San Jose Mercury News

Posted on Tue, Nov. 26, 2002

Three families destroyed; South Bay asks `why?'

EXPERTS SEE COMMON THREADS IN MURDER-SUICIDES

By Karen de Sá and Crystal Carreon
San Jose Mercury News

A Santa Clara mother fires a bullet into the chest of her 12-year-old daughter before turning the gun on her 5-year-old and her estranged husband. An East San Jose father kills his two young sons -- one asleep in his crib -- and his wife. An Almaden Valley father shoots his children in their beds, his wife in the master bedroom.

After obliterating those dearest to them, each parent then commits suicide.

Murder-suicides are unimaginable when they happen, and yet they occur as many as 1,500 to 2,000 times each year across the country, often claiming children. These three Santa Clara County families perished within the past eight months. Gunshots ended the lives of six children whose parents took aim as their sons and daughters lay on a sofa in the den, in a chair with legs draped across a Lego game, and curled in a blanket.

The question that follows such horrors is always the same: How could parents kill their own children?

Much of what could be learned about how intimacy turns deadly in these families vanishes with them. But portraits painted after the deaths -- while distinct in each case -- also fit recognized patterns.

District attorneys, psychologists and domestic violence experts agree on one thing: No parent wakes up one day and decides to destroy his or her family. The potential killer is likely to be deeply depressed and have an abnormally intense attachment to relatives. The mayhem is usually triggered by a destabilizing event, like losing a job.

Santa Clara County's three recent family tragedies fit these profiles.

In April, Taeyoung Schiefer, resident of an upper-class neighborhood in Santa Clara, shot her two daughters, 12 and 5, with a .38-caliber handgun. She fired six shots at her German husband, Ulrich, known as ``Uli,'' as he attempted to flee the couple's two-story home. Pressing the gun to her chest, she pulled the trigger one final time. On a chair next to the bloodied bed where she was found, Taeyoung Schiefer left the love letters the couple exchanged during their courtship.

Then in October, stay-at-home dad Luciano ``Luis'' Silveira shot his wife, Sandra, and their two young sons, ages 4 years and 18 months, before killing himself. A week later, a service was held for Sandra Silveira and the children, and a separate one for Luis. He was not buried with the family.

And this month, San Jose software executive Kam Lun Aloysius Lee shot his wife and two children, 9 and 4. There is talk that Lee feared for his job amid the economic plunge in the valley.

In all these cases, said Rolanda Pierre Dixon of the Santa Clara County district attorney's domestic violence unit, the suspected killers were seeking absolute control over their families.

``It's this bizarre thinking that I preserve in death what I can't have in life,'' said University of South Florida Professor Donna Cohen, a leading researcher in murder-suicide. ``If my family won't let me be their provider, I'd rather everybody be dead, because that way I go out in control.''

A familicide-suicide can often be traced back to a severe reversal of fortune. In the case of the Schiefer family -- an extremely rare example of a woman who commits murder-suicide -- the 41-year-old Taeyoung watched as her family fell apart.

Described by some friends and neighbors as ``very controlling,'' Taeyoung Schiefer's desperation likely grew over time. In February, her husband, Uli, a respected engineer, moved out of the family's Madrone Avenue home and into an apartment in Sunnyvale. The couple's daughter Jessica stayed with him there because the sight of the 5-year-old, Taeyoung confided to a friend, was a painful reminder of Uli. Elsa, her daughter from a previous marriage in Korea, lived with Taeyoung, who started seeing a psychologist at Kaiser Hospital.

On April 1, during a marriage counseling session, Uli Schiefer told his estranged wife he wanted a divorce. She ran screaming out of the counselor's office, the coroner's report states. That night, authorities believe, Taeyoung pulled out the gun she had quietly purchased when he moved out. Police found her body three days later, in bed next to Jessica.

In the Lee household, loss of power may also have been a catalyst. Assistant District Attorney Karyn Sinunu said the 47-year-old father thought his job was threatened -- ``the ultimate loss of control.'' He had apparently asked his wife, Cheng Chih Chiang Lee, to move back to Taiwan to cut back expenses while he struggled on here. ``But she didn't want to go along with that,'' Sinunu said. On Nov. 14, authorities found Cheng Chih Chiang Lee shot to death in their master bedroom; Kam Lee was found alongside his two young children in their bed.

The fact that the killers appeared to be doting and devoted parents is part of a larger pattern, Cohen said.

Luis Silveira, who had played goalie for the San Jose-based Portuguese club team Centro Leonino, set up a soccer net near a toddler swing on the front lawn and was teaching his sons to kick the ball. Neighbors said the 40-year-old played with his children nearly every day, either in the front yard or riding around the neighborhood on bikes, while Sandra Silveira was teaching at Seven Trees Elementary School.

Luis Silveira had not held a steady job since the mid-1990s, when he owned a coffee shop, Cafe Jardim -- described as a Portuguese ``Cheers''-- on Alum Rock Avenue. But about three years ago, the lease fell through and he closed the shop, opting to do odd jobs here and there, relatives said. One of his projects included building a miniature play area on his property, complete with a tiny river and a railroad set.

But life was taking its toll. Americo Medeiros, Silveira's friend and soccer mate, said he was using drugs. ``I knew him. He was a little bit out of control,'' Medeiros said. ``I heard it was bad.''

The medical examiner's toxicology results confirmed that traces of methamphetamine were in Silveira's bloodstream at the time of the killings.

There was no paper trail painting a picture of hellish conditions at home in any of the three Santa Clara County family killings: no police reports, no calls to domestic-violence hotlines, no record of overnight stays in shelters. For friends and family, there were few if any rumblings warning that a calamitous buildup in stress was occurring. But that too is not unusual, said Neil Websdale, director of the National Domestic Violence Fatality Review Initiative and author of ``Understanding Domestic Homicide.''

``People who commit homicide-suicide are more isolated from the criminal justice system than domestic-violence offenders who kill just the partner,'' Websdale said. They tend to be well-off financially, ``but live more confined lives.''

The recent killings have Bay Area anti-domestic-violence activists increasing their efforts to shift the focus of prevention. Long centered narrowly on identifying and sheltering the victim, the movement now is looking to broaden its approach.

Activists say more outreach is needed in immigrant communities, where home-based violence is often underreported because of mistrust or misunderstanding of police, and cultural values dictating that family problems must remain within the family. The Lees were Chinese, Luis Silveira was Portuguese, and Taeyoung Schiefer was Korean.

``Shame is a big factor,'' said Leni Marin, an immigrant specialist with San Francisco's Family Violence Prevention Fund. ``It's your job to bear it.''

Advocates for domestic-violence prevention say the task ahead is to convince society that family life is everybody's business. If there are signs of danger, friends, co-workers, classmates and neighbors should follow hunches.

``We have to learn from these cases,'' Pierre Dixon said. ``People have an opportunity to see signs and to try to understand what's going on, and to intervene. Those people who do talk about it and access help, they live. And their children live.''

Contact Karen de Sá at kdesa@sjmercury.com or (408) 295-3984 and Crystal Carreon at ccarreon@sjmercury.com or (408) 920-5460.

© 2001 mercurynews and wire service sources.