I became gravely concerned for the safety of Amy and their adolescent children, Monica and Coty in hearing about this hostage situation. Although I didn’t know the Lake family I had heard of their family troubles. This was the second time in less than a year that Steve had reportedly held his family hostage.
In June 2010 Amy called the police to report that Steve had held her and the children at gunpoint and had threatened to kill her, the children, and himself. Amy filed a police report and Steve was arrested and charged with criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon and domestic violence criminal threatening. He was released from jail at that time after paying a $2,000 bail. Under his bail conditions he could not have any contact with Amy. Shortly thereafter Amy filed for divorce and obtained a protection from abuse order against Steve.
In November 2010 Steve violated the protection order and his bail conditions by entering a local store that she was in as well as driving past her home. Other than losing his rights to see his children there was no mention in the newspaper accounts as to what, if any, other punishment Steve received for these violations.
I watched for more news on the current hostage situation. It was reported that a local police officer went to the home to do a well being check on Amy and the children early the morning of June 13, 2011 because someone had reported seeing Steve’s vehicle parked in Amy’s yard. The officer was outside the home when he heard shots fired from inside the home. He immediately called for backup. Within a short time there were fifty police cruisers and an armored tactical vehicle on the scene. The police saw movement in the home after the shots were fired so they attempted to contact Steve by loudspeaker for two hours imploring him to talk to them. He never responded.
Around 2pm the police used a battering ram to force an entry into the home. When they broke down the door they found the bodies of Amy, Monica, Coty and Steve Lake. The police investigator determined that each had died from gunshot wounds in a murder suicide situation; Steve had killed his wife and children and then turned the gun on himself. There was diesel fuel poured throughout the house and it is believed that Steve had planned to burn the house down. He had two guns, extra ammunition and a knife in his possession.
I am deeply saddened and angered by this senseless incomprehensible tragedy brought about by a cowardly, selfish man. I cannot possibly fathom the depth of pain and sorrow the victim’s families are experiencing at this time. My deepest sympathies, condolences, and prayers go out to them.
More Questions than Answers
The major newspapers here in Maine have covered the story all week. Hundreds of people have had discussions and left comments under the online editions of each article. Commenter’s questioned if there could have been any way to prevent this tragedy. Where did he get the guns? Were there red flags/warnings signs that something like this might happen? Given the gravity of the first domestic violence incident and the subsequent violations, why wasn’t Steve’s bail revoked so that he would be sitting in jail awaiting trial instead of having been free to commit this heinous act?
Medical studies estimate that between 1,000 and 1,500 deaths each year in the US are murder suicides according to the Violence Policy Center. Studies show that the highest percentage of murderers in murder suicides are male and the most frequent weapon used is a firearm.
We have been fine tuning our response to domestic violence for decades now and without a doubt the policies, protective measures and laws we have in place have saved many lives, however, there is always room for improvement. Without a crystal ball it’s hard to know what type of person will murder their family members and commit suicide but at times there a clues. The more details we have about certain types of crimes the more we can work to prevent them.
There is a common profile of men who commit familicide. Katherine Ramsland writes that, “Most men who kill their wives and children are white males in their 30’s or 40’s who react badly to stress and who view their families as extension of themselves….They are often depressed or intoxicated and are usually described as controlling and quite dependent on their families being what they envision, and believing they are the only ones that can fulfill the family’s needs.” They kill their families for a variety of reasons including but not limited to; loss of control over family circumstances; revenge against an estranged wife, or teaching her a lesson, and grief over losing the family in a divorce.
Perhaps there were clues that Steve Lake had a horrible plan, however, people close to him would not necessarily know what to look out for. The people involved in domestic violence prevention and intervention, child protection and the court system would be most aware of the warning signs.
Here are some of the warning signs that an abuser might become extremely dangerous/life threatening (excerpted from the Family Refuse Center website):
- · THREATS OF HOMICIDE OR SUICIDE - The batterer who has threatened to kill himself, his partner, the children or her relatives must be considered extremely dangerous.
