On a September Sunday in 1999 on Colgate Avenue in University Park, the 39-year-old accountant suddenly vaulted over the sofa in his den and wildly assaulted his wife of 13 years. The Richardsons' three young children gaped in horror as he slammed a lamp into her face, twisted the cord deep into her neck and nearly severed Mary Richardson's head with a pair of scissors.
The second erupted about 20 months later. Forty-five-year-old John David Battaglia had a notoriously short fuse. In the spring of 2001, his ex-wife, Mary Jean Pearle of Highland Park, complained to police that Battaglia was harassing her by telephone. Pearle said she feared Battaglia, who had repeatedly assaulted her in the past, and she wanted him jailed for violating his probation.
There seemed less to fear from Battaglia when it came to the couple's two young daughters, 9-year-old Mary Faith and Liberty, who was 6. Battaglia had never harmed or threatened the girls. In fact, he doted on them--even had their names tattooed on his right arm.
At approximately 5:30 p.m. on May 2, Mary Jean Pearle drove Mary Faith and Liberty to Highland Park Village to meet their father for a regularly scheduled dinner date. About two hours later, Pearle received a message from her mother that her former husband urgently needed to reach her. She telephoned his downtown loft, where Battaglia put Mary Faith on the line.
"Why are you trying to put Daddy in jail?" the little girl asked. Then Pearle heard Mary Faith cry, "No, Daddy, don't do it. No, Daddy, no!" followed by multiple gunshots. Officers responding to Mary Jean Pearle's 911 call found both girls shot dead on the floor of Battaglia's apartment.
The third deadly dad was a 43-year-old unemployed electrical engineer named Steven Cummings Loss. Early on the evening of October 3, 2001, Loss arrived as expected at his ex-wife Bonnie's Mockingbird Lane residence. But instead of picking up his sons, Craig, 14, and 7-year-old Evan, for dinner, Loss opened fire on his family with a silver 9 mm Colt pistol. He killed Bonnie and Evan in the doorway where they stood. Then he shot twice at the fleeing Craig--who suffered bullet wounds to his back and shoulder, but will recover--before killing himself.
Park Cities residents are no strangers to spectacular murders. In 1992, for example, the philandering Richard Lyon was sentenced to life in prison for the ant-poison slaying of his heiress wife, Nancy Dillard Lyon. The following year, someone perforated former Dallas Cowboy Colin Ridgway in his University Park duplex.
But never in memory have the Park Cities been jolted by such unspeakable, and apparently similar, family homicides as the three most recent killings, all of which occurred in a 25-month cluster. The search for a common factor, or flashpoint, in the three cases yielded little of promise. All three fathers were mature, middle-class professionals. None was delusional. None had a psychiatric history. Even the darker similarities they shared--failed or failing marriages, recent money stresses--surely didn't explain these volcanic episodes.
In fact, on closer analysis it is the critical contrasts among the three dads, and their situations, that emerge. With the help of a forensic psychologist who is intimately familiar with such cases, it is possible to see how Tim Richardson differed dramatically from John Battaglia, and both of them from Steven Loss--even if their bloody outbursts perhaps were not so coincidental.
Tim Richardson was by all accounts a sober-sided family man. He had no history of violence, drug or alcohol abuse, gambling or adulterous liaisons. Friends described him as quiet. Former college classmates told The Dallas Morning News that Richardson seemed unduly status-conscious, but that he also read the Bible daily, rarely got into arguments, drank very little "and was inordinately remorseful when he did."
His 1986 marriage to the former Mary Williams produced three children: 8-year-old Mary Beth, plus Patrick and John Robert, ages 6 and 5. All lived together in apparent harmony on Colgate Avenue.
Yet there was trouble in the marriage. Tim reportedly earned about $60,000 a year, small apples for the Park Cities. Mary, by contrast, came from money. Tim would testify at trial that the Williams family pointedly excluded him from their periodic finance roundtables. Dr. Elissa Benedict, a child psychologist who interviewed the Richardson kids, told the court their father envied their mother's wealth. "Jealousy with regard to money was a portion of the reason why this [murder] occurred," Benedict testified.
Tim Richardson also complained that Mary spent too much time outside the house--particularly at Junior League--that she drank too much and left him alone with the kids too often. According to his testimony, when he suggested marriage counseling, Mary refused.
Mary Richardson's only public statement on the state of her marriage came in the form of a divorce suit she filed on September 8, 1999. The Sunday of her murder was her husband's appointed day to vacate the house on Colgate.
