, skinny, blonde kid, who liked pickles and had an impish smile. He used a knife snatched off a kitchen counter in a cottage near Lake Cushman in Hoodsport, Washington, where he and his family were vacationing in 2010. His stunned, frantic wife, Sarah, a nurse, raced into the kitchen when she heard her baby scream. She desperately called 911 as she clutched Clare's throat, struggling to keep the life-saving blood inside the girl's limp body. James hung back, trying, too late, to be helpful and stay out of the way as Sarah screamed for help from the emergency dispatcher.

911 Operator: What's going on, Ma'am?

Sarah (screaming): Oh my God, my baby, you need to send an ambulance right now.

Operator: You need to tell me what's happening and calm down.

Sarah: My daughter's throat has just been cut. I need you to come right now! I can't stop the bleeding!


Operator: Keep pressure on that cut now, keep pressure on it, please.


Sarah: (sobbing) You have to come now, please. Oh my God, please. I don't think she's breathing. Please, please, please ...

Operator: How's she doing, Ma'am?

Sarah: She's barely breathing, she's barely breathing.

Operator: OK, get her on the floor, on her back.

Sarah: She is on her back, but I've got her head up, the cut is on her throat. You have to hurry up! Please, you need to come now!

Operator: They are on their way, Ma'am. I dispatched them out.

Sarah: You need to send the police, too.

Operator: They are getting there, Ma'am.

Sarah: She's breathing, but it's really, really ragged and infrequent.

Operator: Is she changing color?

Sarah: She's really pale. I'm cradling her.

Operator: OK, I want you to keep pressure on that wound, whatever you do, don't take the rag off. If it gets soaked through, put another on top of that.

Sarah: OK, I started on that.

Operator: OK, keep doing that. We have people en route now. If she stops breathing I need to know right away. Is she conscious and alert?

Sarah: No, she is unconscious, not alert of anything. Respiratory rate is four to six a minute.

Operator: Does anyone there know CPR in case she stops breathing?

Sarah: I'm a nurse, but the gash on her throat is so big there's no way it would work. I don't know if [the bleeding] is under control.

Operator: How did this happen?

Sarah: My husband took a knife to her throat.

Operator: Your husb—... purposely?

Sarah: Yes.

Operator: We need law enforcement on that call. Where is he now?

Sarah: He's here, but he's away from her. This is what I said: You need to send police, too. I haven't really examined the wound, she's still breathing. Hang in there, Baby, hang in there.

(Talks to someone in the background.)

Operator: What's going on with her right now?

Sarah: Her respiratory rate seems to have improved a little bit. She's still pale, but conforming with the rest of the color of her body.


Operator: Does he still have the weapon, Ma'am?

Sarah: No, he does not.

Operator: OK, where is the weapon?

Sarah: It's on the floor in the kitchen—where I am, not where he is.

Operator: OK, where is he in the house?

Sarah: He's sitting in the next room, but he's pretty docile right now.

Operator: OK, why is he so docile?

Sarah: Probably because he's in shock over what he just did.

Operator: How's she doing now?

Sarah: Breathing is becoming faster, but definitely more shallow. You need to move right now!

Operator: Is there any way they can get him out of the house?

Sarah: Probably. Why?

Operator: Because we don't need him the house.

Sarah: OK, the only complication with that is if we do that, there might be a second ...

Operator: If you don't think that's safe to try and get him out of the house, I don't want you to do that. I'm just giving you some ideas.

Sarah: She is not breathing.

Operator: OK, then you're going to get her some air then. Is there anybody else there who can hold that bandage on while you tilt the head back and give her CPR?

Sarah: Yeah, but I'm going to have to keep the phone down.

Operator: OK, just keep it as close to you as you can, and let me know what's going on.

(Sarah's sister-in-law, Tammy, takes the phone while Sarah continues to attend to Clare.)

Tammy: It doesn't look like she's breathing.

Operator: So dad is in the other room?

Tammy: Yeah ... the air is just coming right through her throat.


Sarah (in background): Oh my God! They have to hurry now!

Operator: What happened when you tried to attempt CPR?

Sarah (in the background): It sounds like the air is going right through her throat ... I can't feel her chest rising. (Crying.) Nothing is getting into her chest when I breathe through her mouth, it's all exiting in the gash in her throat! She is not breathing, she is not breathing. Hurry up, Goddamnit! You have to hurry!

Operator: Ma'am, we are getting there as fast as we can. Please try to get some air into her. Is there someone helping you? Can you feel a pulse, a heartbeat, anything?

Sarah (in the background): Her chest is not rising at all, the gash in her throat is too big, they have to hurry up!

Operator: They are coming as fast as they can.

Sarah (in the background): Give me another rag! Oh my God, my baby ...


Operator: What started this?

Tammy: I don't even know, I was gone, I just got back here.

Sarah (in the background): Please, they have to hurry!

Operator: Ma'am do you feel comfortable moving her out of the house at all?

Tammy: I don't think that's a good idea.

Sarah (in the background): There's no difference, she's dying!

Operator: Is the dad still in the house?

Tammy: Yes.

Operator: What is he doing?

Tammy: Sitting on the floor.

Operator: Is he alert at all?

Sarah (in the background): It's not him, you need to get the ambulance here for her!

Operator: Can you get her outside? If you can get her outside away from dad, we have a better chance of aid coming in without law enforcement.

Tammy: That's not important, that's not relevant!

Operator: Ma'am, can you get her outside?

Tammy: There's no point in that.

Operator: Why is that?

Tammy: He's not doing anything, he's just sitting on the floor.

