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In the past 18 months, the members of five Utah families have died at the hands of a parent or partner, who then took his or her own life.

Of the 14 victims, 10 were children. All were killed alongside their families inside their own homes. The overall toll: 20 dead.

It's an alarming spike — only two "familicides" took place in the previous three years — which raises the questions: Why are people killing their whole families before killing themselves? And what can the community do about it?

Researching the why • To try to better understand murder-suicides, University of Utah professors Sonia Salari and Carrie Sillito researched 730 cases nationwide from 1999-2005

and observed a number of similarities.

Salari said in a recent interview that the killers are almost always men, and a gun is by far the most frequent method used to end lives. The professor also distinguished between two different mindsets held by the killers, which often determine how many others will die along with them.

She said that if the perpetrator has homicidal intent, they likely will kill their spouse — leaving the children physically unharmed — and then will kill themselves "out of desperation" to avoid facing consequences and criminal charges.

However, when someone takes their entire family with them, it's more likely that he or she was suicidal, Salari said.

"It's possible that they are not recognizing the autonomy of the victims to exist independently of them," Salari said. "So they might be thinking, 'Oh, well, my suicide will harm them so I'm just going to make it so they don't realize what happened.' "

This is called "over-enmeshment," Salari said: When a person views family members as something they control, or they don't see any boundaries between themselves, their spouse and their children.

"It's really not like they lose their minds," Salari said. "We looked very closely at our cases, trying to see if somebody had a psychotic break and, actually, it was almost so rare, it hardly showed up at all."

Forensic psychologist Mark Zelig said the motivation to kill can differ between men and women. He said women are usually depressed and suicidal, but soon realize they don't want to leave their children in the world alone.

"They are thinking of killing themselves and the next thought that dawns on them is that their children would have a rough time," Zelig said. "[They think,] 'Because I love my children, I will take them to heaven with me so I can take care of them.' "

But the motive for men, Zelig said, can be rooted in jealousy issues with their partner.

"They are afraid and oftentimes it's delusional," he said. "Oftentimes, there's no basis for it."

A job loss or other stresses can contribute to the decision to commit murder-suicide, Salari said, adding that the events are "never catastrophic enough to warrant" such a deadly reaction.

"To have [children] dead is never better than enduring some kind of hardship," she said. "That is the worst possible outcome we could have. ... What [the killer] perpetrated was the most severe form of domestic violence."

What can community do? • A murder-suicide has a resounding impact on the victims' family, but the shock also can ripple through the community.

"It's one of those situations where the perpetrator really has controlled the whole situation," Salari said. "There's no ability for the community to get justice for it. It's kind of like an open wound. It has devastating effects, especially where there are children involved. Other children [in the community] have to come to the realization that these children died inside their home where they are supposed to be the safest. And to realize a parent did this — a father, usually — is very devastating."

It's common for those who knew the victims to look back and wonder how they could have helped the family before it was too late. But Zelig said it's difficult to see warning signs.

"There is very little leakage of clues," he said. "It really is hard for friends and family to predict or to pick up on this. Survivors shouldn't judge themselves too harshly. It's a surprise to everyone."

Jenn Oxborrow, executive director for the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, said one of the most common telltales is that a partner is physically violent. But, isolation, financial control and emotional abuse often an be indicators of a much more serious problem.

"When an abusive partner also becomes suicidal," Oxborrow said, "that puts the rest of the family at risk as well."

Since 2000, 42 percent of homicides in Utah have been domestic violence-related, according to Utah Department of Health statistics. In addition to seven episodes of familicide in the past five years, 30 instances of murder-suicide with a single victim were recorded statewide.

Oxborrow said domestic-violence rates are higher in Utah compared with the rest of the nation — as are suicide rates. She attributes these higher numbers to easy access to firearms and limited funding and services available to those impacted by domestic violence.

But even with few resources, Oxborrow stressed that anyone who reaches out to the Utah Domestic Violence LINKLine at 1-800-897-LINK (5465) will be connected to the services they need.

"If you call the central number, we can get you hooked up throughout the state, no matter what," she said. "We can always find help. Even if you aren't leaving [the home.] If you aren't ready to leave, there's safety planning. We can help with that."

