Economic worries taking toll in recent deaths

Donald and Barbara Romano had been residents of Las Vegas for more than 50 years.

He was a former Marine, a Korean War veteran and a respected member of the community. She was a loving mother, described as “very kind and generous” by her daughter.

But the couple, heavily involved in the real estate business, had been financially crippled by the recession.

On Aug. 20, a Friday, the couple was found dead in the bedroom of their million-dollar Summerlin home by their housekeeper, Las Vegas police said. A gun was found in Donald’s hand and a note was left near the bed. Both were 74.

Their deaths are the latest in a wave of murder-suicides in the Las Vegas Valley this month.

From Aug. 7 to Aug. 20 there were five murder-suicides, 10 deaths total, Las Vegas police said. A gun was used in each case. In four of the five instances, the man was the shooter. In one instance, a bystander was wounded.

Maria Romano, daughter of the victims in the most recent report, said economic woes were the root of their stress.

“Their financial situation was not good,” she said. “That’s not a secret to people that were close to them.”

Homicide Lt. Lew Roberts, speaking in general terms, said several of the recent cases can be traced to the same cause.

“At this point it appears that maybe the economy is starting to take effect, which is something we haven’t seen before,” he said.

Recent murder-suicides handled by Las Vegas police include:

■ Aug. 7: Phil Testa, 74, who shot and killed his wife Angelina, 79, before taking his own life during a standoff with police.

■ Aug. 16: Susan Kapfer, 50, who took a gun into Valley Hospital and Medical Center and killed her husband, Mike, who suffered from a debilitating physical and mental illness. In a suicide note, she compared their relationship to that of Romeo and Juliet.

■ Aug. 19: Edith Corona, 19, and Jose Zergara Rodriguez, 20, were killed in the northwest valley after Rodriguez shot Corona before turning the gun on himself.

■ Aug. 20: On the same day the Romanos were found dead, Steven Becker, 56, shot and killed Shannon Larkin, 48, before killing himself at Tiberti Mini Warehouses on Valley View Boulevard. Another woman at the business was injured by Becker, but survived.

Maria Romano, herself a counselor at the Community Counseling Center of Southern Nevada, near Sahara Avenue and Maryland Parkway, said she felt terrible for the families of all the victims, not just her own family.

“There’s been too many, and here I am in the middle of it,” she said. “My heart goes out to them.”

All five crimes were classified as murder-suicide, although there were few similarities in the circumstances of each.

One expert said that’s normal; there are a wide variety of stressful situations that can cause an otherwise normal person to snap.

Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University in Boston and an author of several books on the psychology of murder, said most murder-suicides are caused by a “catastrophic trigger event.”

“A serious financial loss, the loss of a job or money, or tremendous indebtedness,” Levin said. “It could be a child custody battle or a nasty separation or divorce, a terminal illness. … It’s almost always a catastrophic loss that precipitates a murder-suicide, and that’s one of the only characteristics that is consistent.”

These crimes are often unpreventable, police said. The damage is done by the time officers are called.

Levin agreed. Although depression can be a warning sign, there are thousands of cases where a depressed person never harms anyone.

“It’s best not to wait until someone wants to kill himself and their spouse,” he said. “Once that intention is there, it’s probably too late.”

Ron Lawrence, executive director of the nonprofit Community Counseling Center and a licensed marriage and family therapist, said many residents of Las Vegas are battling hardship. His agency offers mental health and substance abuse treatment to about 3,000 people a year, and also offers intervention training for families.

Lawrence has seen thousands of clients dealing with depression. He advises friends and family to watch for early warning signs: severe depression, despondency or expressions of futility.

“In other words, saying ‘No matter what I do, it doesn’t matter,’ ” Lawrence said.

Often, just talking to a friend about problems, or “debriefing,” can take the edge off, he said.

In more severe cases, professional help might be the best answer.

“In the mental health industry, we know there is always an answer most of the time,” he said. “And we make ourselves available. That’s our business.”

Levin, Lawrence and others said there are few statistics on murder-suicides, so it is hard to spot trends or draw conclusions.

The FBI tracks homicides and health agencies track suicides, but no one has cross-referenced the two statistics, said Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Violence Policy Center.

The Washington-based nonprofit organization, which has an anti-gun agenda, has tried three times to track
murder-suicides but their limited studies are not definitive.

Still, Rand said some patterns are clear.

“The killer is virtually always a male, the weapon is always a gun and the victims are often intimate partners,” she said.

In the most recent study, covering the first half of 2008, only about 12 percent of cases were related to finances, Rand said.

Most involved broken relationships that led to domestic disputes.

Rand said she isn’t sure why no government agency tracks murder-suicides.

“That’s a good question,” she said. “There’s just never been resources devoted to it.”

Suicide statistics provided by the Clark County coroner, which might indicate a rise of severe depression in Las Vegas, show no significant upswing or downturn since 2007.

But for friends and family of the victims, trends and statistics hold little meaning.

Romano said she hopes people would focus less on the tragedies and do more to help those in need before it’s too late.

“I think that’s what people need to know more than anything else,” Romano said. “There is counseling available. … They won’t refuse services to people who aren’t able to pay now. They’ll get you the help you need.

“Those are the things that are important, to focus on prevention and any positive aspects we can find.”

Contact reporter Mike Blasky at or 702-383-0283.

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