The psychiatric term for sudden, explosive murder in the absence of any violent history is catathymic ("in accordance with emotion") homicide. Forensic psychologist J. Reid Meloy, who writes at length about catathymic killings in his book Violent Attachments, says these crimes "usually are preceded by much dark rumination. Often, [these killers] have a personality disorder, such as narcissism, with quite fragile self-esteem. They easily suffer humiliation, which tends to be quickly converted into fury."
Meloy continues: "They are never conscious of being angry. Then one day the defenses collapse and there is this upsurge of rage. Afterward, they report a curious relief. Often these guys look very normal the next day. It seems almost impossible that they did it.
"Typically, the head of the victim is attacked. A lot of the time there's overkill, such as multiple stab wounds. He'll use a couple of weapons, too." In one recent case of catathymic rage, says Meloy, the husband used a paint can, a clothes iron and a rock to dispatch his wife.
At trial in May 2000, after Richardson entered a surprise guilty plea, his attorneys tried and failed to convince his jury that Mary's murder was a crime of "sudden passion" (and therefore a second-degree felony punishable by no more than 20 years in prison). One obstacle was their client's detached courtroom demeanor. "One day when we were filing out," says jury foreman Tim Nunnery, "I stopped and stared at him on the witness stand. He had dark, dark black eyes. No expression, no nothing. I thought to myself, 'You're a cold-blooded son of a bitch. You have no feelings about anything whatsoever.'"
Richardson received a 60-year sentence and could receive significantly more time if convicted of charges that he later tried to have his in-laws murdered.
He told the jury that he walked home alone from church that morning to discover two articles of furniture that belonged to his recently deceased mother resting on the front porch. What happened next is open to dispute. Richardson recollected to the court that he was sitting with Mary Beth at the family piano when his wife abruptly kicked over his mother's table and snarled, "Get your goddamn mother's shit out of the house. You're supposed to be leaving."
Such epithets apparently were not Mary's style, especially in front of the kids. But what she said may not have been the point. "Turning the table over was like watching her push my mother down the stairs," her husband told the court. "I grabbed her. I don't remember what obviously happened."
Paramedic Jason Salisbury testified that when he entered the family den a few minutes later he discovered a silent, impassive Tim Richardson "dripping with blood" as he leaned over his wife's mutilated body. Corporal Curtis Ellenburg of the University Park police told jurors that the suspect showed no emotion at his arrest and appeared to fall asleep on a cot after he was booked.
There is no evidence whether John Battaglia or Steven Loss took any notice of the Richardson case, which received intense media attention. Yet psychologists recognize that well-publicized violent events--teen suicides are a good example--tend to occur in close time proximity. Meloy and a colleague have researched this so-called "contagion effect" and call the first in such series of killers the "initiator."
"He tends to be much more spontaneous than the later ones," Meloy explains. "It's interesting that of your three cases the one who was most affective, spontaneous and emotional was Mr. Richardson, and his crime came first. The other two show much more planning."
John Battaglia, who faces capital murder charges at trial in April, differs from Tim Richardson in fundamental ways. Friends and business associates describe him as affable and friendly, yet he has a rap sheet stretching back to the 1980s for assaults and at least one gun possession charge. In 1988 Battaglia attacked his first wife, Michelle LaBorde, knocking her unconscious as he broke her nose and fractured her jaw. At the time of the murders, he was on probation for slapping Mary Jean Pearle on Christmas Day 1999.
Shortly after his arrest, Battaglia told News reporter Steve McGonigle that his divorce from Pearle, which became final in August 2000, sent him into a financial and emotional funk, and that he'd begun drinking heavily because of the stress. Battaglia declined comment on the shootings themselves, except to say that afterward, "I was really out of it."
What he evidently did share with Richardson (besides being an accountant) was a monstrous rage. But unlike Richardson, instead of instantly annihilating his ex-wife, Battaglia allegedly chose to destroy those she loved best. "No doubt he was getting back at Pearle big-time," Meloy says. "His anger is much more controlled than Richardson's. My hunch is he got rolling on the plan when his daughter said, 'You're going to jail.'"
Consistent with this theory of Battaglia's motivation are the multiple gunshots, which could only amplify Pearle's horror as she listened to her daughters' murders over the telephone. Mary Faith was shot three times: once in the right side of her lower back, once in her upper right shoulder and once with the gun muzzle held directly to the back of her head. Liberty was shot five times: once in the back, once in her left arm, once in her left side, once to her scalp and once, like her sister, directly to the back of her head.
Police found 15 guns in Battaglia's apartment, one with human hair stuck to its muzzle. They also found a human tooth. According to Liberty's autopsy, her upper right central incisor recently had been pulled. Only a bloody socket remained, and the teeth on either side were loose. Assistant District Attorney Howard Blackmon, who will prosecute Battaglia, declined to say whether the tooth recovered from the loft was Liberty's.
