Every day, Roberta Wheatley-Roary wears a locket around her neck containing pictures of her sons, Julian Jr. and Ian, who were killed in July.
Their murderer was their father and Wheatley-Roary’s former husband, Julian Roary Sr.
Roary’s girlfriend, Shantal Brown-Winn, has candles imprinted with the images of the boys, whom she called her “bonus children.” She combed through sympathy cards recently, recalling the many people in the community who offered support following the horrific events of July 17.
That night, Roary shot his two sons before turning the gun on himself. Neither woman saw it coming.
Wheatley-Roary, whose divorce from Roary was never official, says her marriage was tumultuous. But he was “an excellent father,” she said.
“There were no red flags,” she said.
Brown-Winn knew Roary was struggling. The human resources professional was unemployed, and struggling to find work. A diabetic, he’d also struggled with health problems and had lost an eye to the disease.
Still, she was used to Roary being her support system.
The night of the murder-suicide, Wheatley-Roary said she got a text from Julian Sr., telling her he had fought the good fight and couldn’t fight anymore. Brown-Winn, who found him, got a note saying the same thing.
“This was not the man that I knew,” she said. “He was my soul mate.”
The Roary murder-suicide is one of at least six to occur in the Baltimore area this year. Just this week, a couple was found dead in Lutherville. The incident is being investigated as a murder-suicide, police said.
What prompts someone to turn a weapon on a loved one, and then kill him or herself?
Wheatley-Roary and Brown-Winn wonder.
The Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control, began studying murder-suicides in 2002. There’s no national database or tracking system to document murder-suicides, according to the VPC, which has released a series of studies called American Roulette: Murder-Suicide in the United States.
The 2012 version of the study found that 89 percent of murder-suicides involve a gun. Ninety percent of those who pulled the gun are male, and most involve an intimate partner.
During the six-month period studied by the VPC, there were 313 murder-suicides, but the total number of deaths was 691.
“More people died from murders associated with the suicide … than from the suicides themselves,” the study states. “A comprehensive nationwide database to track murder-suicide should be established or integrated into existing data collection mechanisms.”
The center released a new version of the study in October, which found that more than 1,200 Americans die in murder-suicides each year. Ninety-three percent of the killers used guns, according to the new data.
Josh Sugarmann, the center’s executive director, said the overall findings are about the same as in past years—most of the murders are men, most use guns, many are involved in domestic violence situations.
“The trends in many ways have been consistent each time we have done this study,” Sugarmann said. “They tend to occur in the home.”
That said, there is often little to no warning sign before a murder-suicide happens for people who are outside that home, and they usually shock the community, Sugarmann added.
“People should understand that domestic violence does have a significant role in murder-suicides, but it also has a significant role in gun violence as well,” said Sugarmann, who said he’d still like to see a national database cataloging these incidents.
Michaele Cohen, executive director of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, said the agency tracks murder-suicides through news reports, then researches whether victims sought help with domestic violence beforehand.
As a general rule, they hadn’t.
“People hide it, people don’t tell anyone,” Cohen said. “If we can get people help before it escalates to that point—that is the ideal.”
Ten years ago, MNADV created the Lethality Assessment Program to reduce domestic violence homicides. The program is a series of 11 questions designed to pinpoint who could be the victim of lethal domestic violence. Police officers throughout Maryland use it, and it’s also been offered to hospitals and the faith community, Cohen said.
MNADV has also trained people in 34 states on the program, which looks at factors such as weapons, threats, jealousy and unemployment.
“Maryland has been kind of the incubator for all of this,” Cohen said.
Picking up the pieces
Wheatley-Roary says she had told her ex shortly before the murder-suicide that she was planning to serve him with divorce papers.
She says she goes back and forth now in her mind now over whether that pushed him over the edge. But she’ll never know.
Months after the tragedy, talking about the boys is therapeutic for Wheatley-Roary. She smiles as she recalls how Julian loved math and art, and how Ian was a reggae music fan. Both students at Pine Grove Elementary , they played sports and were active in Boy Scouts.
Since the tragedy, Wheatley-Roary has become more active in her church and leans on her family for support. She has also been seeing a therapist monthly.
“They say to take things one day at a time,” she said. “And that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Brown-Winn, too, sees a grief counselor and surrounds herself with memories of Roary and the children, including family photos and Julian’s artwork.
She suspects Roary fell prey to side effects from the medication he was taking. She remembers how just before the murder-suicide, she got a text from him, which said he felt “inadequate” despite all of his accomplishments.
Still, she didn’t realize how serious he was.
“Never underestimate the pain that you’re leaving behind for other people,” Brown-Winn said. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t have done, rather than to see them not here.”