Off Highway 78, outside of Hammett, a dirt road follows the slow, dark water of the Snake River and then climbs to the top of a bluff. The vista to the south is clear all the way to the Owyhee Mountains. Below the bluff to the north, the river rolls through the Hammett Valley.
It was on this bluff that Desiree Vistercil parked her 2005 Ford Focus sometime Nov. 28 or early Nov. 29. In her car was her 16-month-old daughter, Mia, a white five-gallon bucket, several jugs of water and a gun.
Owyhee County Sheriff’s Office investigators have outlined what happened next. But only Vistercil knows why she poured three gallons of the water into the bucket, immersed her daughter in it and drowned her. When she was finished, Vistercil shot herself in the head.
Murder, suicide and child-killing: Any one of them is tragic. The combination of all three leaves society stunned. We all move forward on the promise that parents will raise and nurture their children to adulthood; our reaction to these deaths is one of absolute incomprehension.
The familial tragedy leaves nothing but anguish and the inevitable question: Why?
How does a parent turn homicidal?
The clinical name for when parents kill children and then kill themselves is filicide-suicide. The phenomenon is rare, though statistics are hard to find.
No state agency tracks occurrences of filicide-suicide. The Idaho State Police track homicides, but not suicides. The Idaho Bureau of Vital Statistics tracks homicides and suicides separately, but not murder-suicides.
Based on news reports, Idaho had at least seven cases of filicide-suicide from 1992 through 2015.
Owyhee County Sheriff Perry Grant confirmed this week the Vistercil case is a murder-suicide, not a double homicide. He said he will release more details when the investigation concludes, likely next week.
Two other 2016 incidents are being examined for any chance of foul play:
▪ On June 2, Noel Bankhead, 40, of Boise, and her three children, Anika Voermans, 13, Logan Voermans, 11, and Gwyneth Voermans, 8, all drowned after Bankhead’s Land Rover plunged into Lucky Peak Reservoir near High Bridge on Idaho 21. Investigators say the vehicle accelerated off a cliff and there were no signs of braking, nor of any sort of medical emergency. The Ada County Sheriff’s Office is still determining if the SUV had any mechanical problems.
▪ On Nov. 2, Misty Phelps, 25, of Coeur d’Alene, and her two children, Riley Phelps, 2, and Tristan Phelps, 1, were found dead in her submerged vehicle in Fernan Lake, between two docks at a boat launch. The Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office is still waiting for final autopsy results.
Bankhead had divorced her children’s father two years before. Phelps was in the middle of a divorce, news reports say.
Phillip Resnik, a psychiatry professor at Case Western University and an expert on filicide, identified five motives for filicide-suicide.
Altruistic filicide is murder committed out of love to relieve the real or imagined suffering of a child. Acutely psychotic filicide involves a parent in a state of psychosis who kills for no comprehensible reason.
In unwanted child filicide, the parent believes the child is a hindrance. Fatal maltreatment filicide occurs as a result of child abuse, neglect or Munchausen syndrome by proxy (causing or making up injury or illness in the child). And spouse revenge filicide is as it sounds: A child is killed in a specific attempt to make the spouse suffer.
A 2005 study conducted by Resnick and other experts of 30 cases of filicide-suicide published in the Journal of the America Academy of Psychiatry and the Law found that 80 percent of the parents had psychiatric symptoms before committing filicide and 40 percent had recently seen a physician or psychiatrist.
The study, comprising 30 parents (20 fathers, 10 mothers) responsible for the deaths of 51 children, also found that in 70 percent of the cases the motive was altruistic. For example, a mother who is suicidal may believe she can’t leave her child motherless in a cruel world.
The study’s experts hypothesized that parents who had fatally abused a child, had an unwanted child or sought revenge on a spouse would be less likely to kill themselves after killing their children, making those the least likely motives for filicide-suicide.
Kim Kane, director of Idaho’s new suicide prevention team in the Department of Health and Welfare, said there is little good information on murder-suicide. Kane said a 2014 book, “Perversion of Virtue: Understanding Murder-Suicide” by Thomas Joiner, provides a new perspective.
