A Grisly New Year's Killing Shows How Little We Know About Murder-Suicides
After a 26-year-old mother was stabbed to death and her husband found hanging from a tree, experts and advocates pointed to glaring cracks in the system.
Foreground photo of Stacy Loknath courtesy Jahajee Sisters. Background photo by John Moore/Getty Images. Art by Lia Kantrowitz
It was cold the morning Stacy Loknath was killed, colder than any New Year's Day in New York City since 1962. The mercury had already dipped to single digits when, around 3 AM, a next-door neighbor recalled seeing the 26-year-old and her 42-year-old husband Vishwanand “Vinny” Loknath tumble out of a cab and into their apartment at the corner of 103rd Avenue and 113th Street in Queens. He said they were so bundled against the icy chill that only her shock of red hair gave away their identities. Several neighbors remembered the mother of two had dyed it a few weeks before from black to an arterial vermilion.
The woman's brother-in-law went on to tell the Daily News that Vinny had been drinking and using cocaine that night. The paper later reported that the couple fought so viciously they'd been thrown out of the club where they celebrated the nascent New Year. It wasn't the first time their relationship became violent: Police confirmed to VICE that Vinny had been arrested in September for allegedly punching Stacy in the head, and half a dozen neighbors told me they'd seen her taken away in an ambulance after the incident, events that would seem to have required interventions on her behalf through the new citywide Crime Victims Assistance Program deployed at the 106th Precinct in August. (VICE reached out to Safe Horizon for comment specifically on Loknath's case but had yet to hear back at the time of publication.)
“I remember Vinny [Jr.] said, 'My dad went to jail because he was drinking at the bar and my mom got mad. We didn’t see him for two days,'” recalled Cherron Cox, 36, who said she taught the family’s five-year-old son until June at Bev’s Kiddie Daycare on 113th Street. “In the centers during dramatic play, you hear them talking about whatever’s going on at home. I listen out for things, but I never heard anything that made me think there was domestic violence."
In a city where nearly one out of every five homicides is domestic and a country where half of all female murder victims are killed by their partners or exes, what happened to Stacy Loknath in her Richmond Hill home just before dawn on January 1 might be called both horrific and commonplace. According to the NYPD and the medical examiner, Vinny Loknath stabbed his wife repeatedly in the torso, striking her heart, lungs, and liver, leaving her dead in the upstairs apartment they shared with their two children, Vinny Jr. and his 12-month-old baby sister.
But then something happened that makes cases like this one even more disturbing to experts in the field. As the temperature hovered near 10 degrees, Vinny apparently set out on a mile and a half long journey to Forest Park in Kew Gardens, where, according to the NYPD, he was discovered at about 11 AM on New Year's Day, hanging from a tree.
Why men kill their families is a matter of longstanding national inquiry over the years by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Justice, among others. But what makes some of those same men take their own lives is both different and dangerously understudied. According to one study from the early 2000s, 30 percent of men who killed their partners went on to kill themselves. Yet even now, according to the Violence Policy Center, a prominent research and advocacy group, neither the FBI nor any other federal agency tracks those deaths together. That means almost everything we know about them comes from small research labs, independent groups, or local fatality review boards, whose mandates do not always grant them authority to examine deaths in detail.
In New York, the Fatality Review Committee only just last year worked out a deal with the medical examiner's office to view reports where homicides are accompanied by suicides. But while the same body in Washington, DC, has the right to review all relevant medical examiner's reports, New York's historically has not, according to Elizabeth Dank, general counsel at the Mayor's Office to Combat Domestic Violence. That has almost certainly made it harder to draw accurate conclusions about what causes violence and how it can be prevented in America's largest city.
Yet, “[thanks to Fatality Review Boards] this is the first time ever that there’s a link between homicides and suicides that occur together,” said Dr. Sonia Salari, a gerontologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City who has spent the past decade studying Intimate Partner Homicide-Suicide, the technical term for what cops concluded happened to Stacy and Vinny Loknath. “Our only chance for linking these things are through these fatality review boards,” themselves a patchwork of city and state-level operations with little in the way of uniform standards.