- FANTASIES OF HOMICIDE OR SUICIDE - The more the batterer has developed a fantasy about who, how, when, and/or where to kill, the more dangerous he may be. The batterer who has previously acted out part of a homicide or suicide fantasy may be invested in killing as a viable "solution" to his problems. As in suicide assessment, the more detailed the plan and the more available the method, the greater the risk.
- · WEAPONS - Be aware of a batterer who possess weapons and has used/ threatened to use them during past violent episodes. [A batterer's having] access to weapons increases his potential for assault....If arson is threatened, fire should also be considered a weapon.
- · "OWNERSHIP" OF THE BATTERED PARTNER - The batterer who say "death before divorce!" or "if I can't have you nobody can" may be stating his fundamental belief that the woman has no right to life separate from him. A batterer who believes he is absolutely entitled to his female partner, her services, her obedience and her loyalty no matter what, is likely to be life-endangering.
- · CENTRALITY OF THE PARTNER - A man who idolizes his female partner or who depends heavily on her to organize and sustain his life, or who has isolated himself from all other community, may retaliate against a partner who decides to end the relationship. He rationalizes that her "betrayal" justifies his lethal actions.
- · SEPARATION VIOLENCE - When a batterer believes that he is about to lose his partner if he can't envision life without her or if the separation causes him great despair or rage, he may choose to kill.
- · DEPRESSION - When a batterer has been acutely depressed and sees little hope for moving beyond the depression, he may be a candidate for homicide and/or suicide. Research show that many men who are hospitalized for depression have homicidal fantasies directed at family members.
- · REPEATED OUTREACH TO LAW ENFORCEMENT - Partner or spousal homicide almost always occurs in a context of historical violence. Prior calls to the police indicate elevated risk of life-threatening conduct. The more calls, the greater the potential danger.
- · ESCALATION OF BATTERER RISK TAKING - A less obvious indicator of increasing danger may be the sharp escalation of personal risk undertaken by a batterer. When a batterer begins to act without regard to the legal or social consequences that previously constrained his violence, chances of lethal assault increase significantly.
- · HOSTAGE TAKING - A hostage-taker is at high risk of inflicting homicide. Between 75% and 90% of ALL hostages in the U.S. are related to domestic violence situations.
More Details Emerge
According to what Steve Lake’s father George, his sister Tylene Fowler and girlfriend Veronica Fortier told the Bangor Daily News (printed June 15th) Steve was broken down and he had lost hope. Veronica reported that she thought he was going to commit suicide. George said that Steve cried day after day and kept saying he couldn’t live without his children. None of them had noticed anything unusual about Steve the night before the crime but they said reflecting back they do believe there were clues that he had a horrible plan.
Steve’s uncle, Mylon Lake, told the newspapers that Steve was angry over the child custody dispute. He recently lost the right to see his children and he was particularly upset that he couldn’t attend his son’s graduation ceremony. Mylon is quoted as saying, “You push buttons enough and everything’s going to come to a head.” In a brief blurb on TNews247 about the murder suicide they write, “…many felt that he was a ticking time bomb.”
In an interview for WLBZ last week Veronica Fortier mentions how Steven was funny, he loved his dogs, his children and family life and how difficult it was for him to only see his children three times over the last year. She said that if they were driving down the road going out to get steaks for dinner or something, one minute he would be talking and laughing and then he would see the car go by with his kids in it and he would stop, pull over to collect his thoughts and emotions.
David Vautier who is next door neighbor to Amy’s parents, Ralph and Linda Bagley, told the Bangor Daily News that, “Everyone knew that Steve was going to flip out…Everyone knew something bad was going to happen.”
In a Portland Press Herald (PPH) story they report that court records show Amy told the District Attorney’s office that along with holding the family at gunpoint in a bedroom and threatening to kill her, the children and himself in June 2010, Steve had also threatened to take a knife to her and do things “you wouldn’t want done to farm animals.” She also told them that he had made threats before. When the police asked Amy if he owned a gun she told them yes but that it wasn’t in his possession at present. She also mentioned to them that
In November 2010 Steve violated the protection order and his bail conditions by entering a local store Amy was in (her car was parked quite visibly outside the store) and driving by her home. It is alleged that his purpose was to talk to Amy about retrieving some possessions left in the home. Consequently Steve’s mother relayed a message to Amy that he wanted his meat grinder, the gun, the safe and weight bench from their Wellington home.
