The killing of all five of his children by James Harrison earlier this month has raised questions about how any father could do such a thing — and why. Some experts say revenge is often a motive in such cases.

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James Harrison was in his 30s, a husband and father described by some as caring and by others as controlling.

Earlier this month, his wife decided to leave the Graham man. After failing one night to get her to stay, he grabbed a rifle and shot each of their five children several times, killing them. Then he shot himself.

Among the many questions raised after the killings was: How could any father do such a thing — and why?

In general, experts say men who do this tend to be in their mid-30s to middle-aged, and to have been depressed or frustrated for a long time, or to suffer from mental illness, which may have gone undiagnosed.

They tend to fall into one of two categories: angry at their partners and seeking revenge, or hopeless and despondent and believing their family is better off dead.

Both types are usually socially isolated, with little or no support system. And they may feel that as head of the family, they have control over the lives of members.

“For many family annihilators, the act of murder is a way of re-establishing control that he feels he has lost over the family,” said Jack Levin, professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University in Boston.

Typically, a loss of some kind — such as a job or a wife — triggers the violence.

But there are disagreements among experts and studies are few, in part because killing one’s family — known as familicide — is so rare.

Some say revenge is the main motivator; others see perceived altruism as more of a driving factor.

And while a history of domestic violence is a factor in some cases, it isn’t in others.

Dr. Sara West, a fellow in forensic psychiatry in Cleveland, says motives for such killings can be exceedingly complex.

“It’s hard to distinguish, maybe, what the combination of motives are.”

Met as teens

James and Angela Harrison met when he was in high school and she in junior high.

They had five children, marrying in 2000. He worked as a casino security guard, she as a store clerk.

Officials at the middle school one daughter attended said both parents would regularly attend conferences. But some neighbors said there were signs the children feared their father’s anger.

In 2007, James Harrison was found to have physically abused one of his children in a slapping incident. According to the state Department of Social and Health Services, there were four other complaints involving the family dating to 2001, most focused on concerns of neglect.

But after investigations, the complaints were determined not to meet the legal definition of neglect or abuse.

On Friday, April 3, Angela Harrison, 30, went to a casino and convenience store after work, later telling reporters she had decided her marriage was over.

Media reports that she was leaving with another man were false, she said, though the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office says that’s the theory it’s working under.

She said her 34-year-old husband had been abusive for years.

On the evening she left, he found her in the convenience store in Auburn and begged her to stay.

After she refused, he returned home and, later that night, shot and killed their children. Then he drove to Auburn, perhaps to look for his wife, and fatally shot himself.

A spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office said he believed Harrison might have killed his wife, too, had he found her.

It’s unusual that the wife wasn’t killed, said Levin, the Northeastern University criminologist, since “typically, it’s the spouse who’s blamed for all of the killer’s personal miseries.”

Levin believes revenge is the primary motive for family annihilation.

“He kills the children in order to get revenge, a sweet revenge against his wife. He wants to kill everything associated with her — everything that she loved, everything that he identified with her.”

In many such cases, there’s no history of domestic violence, Levin said.

While that may be, in part, because domestic violence is underreported, Levin says domestic violence and the mass murder of a family are usually two entirely different phenomena.

“Out of nowhere”

In familicides, men typically don’t exhibit violent behavior “until the loss seems catastrophic,” Levin said. “That’s why it usually comes out of nowhere.”

Kelly Starr, a spokeswoman with the Washington State Coalition against Domestic Violence, acknowledges that “not all domestic-violence situations escalate to lethal levels of violence. But this is a horrific reminder that it can.”

In this state, from 1997 through the first half of 2008, 35 children were killed as a result of domestic violence, according to the coalition’s statistics.

Of those, 32 were killed by male abusers.

West, the Cleveland forensic-psychiatry fellow from University Hospitals, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, recently co-authored a review of previous studies on what’s called paternal filicide — fathers who kill one or more of their children.

Stress in childhood

Her review said those fathers tended to be unemployed or in low-paying jobs and that some suffered significant stress during their own childhoods.

The men were driven by a variety of factors, the review said, including perceived altruism, mental illness and getting revenge on the wife. In some cases, a child’s death was an unintended result of abuse or neglect.

Because men who kill their children are not easily identified in advance, West recommends doctors ask male patients having suicidal thoughts “if they’ve thought about the children, what they plan to do with the children.

“It might be helpful in prevention.”

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or