According to Salari and others who study the phenomenon, two important distinctions emerge between homicide-suicides and homicides alone. Both have alarming implications for the future, as well as insights into how families like the Loknaths might be helped.
The first, perhaps surprisingly, is guns.
“That whole scenario is kind of unusual, because murder-suicide typically includes a gun,” Salari explained when I told her about the Loknath incident. A 2014 Center for American Progress report analyzing federal and state data concluded that, between 2001 and 2012, 55 percent of all American women killed by intimate partners were shot. But, at least in New York City, the rate has been far higher among intimate partner murder-suicide cases, with firearm deaths accounting for some 64 percent of them in 2016, versus just 16.5 percent of non-suicide intimate-partner homicides. “In our nationwide cases, we found that nearly ninety percent were perpetrated by a gun,” Salari told me of her study of more than 700 murder-suicides scraped from news stories, obituaries, and police reports between 1999 and 2007.
That’s not exactly welcome news for many Americans given the desire by some powerful figures in the federal government to loosen gun laws in the Trump era. What makes it worse, Salari and others cautioned, is that current demographic trends could make murder-suicide more likely.
“The Baby Boom cohort is actually more suicidal than other cohorts have been in the past." —Sonia Salari
Though younger men frequently kill themselves in a tailspin of a homicidal rage, Salari told me, murder-suicides are more commonly an older man’s response to his own will to die, and his fatal conviction that his wife must not live without him. “There’s this idea that she doesn’t have autonomy to live aside from his lifespan,” the researcher explained. New York City's own data bears this out, concluding that "the proportion of intimate partner homicide-suicides involving victims age 60 and over was almost twice that of other intimate partner homicides."
Based on her work, the Salari also went so far as to call this a “white phenomenon.” But in New York, at least, spousal murder suicide was found to be statistically twice as common among what the city calls "Asians," compared with other groups. Where the Loknaths fit is less clear—although Indo Caribbean immigrants like them have been among the city's fastest growing populations, some local activists said few in New York’s social service infrastructure seemed to know they exist, much less be in a position to provide help.
“Domestic violence is an issue that impacts many communities but it has a unique history in ours,” explained Simone Jhingoor of Jahajee Sisters, a grassroots Indo Caribbean advocacy group based in the city. "We were taken as indentured laborers from India to the Caribbean. There was an extreme shortage of women who were brought—for every woman, there were ten men. It created a sense of ownership and a power dynamic between men and women where men felt like they had a stake on the women they were with."
Without more help from the city to prop up local efforts, she said, domestic-violence victims like Stacy Loknath will continue to lose out on life-saving help.
"I met with our attorney this morning and she said a lot of women are coming in, saying they want to divorce their husband," Stacy's aunt Ramona Latsis told mourners at a memorial service I attended Monday night. "They don’t want to end up like her."
(VICE reached out to Safe Horizon and the Mayor's Office to Combat Domestic Violence for comment on how Indo Caribbean communities in particular are reached by the local social service structure but had yet to hear back at the time of publication.)
Salari went on to point out another problem that emerged in her own data. Unlike with murder alone, where prior assaults are a strong indicator of future homicides, in many murder-suicide cases, no one is ever arrested or even suspected of domestic violence until it’s too late, making much of what we know about how to help domestic violence victims virtually useless in preventing murder-suicides.
"In those cases where there’s no domestic violence history, we have a perpetrator who’s more suicidal,” she said, adding that it's here where demographics turn from informative to foreboding. After all, suicide rates have been rising steadily over the past decade, both in New York City and nationwide. And research cited by the CDC in its most recent report on intimate-partner violence suggested suicide prevention could significantly reduce domestic violence.
Evaluations of an Air Force–based suicide prevention program among members of the military “showed a 30 percent reduction in moderate family violence (exposure to repeated instances of emotionally abusive behavior, neglect, or physical or sexual abuse) and a 54 percent reduction in severe family violence,” the CDC report found. “The program also significantly lowered rates of suicide.”
As far as Salari is concerned, similar programs for the general population can't come soon enough.
“The baby boom cohort is actually more suicidal than other cohorts have been in the past, and now they're aging to that time where old white men are extremely suicidal,” Salari explained. “It’s actually something that I fear for the future."
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