Steve was charged with violating the protection order and his bail conditions after these incidents. The charges were to be combined with the original charges filed against him for the June 2010 incident and his criminal trial was set for February 2011. His criminal trial was continued twice so the date for the hearing changed to July 5, 2011.
The Maine Bail Manual (Revised 12/10) states that violating bail conditions for the felony of this nature is a Class C crime punishable by not more than 5 years jail time and a fine of $5,000. The manual also states that the prosecution or the court can revoke bail and order the defendant to be jailed pending trial.
The PPH reported that records show Steve had gone to 18 of 21 anger management classes. It’s not clear if anger management was part of Steve’s bail conditions or if he went on his own. A judge can require a person who is charged with a domestic violence crime to attend a batterer’s intervention program as part of their bail conditions. As discussed in my previous blog domestic violence advocates frown upon abusers attending anger management in lieu of batterer’s intervention programs because they feel that anger management is too soft on abusers and that it sends the wrong message to them about the reasons they use intimate partner violence. Steve seemed to be just the type of abuser that BIP’s were developed for; however, I am hard pressed to see how attending a batterer’s intervention program would have made any difference or anything better in this situation.
According to Steve’s facebook page a Guardian ad Litem was involved in the divorce and custody matter at least since last fall. Guardians ad litem are evaluators who interview the children, parents, extended family and others to determine visitation and/or who should have custody of the children in a divorce. Most Guardians ad litem are educated on domestic violence issues.
Amy had been with Steve for at least 16 years so she had a good idea the type of man he was. It was mentioned in one of the news reports that Amy wanted Steve to stay on his medications and continue counseling. Amy was so fearful of Steve that she asked the local police patrol her home. Sources have reported to me that Steve made death threats against a list of people including anyone that was taking Amy’s side in the divorce and that he also told a judge at one of his court hearings, “If I can’t have her no one will.”
Steve and Coty’s facebook pages were open to public view. It’s very likely that Steve read everything that went up on his son’s page. I reviewed both of their facebook pages and below are some of the status line notes and other messages taken from the pages that seem relevant to the separation and visitation situation.
Most of Coty’s status messages were about typical adolescent stuff, games he played, links to quotes and pages he “liked”, daily notes about being tired, hating “skewl” and loving snow days. However, back on June 15, 2010 Coty wrote, “my life frigen (sic) sucks.” In July one of his status line read, “bored…miss dad.” Gail, Steve’s mother and Coty’s grandmother, wrote to let him Coty know that she and gampa missed him and his sister and wanted to have him come visit. In September Gail wrote to him about a visit they had with him and that she hoped that he could come back very soon to visit again. She asked if he might come over next weekend. Coty replied that he might have plans and Gail replied that’s she didn’t know if his mom would let him.
Coty wrote about the problems the adults around him were having. In September 2010 his status read, “what makes him think I will want to move back when he’s got a g/f [girlfriend]…well I can tell you what it’s me or her” to which his grandmother Gail replied, “someone is lying to you he doesn’t have a g/f” and Coty replied, “read his profile mammy.” Then someone else wrote, “Coty the truth will come out …stay strong…you’re old enough to decide where and with whom you would like to live…listen to your heart.” Amy addressed this topic by replying that she would never lie to him and that she wanted to protect him and not let him read what was posted but felt he needed to read it for himself and not hear it from someone else. She continued saying that she was forewarning him to the fact that he was going to read something on his dad’s fb page that was going to upset him….She further explained to him that everyone deserves to be happy and that his dad still and always will love him… and then a relative of Amy’s that I will call Aunt C. wrote under Amy’s response that his mom did the right thing in forewarning him, she would not lie to him and that she (Aunt C.) heard that his dad had an ad for a g/f on eharmony.com.
