WASHOUGAL — In the hours before he killed himself and two female relatives amid a hellish rain of bullets and fire, Steven Stanbary planted his wallet and a GPS tracking system in the bed of his neighbor’s truck across the street.
The neighbor’s house had been a refuge of sorts, a place for the woebegone man to express his trials, tribulations and white separatist views to nonjudgmental, if not entirely accepting, ears. Stanbary said goodbye to them in an eerie fashion, bequeathing them the few dollars in his wallet and a list of landscaping clients stored in his GPS.
“He knew he was never going to come back (to our house). He knew he was going to end his life,” said his neighbor Dea, whose husband found the items in his truck. The woman asked that her last name not be used due to fear of backlash from those who may share Stanbary’s views.
Eight days after Stanbary committed the murder-suicide that left his wife and her twin sister dead, the ruins of his torched ranch-style house remains a haunting portal into an immensely troubled man’s life. His yard is a cluttered corpse filled with gnarled metal and other wreckage. Motorists idle past to take in the morbid scene.
Stanbary started a fire at his house around 8 a.m. Dec. 7, then fired handguns and rifles for the next 90 minutes to keep firefighters from putting out the blaze, authorities said. No one outside the house was injured from the flurry of bullets.
Police believe Stanbary shot and killed his wife of 11 years, Leona “Lee” Bolton-Stanbary, and her twin sister, Mona Daugherty, although when he did so remains unclear. Four dogs were found dead on the Stanbarys’ property. At least one dog suffered a fatal gunshot wound, police said.
Murder-suicide scenarios like the one that happened in Washougal last week are uncommon, experts say. In its most recent study, the Violence Policy Center estimated that 1,100 Americans died in murder-suicides in 2007. Firearms were the cause of death in the majority of the cases.
Precedent to Stanbary’s violent episode exists in Clark County, however.
Seven months earlier, a Vancouver man named Tuan Dao set the house fire that took his life and those of five of his children. Like Stanbary, Dao had familial and financial stressors. Like Stanbary, his neighbors did not see it coming.
Oftentimes, there is no tidy explanation to why these events happen.
“This is really hard to study because (the perpetrators) end up dead,” said Will Meek, lead psychologist at Washington State University Vancouver Counseling Services.
Police and prosecutors expected Stanbary to surrender on sexual assault charges Dec. 8 — the day after he killed himself. Yet, even they did not see an impending threat.
Prior to the sexual assault investigation, Washougal police and animal control officers had contacted Stanbary once about an animal licensing issue, Chief Ron Mitchell said, adding he did not recall when the contact was made. Stanbary complied and licensed his six or seven dogs, Mitchell added.
“He never showed any kind of aggression toward us,” Mitchell said.
Neighbors agreed with Mitchell’s assessment of Stansbary as a peaceful citizen.
Several recalled Stanbary having physical ailments that made it difficult for him to perform landscaping work, and thus earn a living. He also spoke about marital troubles exacerbated by the arrival of his wife’s identical twin sister six months ago, Dea said. But Steve Stanbary did not indicate he had thought about hurting them.
Stanbary’s violent outburst blindsided his neighbors.
“That’s not uncommon,” said Louis Schlesinger, a forensic psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “If the police are over there every 10 minutes, it’s different.”
Stanbary had many stressors he talked about. He also apparently had at least two major ones he did not.
A licensed psychiatrist diagnosed Stanbary as schizophrenic, according to an Idaho police report filed in 1994 following his domestic violence arrest. Neighbors were stunned to learn about his mental illness diagnosis. Some had noticed hints of sadness about him, but they did not believe he was violent or deranged.
Stanbary was also a violent drunk, according to comments his wife made to police during the sexual assault investigation.
“These are unstable persons,” Schlesinger said of people who killed their families. “Certainly, they act out in violent ways, particularly if alcohol is involved.”
‘I am so mad at you!’
“Steven, I AM SO MAD AT YOU … ” begins Dea’s 56-word, heart-on-sleeve tirade left on white paper against the fence now erected in front of Stanbary’s yard. The note is furious, bitter and honest. It is large enough for passing motorists to read.
