- The Washington Times - Monday, August 27, 2001

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Richard and Blanche Zachry were high school sweethearts who married, raised a son and grew old together.

After more than half a century of marriage, they died together.

Mr. Zachry, a retired police officer, shot his ailing wife this summer as she sat in a wheelchair outside a nursing home. Then he shot himself.

They were buried on their 52nd wedding anniversary. He was 76. She was 75.

Florida is believed to be the nation's leader in murder-suicides, especially among older couples, and the numbers are on the rise. Overall, 38 cases have been recorded this year; 17 of them were carried out by men 55 years and older.

If the pace continues, the overall rate this year will climb 50 percent and the rate for older people will more than double.

The most common scenario in cases involving older people: a depressed elderly man with a sick, suffering wife.

"We're in the middle of an epidemic here," said Donna Cohen, a psychologist and professor at the University of South Florida's Department of Aging and Mental Health.

For more than a decade, Miss Cohen has studied this phenomenon that has become familiar in the American lexicon, using data provided by the state's medical examiners and, when possible, interviews with families.

Sometimes a murder-suicide doesn't go as planned, and the killer survives.

Miss Cohen interviewed Telford Miller, an 80-year-old retired postal inspector who had fatally shot his cancer-stricken wife, Martha, as she lay in her hospital bed in Lake Wales. He had put the vintage 1922 pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

He survived.

It was Dec. 29, 1999, and the Millers were just four days shy of their 54th wedding anniversary. Mr. Miller, though wounded, was charged with first-degree murder of his 82-year-old wife. Lawyer Jack Edmund, who defended Mr. Miller, remembers the first time he met his client in the jail infirmary.

"He was in a fetal position," Mr. Edmund said. "I thought, 'Oh, my God.'"

Mr. Edmund didn't think his client was competent to stand trial — even though the lawyer thought he would get an acquittal from any jury.

"He killed her out of love," Mr. Edmund said.

After physical, psychological and psychiatric treatment, Mr. Miller healed.

"He's totally lucid," Mr. Edmund said. "He's bright. I saw him go from that fetal position to back up standing tall."

Prosecutors offered to reduce the charge to second-degree murder and recommend that sentencing guidelines be waived. The deal was accepted and Mr. Miller, who now lives with his son in California, was sentenced this year to 10 years' probation.

"It's just time that people begin to realize that there is something to this murder-suicide thing," Mr. Edmund said.

Miss Cohen said before research was conducted on murder-suicide, it was believed that "these were very old people, both sick, and there was just nothing to go on for."

"And the response was that this was altruistic or just a giving up — and so what," she said.

Many murder-suicides involve an older man with a wife who is ill and suffering; he feels he has lost the ability to care for and protect her. Sometimes he is also ill. He decides death is a better option for both.

"In almost all of these cases, there's almost no documentation that the woman said 'Kill me,'" Miss Cohen said, although she added that sometimes a woman has expressed a desire to die.

The decision to take both lives is often made by the elderly man, who typically has struggled with depression or other psychological problems and has thought about his decision for a while, she said.

"It clearly is an aggressive act perpetrated out of depression and an inability to make things better," Miss Cohen said. "And it's the depression — the untreated depression — that really is the troubling part.

"Men are a formidable group of individuals who have a warrior mentality: 'I can beat that.' And that warrior mentality is an obstacle to helping them."

A survey of nearly 200 newspapers across the country leads Miss Cohen to believe Florida tops the nation in murder-suicides. The survey looked at 673 cases nationwide from 1997 through 1999. One quarter of the deaths were carried out by a person 55 or older and more than three-quarters involved a spouse or lover.

Florida had the most reported murder-suicide cases, with 163. California was second with 98, Texas had 36 and New York 35.


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