Oxborrow said the hotline is not just for those who are victims of domestic violence. Concerned friends and family can get advice on how to treat a situation and how to talk to loved ones. One recent caller, Oxborrow said, was a barista who was concerned about a regular customer.

"We can kind of coach people," she said. " ... A common thing is that people will say, 'Why don't you leave?' or 'Why do you stay?' We try to train people away from that. Start by believing and say, 'I understand this is a hard situation. What do you want and what can I do and here is a way to find resources.' "

New protocols may save lives • A new program aimed at helping law enforcement and social service providers — called the Lethality Assessment Protocol (LAP) — is also expected to be rolled out next month in several Utah areas.

Oxborrow said the program is rooted in an 11-question form that determines whether a person is in a high-risk domestic violence situation or at risk for homicide. It also allows a coordinated response between police officers who go to homes where domestic violence is reported, and those victim resources that can help.

"It gets us speaking the same language," she said. "We're all trained to identify people at the highest risk and prioritize [that person] for care."

Backed by legislative funding, two urban areas and two rural areas in Utah will pilot the program this year.

Woods Cross Police Chief Greg Butler said his department has been using the program since 2013 — and he believes it has likely prevented at least one murder-suicide.

Butler said that, in 2013, a couple with children were in the thick of divorce proceedings, and police got involved after the wife confided about potential child abuse to a church leader, who forwarded the information to officials.

"When we went over [the LAP questionnaire] with her, a lot of the questions flagged," Butler said. "She was in a higher danger, at risk for homicide in the relationship. The light kind of clicked on with her."

Butler said the woman then moved herself and her two children out of the home. After some time, the estranged husband tracked her down. He came by her new residence after purchasing a gun and ammunition, but she wasn't home. The incident eventually turned into a standoff with police, and the husband ended his own life.

Butler said police and the victim believe he had come to the home that day to kill her and possibly the children as part of "one final family meeting." Butler said police found evidence that the husband had stalked his wife and had researched online how to dispose of a body.

The chief is confident the LAP questionnaire made all the difference in her case.

"I don't think she ever would have made a safety plan," he said. "I think she would have stayed."

Tribune reporter Michael McFall contributed to this story. Twitter: @jm_miller —

Five family murder-suicides since 2014

June 21, 2015 • Police believe Russell Smith, 29, shot his wife, 26-year-old Shawna Smith, and two children — 6-year-old Taylee Smith and 2-year-old Blake Smith — inside their Roy home on Father's Day before turning the gun on himself. Police have not publicly revealed a motive for the crime.

June 7, 2015 • Johnathon Andrew Reeves, a 30-year-old Army veteran who was struggling to deal with the emotional remnants of a tour in Iraq, shot his 34-year-old fiancée, Jaime Salazar, and 2-year-old son, Jordan, before shooting himself. Police are investigating the case, and have not officially disclosed a motive.

Sept. 27, 2014 • Benjamin and Kristi Strack, along with three of their four children, were found dead in their Springville home. Investigators later determined that the 37-year-old father and 36-year-old mother committed suicide and fed their children — Benson, 14, Emery, 12 and Zion, 11 — a toxic mix of diphenhydramine and methadone. Friends told investigators that the couple were in fear of an apocalypse and that they desired to leave the evils of this world. ­

Jan. 16, 2014 • Lindon police officer Joshua Boren, 34, used his department-issued Glock 40-caliber semiautomatic pistol in the slayings of his 32-year-old wife, Kelly; the couple's two children, Joshua, 7, and Haley, 5; and Kelly Boren's mother, 55-year-old Marie King. Friends of Kelly Boren told investigators that she had been having an affair in the months before the shootings. Investigators also found text messages dated the day before the shooting in which the wife confronted Joshua Boren about drugging and sexually assaulting her.

Jan. 14, 2014 • Kyler Ramsdell-Oliva, 32, shot her two daughters, Kenadee Oliva, 13, and Isabella Oliva, 7, inside their Syracuse home before shooting herself. No motive was publicly revealed, though police records show Ramsdell-Oliva had broken off an engagement in the days before the killings and had tried to commit suicide in the past.