May 8, 2010

Medical issues at heart of November murder-suicide

Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Six months after a tragic murder-suicide involving an elderly couple, the Attorney General's office has officially concluded its investigation, citing medical reasons.
“The deaths of Judith Roberts and Claude Roberts were due to a murder-suicide which was likely motivated by Mr. and Mrs. Roberts' medical issues,” wrote Senior Assistant Attorney General Jefferey Strelzin in a final report, released yesterday detailing the Nov. 16, 2009 incident.
Claude Roberts, 76, and his wife Judith, 73, were found by Derry Police shortly after a 911 call was made from their Shilah Drive home. The investigation determined the caller was Claude Roberts, who requested police assistance and then hung up without identifying himself.
Police found Judith Roberts in her bed, still alive, with a gunshot wound to the head, and her husband already deceased, sitting in a chair next to her, still holding the .22-caliber revolver in his hand that he used to kill himself after attempting to kill his wife. Judith Roberts was taken to Parkland Medical Center where she died later that day.
Strelzin said through family members investigators learned that Claude Roberts, who had some medical issues, was scheduled for surgery the following day, and a plan had been made for the couple to stay with a daughter for four weeks while he recuperated. Judith Roberts suffered from a number of “significant medical conditions” including dementia.
Strelzin said no suicide note was written, but personal documents were left out indicating they were meant to provide guidance for the couple's three children.
While the case falls under the umbrella of domestic violence, Strelzin said it is not a typical case.
“We get these kinds of cases in New Hampshire, maybe once a year, a case in which one party kills the other motivated by medical concerns. For that reason, it's not typical domestic violence, but it's still classified as a crime,” Strelzin said.
The tragic nature of such crimes is one reason why State Rep. Chuck Weed, D-Keene, intends to reintroduce a bill that would legalize assisted suicide. His previous efforts were thwarted in January when HB 304, Death with Dignity Act, was defeated in the House by a vote of 242-113.
Weed said he was prompted to write the bill based on his own experience with his dying mother.
“I was with my mother in a California hospice and the nurse winked at all of us and my mom, who was still rational, and said if you want more morphine, you can turn it up. My mother chose to do it, and the whole experience was happy and valuable for all of us,” said Weed. “I have always thought I would want that choice, so I filed the legislation a few years ago.”
He believes the greatest resistance comes from within the religious community, or conservatives who would capitalize on the current “rhetoric of death panels and choosing who will die” as a scare tactic.
According to the language of the defeated bill, it would have “allowed a mentally competent person who is 18 years of age or older and who has been diagnosed as having a terminal condition by the patient’s attending physician and a consulting physician to request a prescription for medication which will enable the patient to control the time, place, and manner of such patient’s death.”
Weed said he believes the voters of New Hampshire would look differently at the bill if they were educated about concerns over the increasing problem of murder-suicide – particularly among the elderly – as a growing health concern.
“The sad part was the opponents of this bill said you can take care of things yourself by just going in your garage with a shot gun. Anyone who's witnessed that kind of violent death might think differently about it as a good option,” Weed said.
There should be options for those who, like the Roberts', may have felt trapped or desperate in a situation that could have been helped through a fairly new state program, said Kathleen Otte, Director of Elderly and Adult Services for the state of New Hampshire.
Otte is also a member of the state's Incapacitated Adult Fatality Review Committee, formed three years ago and headed by the state Attorney General's office, to review cases involving any death involving the elderly.
“We have reviewed two murder-suicides – one involved an elderly couple and one involved a middle-aged family caring for a developmentally-challenged child,” said Otte. “Our mission is to offer recommendations post-mortem, to see if there are things we can do to help people before a situation gets to the point of such desperate acts.'
Otte is a firm believer in outreach services. New Hampshire was one of the first states to receive in 22007 what is known as a “caregiver grant,” federal money that goes directly to aid the needs of a caregiver.
“Most often we're looking at a husband who becomes a primary caregiver who shoots his wife before he shoots himself, either because they don't know where to get the help they need or they don't want to share their burden with their children,” Otte said.
“Typically they have a strong bond and have lived many years together. The husband will carry out the murder-suicide, many times, without the murdered spouse knowing ahead of time – typically while they are sleeping. The husband seems to feel justified because they are going together. This shows us that people can hide depression they're feeling over their own health issues, or those of a loved one, to the point of no return. Inside they feel so overwhelmed they don't know where to go.”
Although the fatality review committee did not specifically investigate the Roberts' case, Otte said they fit the profile – they were married for decades, moving from Billerica, Mass., where they had raised their family, to New Hampshire in 2003. Claude Roberts was a Korean War veteran – a generation notorious for their stoic pride, Otte said.
“There is often a reluctance to talk to to children when life becomes had, particularly for men of that generation,” Otte said. “However, it might be easier to say to a physician or a pharmacist that life is getting tough, rather than to a neighbor or child, which is why we have recommended getting pamphlets out to pharmacies and grocery stores – letting people know that not only is there help out there, but how to connect.”
Otte said there are free resources available for individuals and families through 13 Service Link Care Centers located around the state.
For more information, go to, or call 866-634-9412.

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