In October 2010 Coty wrote that either he is an amazing actress or no one sees that he is ripping apart inside and it’s getting harder to deal with. The next day he wrote that he guessed it was time to put on a happy face and pretend everything is fine and dandy. Another status line read, “only if I could say it but I can’t cause bad stuff would happen I wanna so bad!!” Coty was asked if he got the jacket he wanted…did Dad give him the money. Coty replied, no wouldn’t give him money he’s going on vacation.
In November 2010 Coty wrote, “ugh screwed up day yesterday because of some liar but I still love my gampa…,” “what anyone heard is a big lie my gampa is loving and some people have to be big jerks,” to which Amy responded, “my children know the truth and that was verified yesterday…I am proud of them both.” On another day Coty wrote, “dad had the nerve to say that mom trashed the place…we went back and most of the wood was takin (sic) and my mom’s $100 worth of oil and smashed my fan in my room so only 1 blade was left and basically took everything worth over $10…stove, fridge everything” To which his mother responded that it was $269 worth of oil 100 gallon’s and not $100 and then went on to explain how she had arranged to have the oil transferred to the new apartment in Dexter so she and Coty went to shovel a path to the fill pipe…when she got there the oil tank was drained.
In December 2010 Coty wrote, “don’t u hate it when u have a animal then you get split up and the person that has it has a gf then her kids think of it as theirs cause I do and THEY will pay.” Another day he wrote how this time last year …he was home with mom, dad, Monica and they decided to take the 4 wheelers out…fun good times…miss them.
In January and March 2011 Coty put a quote up in his status line that read, “If your Dad is hardworking and your hero, just the best Dad ever paste this to your status let everyone know how proud you are of your Dad. You can replace a lot of people in your life but you only have one Dad.” Another time in Mach he wrote that he was angry about not getting his four wheeler and said it was because his dad wouldn’t give it to him.
In his status lines August 2010 Steve wrote that he went to anger management. In September 2010 he wrote that things started turning bad, no visits with the kids since June…his missed the kids and can’t wait to see them. He frequently mentioned missing the kids in his daily status lines. His spoke about not being able to see his son on his birthday and having a party for him some day and maybe they could go to Disney World. He wrote that hoped he would have the kids soon to take them clothes shopping. He wrote too bad it has to be this way. He mentioned that things were taking too long and that he might need to hire a new lawyer. He wrote of his hope that the guardian ad litem on the case would help resolve the visitation/child custody issues soon. His mother, Gail, wrote on his page that she wasn’t being allowed to see the children either.
In November 2010 he wrote briefly about what appeared to be an incident between his father and Amy’s father. He wrote “child molester” and “nice around my kids” in reference to that incident. He wrote that he had finally hit a point, he was crying from missing the kids and that he realized how much pain he’s in by not being able to even see them. That same day he wrote that he should have done a lot different but that he does believe in carma (sic).
In his most recent postings Steve talked about God. Steve’s facebook page was shut down to the public the Tuesday or Wednesday after the murder suicide.
There were glaring signs that this situation could turn deadly. Steve exhibited many of the warning signs posted above. He had made threats previously to kill Amy, the children and himself, he had talked about killing others, he owned weapons and he allegedly told a judge, “If I can’t have her no one can.” His family mentions that he was extremely despondent, crying and obsessing about not being able to see his children, he obviously knew where they lived, he had access to some or all of their facebook pages, he had been arrested for violent threats to kill before, he violated the protection order and his bail conditions, and he had previously taken the family hostage.
Amy did all the right things to protect her and the children; she reported Steve’s actions, got a protection order and told others about her fears and concerns and went as far as asking the police to patrol her home on a regular basis. She evidently had an idea of what he was capable of and reported what she knew to the authorities.
So what went wrong? DA R. Christopher Almy stated to the PPH that people want to find someone else to blame for this tragedy but ultimately the blame should fall squarely on the man that pulled the trigger. I agree in principal, however, there were people who work in the legal system involved with this family who were undoubtedly trained to assess lethality in domestic violence situations and were paid to protect domestic violence victims. Two of them had the power to revoke Steve’s bail and place him in jail pending his criminal trial. Had Steve been jailed pending trial would Amy and the children still be safe and alive today?