Latest murder-suicide baffles police, neighbors

In one of Mark Byron Helwig’s last moments, he scratched out a note to police. He killed his wife two years ago, he wrote. He couldn’t stand to move the body from the house. And he was going to kill himself. The note was mailed to police, who on Thursday afternoon dispatched officers’ to Helwig’s three-bedroom home in a gated Peccole Ranch community.

Inside they found Helwig, dead from a shotgun wound to the head in the closet of the master bedroom. In the bedroom next to it they found his wife’s body, stuffed in a freezer.

The latest in a string of murder-suicides in the valley has horrified neighbors and baffled police. Investigators have not been able to explain what prompted Helwig, an older man who neighbors said spent months at a time overseas, to commit the acts.

“We have no idea why he did it,” Lt. Lew Roberts said.

Police believe his wife, identified in public records as Veronica Tran, had been in the freezer for 18 to 24 months. That has hampered efforts to determine how she died, according to Roberts. She was frozen for so long that it will take two to three days for her body to thaw.

The Clark County coroner’s office has not identified either person. A Bay Area woman reached today said the Helwig family would not comment.

Neighbors described Helwig as having a job with the government or with a large government contractor that would send him to Southeast Asia for months at a time. They believed he was visiting Thailand, or possibly Taiwan, but nobody knew for sure. Nobody could even remember his name.

One woman, who would not give her name, said he was “very nice.”

“Seemed as normal as could be,” she said.

But he was rarely seen in the neighborhood. Helwig’s next-door neighbor, 44-year-old Anthony Tomaio, said he saw Helwig only once in the year Tomaio has lived there.

Helwig was so absent that the neighbors began to talk about it.

“We always would wonder, ‘What’s going on over there?’ ” said 71-year-old Leonard Cardella, who lives across the street. “The guy bought a house and was never home.”

But nobody seemed to wonder about Tran. Although she had been dead for up to two years, police received no reports of her disappearance. Police said it might have been because she had no local relatives.

She was just as rarely seen as her husband. Tomaio never saw her. The last time Cardella saw her was about two years ago. She would go into the front yard and pick weeds and maintain the landscaping.

Cardella described her as a small, slightly heavyset woman of Asian descent who was in her late 50s. The woman who would not give her name said she was “sweet as can be” and very “sheepish.” She said the last time she and her husband talked to Helwig was several months ago. Helwig told them that his wife had left him and gone back to Asia to be with her family.

This week, the woman noticed that a car was back in the driveway.

“I thought, ‘Oh, our neighbors are back,’ ” she said.

Today, at Helwig’s home, at 1516 Willowbark Court, near Charleston Boulevard and Fort Apache Road, several surgical gloves were piled in front of the front door, and a large lock covered the door handle.

The shimmering reflection of the backyard pool glinted off the wall of a next-door two-story home. Cardella said that while Helwig was away, he still paid a pool service to regularly maintain the pool.

The incident was the fourth murder-suicide or attempted murder-suicide in 12 days in the valley. Roberts said the economy could be a factor in the incidents.

“Many people are starting to feel the pressure of not working,” he said. “And when you’re out of work, you have financial problems. And when you have financial problems, you have relationship problems.”

The latest incident is so unusual that it has officials recollecting past killings involving the storage of a loved one, most notoriously the case of Brookey Lee West, who was charged with the murder of her 68-year-old mother, whose liquified remains were found in a 56-gallon drum.

But it’s more like the 2004 case of Lawrence Pruett, who was convicted of killing his roommate and keeping the body in a freezer, or the 1998 case of Wilman Oslund, who was convicted of beating his disabled sister-in-law to death and placing her body in a freezer.

Neighbors in Helwig’s neighborhood had trouble comprehending what took place in the home.

“It’s totally bizarre,” Cardella said.

Contact reporter Lawrence Mower at lmower@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0440.

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