"That would be a first for me," Meloy says. "I've never heard of a father killing his biological daughter and then taking some sort of memento."
Battaglia memorialized the event in one other way. After the killings, he drove to East Dallas and went to a tattoo parlor where he had two roses, one for each dead child, tattooed on his left arm.
There was never any serious acrimony between Steven and Bonnie Loss.
After the breakup of their 13-year marriage in 1997, Bonnie married businessman Gerard Murphy and moved from Plano to Mockingbird Lane with sons Craig and Evan. But she always wanted Steven involved with the boys' upbringing. "According to her closest friends," says Highland Park police Detective Randy Millican, who investigated the murders, "Bonnie didn't speak disparagingly of him. She wanted him to spend more time with the boys. She wanted him to be part of their lives."
And so he was. Even as Loss began to seriously unravel in the spring of 2001, he kept in close touch with Craig and Evan. It was for the announced purpose of being near them that he moved back to Dallas from St. Louis just a week before the murders.
Steven Loss had no history of violence or substance abuse, nor had he ever sought counseling, Millican says. He was quiet, people told the detective, especially in contrast to the effervescent and outgoing Bonnie Loss-Murphy.
His plunge toward murder and suicide may have begun as early as 1999 when Loss was laid off at Alcatel, the telephone equipment maker. Loss never did go back to work, telling people that he was living off his severance and day-trading stocks to support himself. For a while, he fell behind in his support payments for the boys, but soon caught up and paid "like clockwork," according to Gerard Murphy.
In early 2000, Loss went home to his native St. Louis and moved in with his widowed mother, living in the same room he had as a boy. After a while he took up bridge.
Then in the spring of 2001 Steven Loss' decline began to accelerate. "His family said he began to be withdrawn," remembers Detective Millican. "Even Craig said you could talk to him and he wouldn't listen. You had to repeat your conversation with him. He appeared preoccupied."
"I would bet money this guy was severely depressed," Reid Meloy says, "probably in what's been called the dismal tunnel. A lot of times middle-aged males whose lives have fallen apart go back to live with their mothers. It's probably a powerfully regressive move."
In late April 2001, Steven Loss came to a conclusion. In a dated note his family would find in his computer shortly after the killings in Dallas, Loss wrote, "I am going to assume that the four of us have gone to a better place...If you decide on having one funeral for the four of us, that would be fine. I think that being buried with the boys would be my first choice, and if this should include Bonnie, that would be all right with me."
"There's always a grandiosity in these cases," Meloy says, "and it can arise out of the narcissism of depression. People who are depressed can become very, very self-absorbed. You can get so self-focused that you can begin to think, 'I don't want my sons to have a life like this. I've gotta save my sons. I'm miserable, and they're going to be miserable, too.' In a very implicit way, he feels entitled to take other people's lives."
Although the Loss family and acquaintances told Millican that Steven feared and detested firearms, even BB guns, he acquired the Colt pistol. When police later searched his car, they found a duffel containing two boxes of ammunition, a gun-cleaning kit and ear protectors. One box of ammo was of ordinary quality, the sort used for practice. The second box contained better stuff--"duty ammo" in police jargon. Unlike Tim Richardson, Steven Loss prepared long and carefully.
Loss departed from routine on his self-appointed date with destiny. Instead of pulling into Bonnie's driveway as usual, he parked on a side street. Instead of approaching the front door as always, he put on headphones, tuned them to a music station, pumped up the volume and walked a block or so before ringing the doorbell.
"Come here," he said to the unsuspecting Loss-Murphy at the door, then grabbed his ex-wife and killed her with a single shot to the head. Loss next administered several shots to Evan's head--another instance of overkill. After Craig's narrow escape, his dad pointed the silver Colt against his own head and pulled the trigger. It was Steven Loss' last bullet.
Experience teaches that probably there's someone out there on the same slippery slope as Loss. In their widely varying ways, these three cases point up another sobering truth: There's no reliable way to detect and defuse the next ticking time bomb.
In Tim Richardson's instance, for example, no single factor ordained that he would go berserk where, when and how he did, or that he necessarily would ever commit the crime he did. "The problem with such a case is you don't know when all the problems will come together, and the person explodes," observes Reid Meloy.
John Battaglia had a clearer problem with impulse control, and Mary Jean Pearle had reasonable cause to wish him behind bars. Yet Pearle also knew that she, not the girls, was the object of her ex-husband's fury.
Steven Loss was the stealthiest of all. He'd marked his family for extinction almost six months before he carried out his attack, and still no one intuited the tragedy about to unfold.
In the end, Meloy says, the unsatisfactory conclusion is to be vigilant, unafraid to ask questions and aware there is much that is hidden away even among those we know and love best.