Family of a Stittsville double murder-suicide continues to seek answers — (Ottawa Magazine)

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Ottawa Magazine

The house lights were off on that cold winter’s evening, but there was little else to warn Jon Corchis of the horror within as he returned home from work. The IT consultant was slightly annoyed at himself for forgetting to pick up his dry cleaning as he stepped into the unusually quiet home. No sound of children playing, no smell of dinner wafting from the kitchen, but he shrugged it off, assuming his wife had taken the children for a walk. His heartbeat quickened when he switched on the lights and saw his wife’s boots by the door — perplexed, he began calling out everyone’s names.

“Alison? Alex? Katie?”

No answer.

Then his eyes came to rest on two envelopes lying on the front-hall table. One was addressed to “Jon.”

“I remember that day as clear as a bell,” says Corchis. His voice catches, and suppressed tears fill the pauses as he recounts the message in the handwritten letter.

“Dear Jon, I know you will never forgive me for what I have done. I will take the blame because I did it out of a genuine belief that I was protecting the children. They are safe forever now. No more harm can ever come to them. I know you can start again.”

In our initial conversations in 2016, Jon Corchis was unable, emotionally, to go into depth about the events of January 14, 2013. Instead, he directed me to his lawyer’s office, which helped fill in the blanks. The paper trail of his decimated life is stuffed into a 25-centimetre-thick brown legal file. It contains transcripts of interviews, copies of Alison’s diary, medical notes, and the coroner’s report detailing the deaths of three people. As I read through the documents, it was obvious the clinical language of doctors cannot blunt the shock of this tragedy.

“She premeditated it”

Alex, 10, and Katie, 6, were found in the basement of their home, in their sock feet, lying on opposite ends of the same couch. The cause of death for both was listed as trauma — cuts and stabbing. There were no defensive wounds on the children’s bodies. Their 41-year-old mother, Alison Easton, lay crumpled on the floor just a few feet away. Firefighters had attempted to perform CPR on her, but it was too late. She was found with a cord wrapped around her neck and was bleeding from a cut across her throat. A large kitchen knife lay beside her body.

“It had the appearance of a murder-suicide,” said major crime detective Kevin Wilcox. Prior to that January evening, the soft-spoken, unfailingly polite veteran Ottawa police officer of 30 years had never investigated a homicide that involved a mother killing her children. But he had investigated enough deaths to know instinctively the differences between the look of a deliberate crime and the appearance of one committed in the heat of the moment.

“[What I saw] tells me she premeditated it — that this was part of her plan.”

Had Alison survived, Wilcox would have charged her with first-degree murder. The Corchis children were kept home from school that day, and toxicology tests indicated they were heavily drugged. The who, what, when, and where are easy to answer, but the question of why is far more complicated.

A troubling family history

“She was a wonderful girl, a wonderful daughter, and a wonderful mother. I just feel like she slipped through the cracks, and I don’t know how.” A helpless sadness tinges Bruck Easton’s answers when he’s asked about his eldest daughter, Alison, one of his six children in a blended family.

Easton has happy memories of Alison ordering her younger siblings to bed and trying to master baking pies as a tween. A university graduate with an English and a teaching degree, she used Harold Bloom’s Western Canon as her reading list and dreamed of writing the great Canadian novel. After the birth of her children, she put the kids first and her teaching career on hold. Her father would often tease her about her “helicopter parenting,” but Easton says he didn’t notice any alarming behaviour.

But Alison did have a troubled family history.

Easton, who is actually her uncle, assumed guardianship of Alison and her brother after both their parents died by suicide. Also, her brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his teens. Alison was concerned that her children would inherit some form of mental illness and would often ask Easton if he saw any similarities between her father and brother and the children.

“But I didn’t think she [Alison] was mentally ill. She was always a good student, always responsible, and then she got married and had children,” says Easton as his voice trails off. “I didn’t think I had to worry about her.”

Easton and Corchis were shell-shocked and unable to equate the double murder-suicide with the woman they loved, so in the spring of 2015, they met with the regional coroner of eastern Ontario. The two pushed for an inquest — they wanted a public airing of facts to prevent future tragedies. They particularly wanted to know if the drugs Alison was prescribed had had an impact and if there was proper medical follow-up. The coroner said “no” to the inquest, characterizing Alison’s death as a “crime of love” borne of mental illness. They were told theirs was a private tragedy and that dissecting the case wouldn’t serve the public good.

