Experts: Father likely sought control

Killer’s monthslong spiral of troubles fit a pattern

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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The final nine months of Tuan Dao’s life included, in order: a home foreclosure, a bankruptcy filing, a domestic violence-related arrest and a separation from his wife. Following this tailspin, the Vancouver father chose to commit suicide and kill his children.

Dao’s decision to set the Easter morning blaze that killed himself and five of his children will haunt those who knew him for years. Could they have prevented this?

Probably not. Experts who have studied parents who killed their children say red flags in these cases are rare. They say Dao likely viewed death as the only way to cope with the past year’s string of negative events.

Investigators believe Dao, 37, used liquid fuel to trigger a fatal explosion inside the family home at 15304 N.E. 13th Circle. The children who died have been identified as Nolan, 12; twins Jacob and Noah, 9; Samantha, 8; and Nathan, 6.

Dao’s widow, Lori Dao, 33, and eldest daughter, Alena, 13, are the only remaining immediate family members. Neither was at the home when Tuan Dao set the fire.

They moved out of the house after an incident in late March, when Dao allegedly threw a clothes iron at his wife. He missed, but the iron’s cord hit Nathan, according to a police report.

Prosecutors charged Dao with fourth-degree assault and reckless endangerment. A judge subsequently granted Lori Dao a protective order requiring her estranged husband stay at least 500 feet away from her at all times.

Four weeks later, Dao’s spiral took an unthinkable, tragic turn.

Who was Tuan Dao?

How he arrived at his ghastly decision is filled with question marks. Scant public information exists about Dao’s life and personality.

The Daos were married for 15 years. Tuan worked for FedEx/Kinko’s for 14 years and had six children, according to court papers. He liked to play basketball at a local gym, he walked his children to the bus stop and he drove them to soccer practice, neighbors said.

Where he was born, where he attended school and his hobbies and interests remain unknown. His immediate family has declined multiple requests for comment. His wife has also declined to be interviewed.

Neighbors described him as “quiet.” He and his wife were always on the go, they said.

Dao did not seem to neighbors like the type to kill his children. But people who carry out such acts are usually “normal” and unassuming, experts said.

“There are no overt red flags. The public likes to believe they can detect dangerousness by looking at people,” but they can’t, said Louis Schlesinger, a forensic psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Research on people who have committed filicide-suicide — a parent who kills themselves and their children — or familicide — annihilation of the entire family — shows Dao’s actions fit a pattern.

Past studies provide insight into what Dao’s thought processes might have been but, since he died in the fire, it is hard to know what triggered his final act. Police have not said whether a suicide note exists.

In 2005, the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law published an article on filicide-suicide featuring research by a handful of the country’s leading forensic psychiatrists. Data were culled from more than 40 years of records from the Cuyahoga County Coroner’s Office, which includes metropolitan Cleveland.

Most parents who committed filicide-suicide are men, according to the study. Motives for the crime included an altruistic desire to protect children from a real or imagined suffering, the offender’s depression or acute psychosis, and spousal revenge, among others. Forty-eight percent of the filicide victims were between the ages of 6 and 12.

“The younger children are more likely (victims) because parents think of them as an extension of themselves and can’t do without them,” said Dr. Phillip Resnick, a forensic psychiatrist from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. Resnick was one of the filicide-suicide report’s co-authors.

Parents used firearms in 73 percent of the cases studied. Only 3 percent killed their children with arson.

In such research, experts have started to explain the unexplainable.

Financial stress

Four out of five parents in the filicide-suicide journal article had a history of psychiatric contacts or ongoing symptoms of a mood or thought disorder.

It is unknown whether Dao had or received treatment for mental illness. But based on his circumstances — six-figure debt, a failed marriage — experts said it is reasonable to suspect he had some degree of depression.

“There’s a lot of depressed people who don’t let the outside world know,” said Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.

Bankruptcy filings from September 2010 shed light on the financial stress in Dao’s life, but also raise questions.

The couple had $158,000 in credit card, collections and gambling debt. They also owed more on their 13th Circle home than it was worth. Another home they owned had been foreclosed upon last July.

What the Daos purchased with the credit cards is a mystery. But it is clear financial woes hung over their heads.

“He felt responsible for the children’s welfare,” Levin said. “He was the bread-winner, but the family was deeply in debt.”

Whether the financial worries led to physical abuse — or whether that abuse existed before — is unknown. But on the evening of March 29 the Daos’ disintegrating relationship reached a boiling point.

A perverse love

On that night, Dao allegedly threw a clothes iron, a packed duffel bag and a water bottle at his wife, and later forcefully grabbed her, police said. The fight escalated from an argument about the home’s cleanliness and Dao’s sexual frustrations, the report said.

Police arrested Dao in the early hours of March 30 on charges of fourth-degree assault and reckless endangerment.

It is unclear whether Lori Dao sought aid from local domestic violence groups, but she did request and receive a protective order against her husband. She also moved out.

Dao appeared in court.

Dao’s initial defender, a court-appointed attorney named Andrew Lawhon, said he detected nothing out of the ordinary about his client. The defendant asked how his charges would affect his employment and children, Lawhon said.

When and why Dao’s focus on the future shifted to a desire to end his life is not known and will likely never be known.

“Something came to a head,” Resnick said, noting that the circumstances in Dao’s life indicated “desperation was building.”

Experts said that, in general, someone like Dao might view killing his children as the only to way protect them — from the family’s financial troubles or the stigma of his planned suicide — or a way to make his wife suffer.

The first possible explanation can be defined as a “perverse love,” Schlesinger said.

Killing your child to save your child seems like the ultimate paradox. But while it may be senseless to the outside world, it makes perfect sense in the offending parent’s mind.

Dao’s neighbors also asked whether Asian cultural views about pride and dishonor might have led him to kill himself and his children. The concept of “saving face” might have factored into Dao’s decision-making, Levin said.

This is yet another paradox. To the outside world, Dao’s actions were cowardly and disgraceful. But in his mind they might have been his only respite, Levin said.

Vengeful, protective

After the fire, the Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office used dental records to identify the six badly burned bodies.

The painful method of death Dao chose indicates “he was a vengeful and protective father,” Levin said.

Spousal revenge is the least prevalent motive for filicide-suicide, Resnick noted. There are two reasons for spousal revenge: infidelity and custody disputes, he added.

There is no mention of infidelity in this case. No custody dispute had reached court papers. It is possible the couple discussed custody, but that has not come to light.

Some neighbors said the children had moved out with their mother, but five had returned for an overnight weekend visit.

Regardless of his motive, Tuan Dao’s actions created a gaping hole in his estranged wife’s world, experts said. It was one final, everlasting betrayal.

“What greater punishment (is there) for someone than for someone to kill their kids?” Schlesinger said.

While his wife’s torment will last for the rest of her life, the burden Tuan Dao felt is gone.

“I doubt he was thinking about the effect this would have on his relatives and friends,” Levin said. “For the killer, this is closure.”

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; Twitter at http://twitter.com/col_smallcities; ray.legendre@columbian.com