Despite his hatred-fueled extremist views, Stanbary exhibited human characteristics to Dea and her husband, most notably the need to be loved and accepted. He often overshared about his physical pains, his marital troubles, and other issues bugging him, Dea said, but she didn’t know his last name until the day he died. He did not mention the alleged sexual assaults or his struggles with alcohol.
When he brought up his guns or his admiration for white supremacist Randy Weaver, they did not ask him to go into further detail. Dea stressed she did not agree with Stanbary’s world view but did not chastise him for it, either. Police this week gave her the OK to share details about interactions with Stanbary, she said.
In hindsight, there appears to be much Stanbary did not reveal, and many questions left unasked.
Dea recalled a troubling encounter between her husband and Stanbary this summer where Stanbary offered to give him his landscaping business for free.
“By the first of the year, I’m done,” Dea recalled Stanbary telling her husband, Lyman. No further questions were asked.
She now believes Stanbary left his GPS tracker in her husband’s truck because it contained his client list. Authorities have not confirmed this.
“It’s not uncommon when someone commits suicide to give possessions or other things to people,” Meek said.
Dea and her husband never set foot in Stanbary’s house. They learned his last name from reports on his death.
They rarely saw Leona outside the home and never spoke with her. They saw Leona’s teenage daughter sparingly but did not speak with her. Attempts to reach her family and friends through Facebook messages, emails and phone calls were unsuccessful.
But one day after Stanbary’s final act, his stepdaughter’s fiancé called him a “bastard” on the social networking website Facebook.
“Emily’s doing good and is finally happy that pricks [sic] dead,” Thomas Shirk said in a later comment, referencing his fiancée. “She hasn’t gotten the full hit yet of her mother and aunt passing away because she is still in shock and disbelief.”
In response to Shirk’s comments, Steven Stanbary’s family members posted that he was not a bad guy but “disturbed” and “misdirected.”
No one profile
As much hurt as Stanbary caused her and everyone who knew him, Dea is convinced it could have been worse. She believes the man spared her life last Wednesday.
She and her daughter, Erica, walked to the edge of their driveway as gunfire erupted around them. At first, they thought the fire was popping Stanbary’s massive fireworks array — he was known for his over-the-top July 4 displays. But they retreated to cover upon seeing Stanbary reach his bloody arm through a broken window at the front of his house.
Stanbary fired shots at a passer-by who offered help and a police officer, hitting a police car. Yet, it is wholly possible he had no intent to harm others outside his house.
“Very often familicides are triggered by family conflicts,” Schlesinger said. Men are most often the perpetrators. Often they are violent, depressed and seeking to regain control in situations, the professor said.
In contrast, Tuan Dao did not have an artillery of weapons, a diagnosed mental illness or debilitating physical pain, according to those who knew him. He did not have extremist views. Neighbors said he often walked his children to the bus stop.
On April 24, he started Vancouver’s deadliest fire in a half-century. Five children, ages 6 to 12, died inside the house at 15304 N.E. 13th Circle. Dao did not attempt to injure anyone outside his family.
Authorities reasoned that an impending bankruptcy factored into Dao’s decision to take his life and those of five of his six children. His family reported that lingering concerns about his wife, Lori Dao, taking the children in a looming divorce drove him over the edge.
If anything, the differing pictures of Stanbary, the extremist, and Dao, the loving dad, prove people who commit murder-suicides are “varied” and have “no one profile,” Schlesinger said.
Not a trend
Stanbary and Dao’s horrific acts took place about 12 miles apart. Both men lived on quiet streets. Both men lived in quiet desperation. Suicide offered them closure and control, experts said.
Experts cautioned people from viewing these incidents as an emerging trend in Clark County.
“The way our minds work, we’re preprogrammed to see trends and patterns,” Meek said. “But a lot of the data shows this is pretty random.”
Schlesinger pointed out an area like Clark County might go a decade without a murder-suicide. Then, when it has two in one year, it appears that a trend has developed. That simply is not the case, he said.
“This is just an isolated incident,” the Washougal police chief said. “We just hope we never see anything like this again.”
Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; firstname.lastname@example.org