“People who perpetrate a true murder-suicide are suicidal first,” said Kane. “And then through the perversion of some virtue, they believe they need to take others with them.
“... In cases of murder-suicide involving one’s children, oftentimes it is a perverted sense of mercy, an irrational sense of mercy. It is important to understand that someone in this state of mind is not in a rational state of mind. This truly is the perversion of something we normally consider a virtue.”
Another possibility: Postpartum psychosis
This isn’t the general postpartum depression experienced by more than 1 million new mothers annually. It’s another step beyond, said Trista Kovach, an Eagle counselor who specializes in postpartum depression.
“One of the biggest reasons for suicide and infanticide is a postpartum psychotic episode,” she said.
But actual cases of it are uncommon. According to Postpartum Support International, U.S. mothers experience postpartum psychosis in 1 to 2 of every 1,000 births. Of that fraction, about 5 percent of mothers kill themselves, and about 4 percent kill their infants, Kovach said.
“There are many mothers who suffer from postpartum psychosis who do not have the delusions of violence of suicide or infanticide,” Kovach said. “Not all mothers suffering from psychosis are going to result in a violent act. It still needs to be treated. It is still considered an emergency. It is very treatable, so we really want those moms getting to emergency resources.”
Contrast that with general postpartum depression or anxiety, which at least 15 to 20 percent of new mothers experience to some degree. That’s based on reported cases and experts believe it’s actually higher, as first-time mothers may think how they’re feeling is a “new normal” and they do not report it.
“They think this how it is supposed to be and how it will always be,” Kovach said.
Or, she said, moms believe the negative thoughts mean they are not good mothers.
“We are really trying to help moms see that it is OK to talk about it, no matter how bad they might think it is,” Kovach said. “They are not bad mothers.”
‘Follow-up saves lives’
Stacey Corrie, of Boise, met Desiree Vistercil and her daughter, Mia, about one year ago through Boise’s Babies and Tots, a group of about 200 parents who plan play dates and activities.
Corrie last saw Vistercil — a Jordan Valley, Oregon, resident — and her daughter a couple of weeks ago at one the group’s play dates.
“Desi was always smiling, always very friendly, very chatty,” said Corrie.
“She was not a bad person. She wasn’t evil. She was just troubled and struggling and thought that this was the only out, which is heartbreaking. She was a good mother, she loved Mia very much.”
And part of the meetup group’s shock is that Vistercil never turned to them.
“The members of our group, we all have babies that age, so losing Mia really hurt us in a common place,” Corrie said. “We all are heartbroken she did not ask for help because we would have helped her. None of us would have judged her.”
So how do family, friends or coworkers help someone who does not want help or does not recognize they need help?
“That’s one of our most challenging questions,” said Kane, the suicide prevention expert. “It starts with humans connecting to other humans. Anything that we can do to make that person feel connected to other people, even if it is just one other person that they are willing to share with and to be open with.”
For medical providers, follow-up care for people in mental health crisis is vital. “Follow-up saves lives,” Kane said. “But our mental health providers can do only so much, our health systems can do only so much.”
This is where we all come in.
“The things we can do to prevent this are the things we can do to prevent suicide, because they are suicidal first and their irrational thinking makes them believe they need to take someone else with them, not to leave them in this cruel world,” Kane said. “What people need to be looking for are the regular warning signs for suicide.”
Top signs for those who kill themselves include talking about or threatening suicide; isolation and withdrawal; agitation, especially with sleeplessness; and nightmares.
“People need to have enough courage to ask if someone is suicidal, to step in if they see the signs,” Kane said. “It is really on all of us to look out for our friends and family members.”
Idaho cases from the past 24 years
Gathered from news reports:
Nov. 28/29: Desiree Vistercil, 31, of Jordan Valley, Ore., drowned her 16-month-old daughter, Mia, in a five-gallon bucket and then shot herself in her car parked near the Snake River in eastern Owyhee County.
May 2011: Andrew “Andy” Davis, 38, of Boise, shot his 3-year-old daughter, Natasha Echon-Davis, before turning the gun on himself inside a car in the parking lot of the Majestic Cinemas in Meridian.
