In April a Texas man, Ghufran Zafar, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison after shooting his wife, Asma Zafar, in front of their two young children. According to court documents, he had allegedly abused her, physically and verbally, on prior occasions.
In July, a Utah man, Kenneth Ray Manzanares, was charged with murdering his wife, Kristy Manzanares, while on a cruise ship in Alaska. He allegedly told a witness that he did it because she wouldn’t stop laughing at him.
And in August, a New Jersey man, Gregg Scott, committed suicide after killing his wife, Kimberly Dunphey, and 7-year-old son, Owen Scott. Authorities say the man beat them to death after a marital dispute.
In the wake of these, and other recent news stories about husbands murdering their wives, we talk to experts about what would drive a man to kill the person with whom they’ve vowed to share a lifetime.
“Most people are victimized by someone they know,” says Joseph Giacalone, a professor in the Department of Law & Police Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. In the case of spouses or partners killing each other, he says, it’s called “intimate-partner homicide,” and it’s generally the wife or girlfriend that gets murdered.
According to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, women are at far greater risk than men of being victims of intimate-partner violence and homicide. FBI statistics from 2011 show that 82.6 percent of women murdered were killed by someone they knew. And when it comes to women above the age of 18 killed by an intimate partner, most [79.2 percent] were killed by a current partner and 14.3 percent were killed by a former partner. “In 2015, there were 500 wives murdered by their husbands nation-wide. Add another 500 for the girlfriends,” says Giacalone, a former NYPD sergeant who has worked on hundreds of murder, suicide and missing-person cases.
Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz has provided expert testimony at high-profile criminal cases such as those of Andrea Yates, the Unabomber, John Hinckley Jr., Susan Smith, Joel Rifkin and Columbine. He finds that there are four common motives behind intimate-partner killings, applicable whether they are gay or straight, married or common-law, or partners who cohabitate. “You have to understand at the outset,” he says, “that these don’t necessarily occur in isolation and there could be more than one motive for the crime; usually there is.”
The first—and most common—motive Dietz sees is anger, expressed in a pattern of escalating rage, abuse and violence. “This group has been violent before, and you can see it building up to a tragic ending. I’m not talking subtle here.” Their violent anger may have occurred outside the home as well, resulting in a criminal record and other antisocial behaviors. Some of these men, he adds, are “full-fledged psychopaths.”
The next-most-common motive: fear of abandonment and loss. “He’s afraid she will leave,” says Dietz. This usually occurs after she has threatened or attempted to leave—an act that can be particularly dangerous for women who find their spouses controlling and abusive, he says: “This group of men who kill because of a fear of being dumped have a personality style or disorder that’s highly unstable and emotional, known as the borderline type.”
A third commonly seen motive, he says, is sexual jealousy. This includes everything from becoming upset that she flirted with someone to knowledge of an actual affair. “His jealousy—or some would call it his sexual possessiveness of his partner as an object—[is what] underlies the homicide.” A fourth reason a male partner kills his wife is that he’s suicidal. The killer may or may not then take his own life. Some of them chicken out at that point, Dietz says.
When it comes to determining motive, it is usually one of these four or some combination of them, says Dietz: “They show up in study after study in the U.S. and worldwide.”
Less common motives include collecting insurance, mercy killing, psychotic mental illness and replacing a wife with another partner (solving the problem of alimony). Some kill their spouse because they think it’s the only way they can win a custody dispute—the irony being if they get caught, they’ll lose custody.
Drugs and alcohol only fan the flames, since they interfere with self-control and judgement. “All the motives I’ve mentioned are more likely to result in a lethal action in the presence of alcohol and drug intoxication,” Dietz says.
When it comes to solving these crimes, according to Dietz and Giacalone, the boyfriend or husband is the first suspect on the list, and when a female is murdered by her husband, the chances of solving it are very high. “As investigators, we build theories,” says Giacalone. “Most people are murdered by someone they know. If you see someone stabbed multiple times, that’s also indicative of intimate-partner homicide. The same goes for overkill [when the force needed to kill someone is exceeded]—who else could get you that angry?” These are the first building blocks of an investigation. “Also, we look at the location. Is it in a back bedroom? Who else do you let into your bedroom? This helps us develop theories.”
The murder will generally follow some sort of argument, Giacalone says: “I call it the homicide triangle: love, money and drugs. Those are three things you can jump off of from an investigative standpoint. Though an argument can be about anything.”
And why don’t people just divorce if they’re so unhappy? Giacalone says he has found that men find it difficult to face the financial losses that come with divorce—spousal or child support, sharing assets. “They don’t realize the wheels they set in motion when a guy kills his wife,” Giacalone says. “They think they are going to get away with it. I would tell a husband, ‘You’re the first person we’re looking at.'”
Til Death Do Us Part…
Here are some other cases where wives were killed by their husband or partner:
Carol DeMaiti Stuart: In 1989, Charles Stuart, the manager of a Boston-area furrier, and his wife Carol, a tax attorney who was pregnant with their first child, were returning home from a childbirth class at a local hospital. According to Stuart’s statement, a black man carjacked them and shot them both. Carol died a few hours later; the baby—two months premature—was delivered by Caesarean section only to die 17 days later. Stuart’s brother Michael came forward on January 4, 1990, to admit his part in covering up the shooting. Shortly thereafter, Stuart’s car was found abandoned on a bridge. His remains were found in the Mystic River the next day.
Kathy Savio Peterson: In 2004, a few months after her divorce from Illinois police officer Drew Peterson, Kathy was found dead in her bathtub. Her cause of death was believed to be accidental drowning. But when Drew’s next wife, Stacy, went missing in 2007, suspicion fell on her husband. Kathy’s body was exhumed and showed signs of a struggle. Drew was indicted for her murder in 2009, and convicted in 2012, receiving a sentence of 38 years for premeditated murder. Stacy, who was 19 when she married 39-year-old Drew, and had two children with him (she legally adopted his two sons with Kathy), has never been found.
Lori Soares Hacking: Hacking, from Salt Lake City, went missing at age 27. Her husband Mark notified authorities. Mark Hacking was charged with first-degree murder on August 9, 2004. On October 1, Lori’s remains (two teeth and a piece of bone the size of a quarter) were found in a landfill. On October 29, 2004, Mark pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder. On April 15, 2005, he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in exchange for prosecutors dropping other charges. In 2005, he was sentenced to six years to life, the maximum the judge could give under Utah law. Before she went missing, she told family members she was pregnant. In 2006, “Lori’s Law” increasing the minimum penalty for a first-degree murder conviction was signed into law in Utah.
LaToyia Figueroa: LaToyia Figueroa was five months pregnant when she was found strangled near Philadelphia. She was reported missing in July 18, 2005. A bit more than a month later, police arrested the father of her child, Stephen Poaches. In 2006, he was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of Figueroa and her unborn child. Bloggers and critics felt that because Figueroa was Hispanic and African-American, her case received less media coverage than other cases where white pregnant women were murdered.
Read more: What Drives Some Women to Kill Their Kids