Sarah (in the background): Where are the paramedics?

Operator: I can't make my units come in without law enforcement being there.

Tammy: There's nobody here!

Operator: We need to do something to try and save her.

Tammy: If he leaves, can you come in?

Operator: Yes.

Tammy (speaking to James): Can you leave?

Tammy (speaking to operator): He's leaving.

Operator: Tell him to get as far as he can but stay in the area.


Operator: Someone needs to tell me where dad went now.

Tammy: He went to other side of property, he's sitting outside.

Operator: How far away?

Tammy: He's literally non-coherent.

Operator: I know. Please answer my question. How far away from the house is he?

Tammy: The next lot over. Listen to me: She has not been breathing for approximately ten minutes at this point. If the paramedics don't get there STAT she is not going to survive. How far out are they?

Operator: I've advised paramedics dad is out of the house. Does he have any weapons on him?

Operator: OK, stand by. What's going on with her now?

Tammy: She's dead. We're doing CPR but she's effectively dead unless they're here now.


Sarah (in the background): How far out are they?!

Operator: Can you give me [a] description of [the] male?

Tammy: 5'8", 250 pounds, brown hair, shorts and a polo shirt. I can't tell from here. I really wasn't paying attention.

Operator: You were not there when this started?

Tammy: I was not there, no one witnessed it.

Operator: Is the dad still on the other property?

Tammy: Yes.

Sarah (in the background): We can deal with legal ramifications later! Can we please not have this be about a homicide?

Tammy: Sarah, the mom, is doing CPR.

Operator: How many people are in the house?

Tammy: Two of us, Clare, and two people upstairs.

Operator: What are the people upstairs doing?

Tammy: There's another daughter. She's upstairs with my sister-in-law, trying to keep her away from this scene.

Operator: How old is the daughter?

Tammy: Clare is five.

Operator: Is that the one with injury?

Tammy: Yes.

Tammy (speaking to James): They want you to stay where you are.

Operator: Who's there, Ma'am?

Tammy: The paramedics and police.

(Sobbing in the background.)

When police and paramedics arrived, James was sitting on a swing in a gazebo outside the cottage. James was "stoic," a responding officer noted in the police report, and he told them Clare was inside, and that he had just cut her throat. His wife later told investigators that the attack occurred after an angry argument about disciplining the children, Clare and her eight-year-old sister, Suzy. Finally, James told his wife "not to worry," that he would "take care of things," before walking Clare downstairs to the kitchen. He told police that when he took Clare's small hand into his own to lead her to the kitchen, he knew that he was going to kill her. James was booked into Mason County Jail, charged with first-degree murder, and held on $3 million bail.

The brutality of the crime riveted the public and the police who responded to the scene. "In 37 years, this is the most horrific, senseless crime I've ever seen," County Sheriff Chief Deputy Dean Byrd told CBC-TV News in British Columbia, where the family was living at the time. "How does a person make the decision to take the life of a five-year-old girl in such a violent and horrific way? How does that happen?"

Sarah avoided the reporters who clamored for her reactions, asking that she and her family be "left in peace" to grieve "our beautiful baby girl. My daughter Clare has been killed. Anyone with a heart will be affected by this story, especially due to the brutal way in which she died," she said in a statement released to the media. "Asking us how we are doing is unhelpful. Put yourself in our shoes and give yourself an answer."

Hundreds of mourners turned out for Clare's funeral at the family's local church in Abbotsford, British Columbia, that featured photos of Clare and her worn green teddy bear, "Baby," which sat forlornly next to a drawing of a rainbow by Clare. Pastor Terry Kaethler recalled Clare as an "engaging girl" with a rare sensitivity and compassion beyond her years. She had a generous soul and "saw beauty where few other people would see it," he said. The principal of her kindergarten said Clare often waited to start playing at recess until everyone who wanted to join in was part of the group. Clare's sister, Suzy, talked of her joy reading books to her little sister, noting that in her glasses Clare had "quite the look." Sarah, who sat in the front row of the church with Suzy, said in a statement read for her that the family was struggling with a new life seen "through a glass darkly. This past week has been the most difficult of our lives. We have said good-bye to our beautiful baby girl and have today begun to look at what life without Clare might look like," she added.

Excerpted from KILLER DADS by MARY PAPENFUSS. Copyright © 2013 by Mary Papenfuss. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Mary Papenfuss has been a journalist for over thirty years. She is the author of Climb against the Odds and has worked as a reporter and editor for many publications and news services, including the New York Daily News, the New York Post, the Associated Press in San Francisco, People magazine’s London bureau, and Salon. Currently, she is an editor at KCET Link TV (www.kcetlink.org).

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Killer Dads: The Twisted Drives that Compel Fathers to Murder Their Own Kids 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MaryAnn_Koopmann More than 1 year ago
This book gets your attention and holds it. If you are interested in reading this type of material, this book is for you. It draws you in and keeps you interested page after page. It breaks my heart the way their father treated them and the abuse they endured. If you are looking for true stories of complete courage and perseverance in the constant face of danger and defeat, this is THE one to read. Through it all, you will find yourself transformed - encouraged to look at the world differently - realizing you never are aware of someone's story, and discovering that things shouldn't always be taken at face value. The story is so well written by Mary Papenfuss. This is definitely a 5-star read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is like no other true crime book I've ever read because it also includes fascinating insights into why these murders occur. But the five main cases -- including the killing of a step daughter, two family annihilations, murder by psychopath, and an honor killing -- also rank with the most intriguing of the true crime genre. Why do men kill their children? Evolution, stress, American culture.