May 2011: At a house in Ammon, Iowa resident Gaylin Leirmoe, 26, fatally shot his two young sons, their 22-year-old mother and her 19-year-old sister before setting fire to the home and turning the gun on himself.
February 2010: Nicolas Bacon shot his 8-month-old son, Bekm, and then turned the gun on himself at his West Meridian home. Bacon left his estranged wife, Lacy, a voicemail threatening to kill their son and then himself, which caused her to call police. Officers arrived moments later, but they were too late.
May 2003 (attempted): Kelley Jean Lodmell, 38, of Utah, jumped into the Snake River near Idaho Falls with her 19-month-old granddaughter, Acacia Patience Bishop. Lodmell, who kidnapped the toddler from Salt Lake City, survived. The child’s body was never found. A Utah judge declared Lodmell innocent by insanity of kidnapping and committed her to a mental health facility.
October 1995: Paul Ransom, 35, of Nampa, shot and killed his 4-year-old daughter, Seanna Ransom, in a truck outside Parma before turning the gun on himself. In the three years prior, the girl’s mother had obtained four protective orders while going through a contentious divorce.
December 1994: Mary Kathryn Myers, 44, of Rigby, shot and killed her two sons — Anthony Rice, 20, and Keith Rice, 16 — and Christine Danielson, 17, whom Keith Rice was dating. Their bodies were found in the basement of Myers’ home.
June 1992: Alan Grandidier, 36, smothered his 2-year-old twin sons, Cory and Robert Grandidier, with a pillow before shooting himself in the head with a pistol in his West Boise home. Grandidier and his wife were involved in a pending divorce and child custody dispute.
Two tragic incidents this year are being examined for possible foul play:
Nov. 2 (unconfirmed): Misty Phelps, 25, of Coeur d’Alene, and her two children, Riley Phelps, 2, and Tristan Phelps, 1, were found dead in her submerged vehicle in Fernan Lake. Investigation is under way as to the cause.
June 2 (unconfirmed): Noel Bankhead, 40, of Boise, and her three children, Anika Voermans, 13, Logan Voermans, 11, and Gwyneth Voermans, 8, all died of drowning after Bankhead’s Land Rover, plunged into Lucky Peak Reservoir near High Bridge on Idaho 21. Investigation is under way as to the cause.
Learn more about postpartum, get help
Eagle family counselor Trista Kovach is a state coordinator for Postpartum International, which has volunteer coordinators in all 50 states and in more than 36 other countries providing free email and phone postpartum support for mothers and fathers and their families.
Additionally, Kovach says both Saint Alphonsus and St. Luke’s have new-mother support groups that meet weekly at the hospitals. “They have various topics every week. Postpartum depression is one of them.”
If someone you know is in emotional crisis
Call the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or 208-398-HELP.
Consult the Suicide Prevention Action Network Idaho: spanidaho.org
SUICIDE WARNING SIGNS
▪ Threatening to, talking or writing about suicide.
▪ Previous suicide attempt.
▪ Seeking methods to kill oneself.
▪ Agitation, especially combined with sleeplessness.
▪ Giving away prized possessions, making final arrangements, putting affairs in order.
▪ Withdrawing from friends, family or society.
▪ Changes in eating patterns; increased alcohol or drug use.
▪ Dramatic mood changes.
▪ Recent loss of a friend or family member through death, suicide, or divorce.
▪ Neglect of personal appearance.
▪ No longer interested in favorite activities or hobbies.
OTHER THINGS YOU CAN DO TO HELP
▪ Do not leave the person alone.
▪ Be direct. Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide.
▪ Listen. Allow expressions of feelings. Accept the feelings.
▪ Be nonjudgmental. Don’t debate. Don’t lecture on the value of life.
▪ Don’t act shocked. This will put distance between you.
▪ Don’t be sworn to secrecy. Seek support.
▪ Offer hope that alternatives are available but do not offer glib reassurance.
▪ Take action. Remove means, such as guns or stockpiled pills.
Sources: Idaho Suicide Prevention Action Network, Suicide Prevention Lifeline