TOWSON, Md. — A father shoots his wife and three children to death and then kills himself. A few days later and about 40 miles away, a family of four turns up dead in a hotel room in another apparent murder-suicide.
The two chilling cases in Maryland in the last week are the latest in a string of family slayings and subsequent suicides that leave neighbors and friends grasping for answers when entire households around them are suddenly wiped out by violence.
Authorities on Tuesday revealed more details about the family from New York's Long Island found in a hotel north of Baltimore the day before. Baltimore County police described the deaths as a murder-suicide, but did not indicate who was the killer or how the family died.
They seemed like an ideal family: William Parente was a lawyer, his wife Betty a stay-at-home mom active in the community. Their daughters were well-liked by teachers and classmates.
The New York attorney general's office said it is investigating a complaint from a man who says he invested hundreds of thousands of dollars with William M. Parente and had trouble getting his money back.
Bruce Montague, 47, a Queens lawyer, told Newsday that he recently received six checks, worth about $450,000 from Parente.
Montague said that Parente told him that he could deposit two of the checks, but asked him to wait with the others. Montague said a bank official told him the four others would not clear.
Friends and neighbors of the Parentes said they never suspected anything was amiss and were dumbfounded to learn the family was dead.
Experts say that's typical of family killings. Several similar high-profile cases in recent months have been tied to families' economic woes, though there's no indication that was the case with the Parentes.
They lived in a neighborhood of million-dollar homes in Garden City, N.Y., next to a golf course. William, 59, was a tax and estate planning attorney who commuted to Manhattan. Betty, 58, volunteered.
They were in Maryland to visit older daughter Stephanie, 19, a sophomore at Loyola College in Baltimore. With them was her sister, Catherine, 11, a sixth-grader at Garden City Middle School.
"I can't tell you how heartsick I am," next-door neighbor Mary Opulente Krener said. "This is the most wonderful family, the most kind and loving family. I'm astounded."
The Parentes ate breakfast together Sunday morning and an employee of the hotel saw them together Sunday afternoon. On Monday, after they failed to check out of their room on time, a housekeeper found their bodies.
Cpl. Michael Hill, a police spokesman, said that the Parentes were not shot or stabbed. He declined to release the results of autopsies conducted Tuesday.
Maryland was already dealing with a similar tragedy when word of the Parentes' deaths began to spread. Sometime late Thursday night or Friday morning, a father in the northwestern Maryland city of Frederick fatally shot his wife and their three young children, police said.
The father, Christopher A. Wood, 34, then shot himself. Police revealed Tuesday that the family was having extreme financial problems.
An analysis by the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., found an average of nine or 10 murder-suicides a week. But familicides - in which both parents and all their children are killed - generally happen only happen two or three times every six months, said Kristen Rand, legislative director for the center, a nonprofit gun-control advocacy group.
"They were so rare that we didn't really bother to count them as a separate category," Rand said. But in the last few months, she said, "there's a clear rash" of such killings.
They can be tied to the nation's economic woes, said Richard Gelles, dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.
He describes familicides as "canaries in a mineshaft" - sensational cases that herald an uptick in more common forms of domestic violence.
"You can only speculate over whether the economy is going to affect the broad swath of abuse of children and abuse of women," he said. "But the warning sign is when these familicide cases begin to cluster. In the past few months, they have begun to pop off across the country."
Familicides have also occurred this year in Los Angeles and Santa Clara, Calif., and in Belle Valley, Ohio. The slayings are usually committed by men, usually because of shame over financial problems, and people close to the families never see it coming, Gelles said.
While details of the Parente case remained sketchy, the reactions of those who knew the family fit the pattern.
The Parentes were "the most wonderful, beautiful, adorable people. This is impossible, impossible," said a sobbing Lucille Messina, who worked with Betty Parente on the board of the Tri Town Auxiliary of United Cerebral Palsy of Nassau.
Kremer, the Parentes' next-door neighbor and a clinical social worker, said she saw nothing to indicate the family was having financial or psychological problems. She did note that William's parents and Betty's mother had died somewhat recently.
The Rev. Brian F. Linnane, president of Loyola College, did not know Stephanie Parente well but had met her parents twice at an annual parents' gathering on Long Island.
"They were very memorable to me for how lovely they were. What a wonderful couple," Linnane said. "I'm stunned, because they were just very gracious and obviously devoted to their children."
Such events are baffling even to theologians, Linnane said.
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"It's very important for the students to realize that all of us are struggling with this mystery of evil," he said. "We're trying to find a way to move forward and bring some meaning to something that seems so meaningless."