For Easton, it was too simple; it was too incomplete an answer for the price that was paid.

“The results are so catastrophic — that’s the worst part it.”

Unable to get more detailed answers from the coroner, Jon Corchis contacted me, three years after I initially reached out to him through family members. I had covered the murder-suicide for CBC News when the story first broke. As a mother of a boy and girl close to the ages of the Corchis children, I was haunted by the story. I couldn’t understand the crime and wondered about the welfare of the man whose life and loves were destroyed. Meanwhile Corchis had hired a lawyer to seek advice on how to push for an inquest but was discouraged from doing so as it would prove too difficult and too expensive. But Corchis wanted the loss of his wife and children to result in some good. He wanted to tell his story. Perhaps it would be therapeutic. Perhaps it would help someone else.

Looking for red flags

It’s relatively unusual for mothers to kill older children. A University of Guelph study published last year shows that between 1961 and 2011 in Canada, 361 children between the ages of five and 11 years old were killed by their parents. Of those murders, 32 percent were committed by women.

In Ontario, public hearings into deaths are initiated when someone dies in the workplace or if a youth dies while in jail or restrained during medical treatment. Inquests can also happen when children who have come into contact with the Children’s Aid Society die. The double murder-suicide of Alex, Katie, and Alison falls outside these parameters, but Dr. Simon Hatcher, vice-chair of psychiatric research at the University of Ottawa, believes this type of death should be studied more fully.

Dr. Hatcher says it’s an example of “systemic stigma” and hypocrisy to encourage the public to talk about their mental health and seek help when suicides aren’t being fully researched to gather data to prevent future deaths. He wants to see unusual and violent suicides such as Alison’s studied by a panel of mental-health experts.

“There’s much to learn,” says Hatcher. “Did the patient get the necessary access to help? Was the family doctor left on his own? What does he [the doctor] know about mental illness? What’s the medication — the dosage? If we collected this information, we would see the red flags.”

In searching for red flags, Jon Corchis identifies a child’s play date in the late spring of 2012. Alison feared her daughter Katie had been inappropriately touched by a classmate’s father during the play date, so the couple reported her concerns to police and to the Children’s Aid Society. Alison even had Katie checked by a doctor. All the investigations came back negative.

A photo of the Corchis children Katie, 6, and Alex, 10. Photo courtesy of Jon Corchis

While Corchis accepted the findings, he says his wife did not. “She was feeling guilty about it. She kept on reading about childhood trauma and what to look for. She was seeing things that weren’t there.”

From that point on, Alison became even more protective and based every decision she made about the kids on safety. Corchis says she started obsessing over her volunteer work with Neighborhood Watch, and insignificant events would raise her suspicions. She called police to report teens hanging out at the schoolyard across the street or when she heard a loud noise at night. The paranoia caused a rift in the couple’s relationship. Finally, after weeks of tension, Alison acquiesced to pressure from her husband and booked a doctor’s appointment in June.

Her family doctor diagnosed her with dysthymia, a mental-health disorder defined as a mild depression that lasts for at least two years. Aware of her family’s suicide history, he gave Alison a prescription for Cipralex, the most commonly prescribed drug on the market for depression and anxiety. The family physician also referred her to a psychiatrist.

Initially, the drug appeared to work. In July, the Corchis family travelled to Windsor to celebrate Bruck Easton’s 60th birthday. Relatives remarked on how she seemed carefree, and Alison boasted happily, “I now know what normal feels like.” But that progress wasn’t mirrored in her journal entries — a few months later, on September 15, 2012, the paranoia was evident, and she even foreshadowed the crime to come in her writing.

“Why should I leave my children at risk if I can make sure no one can hurt them again. I can’t shake the feeling we are being watched.”

The following day she wrote:

“I would be doing them harm to save them from a far worse fate. I’d do it swiftly and with love.”

In November, Alison met with a psychiatrist as part of her routine follow-up after going on medication, and once again, signs of her deteriorating condition weren’t observed. Following the appointment, the psychiatrist wrote her family doctor:

“The improvements on Cipralex 10 mg daily has been significant. She says she understands how other people function now. I told her she can stay on it as long as she wants. … I don’t see any need for follow-up at this time.”

Alison continued to schedule counselling sessions with a social worker who specialized in psychotherapy. They met several times, but Alison cancelled appointments in December, one month before she killed her children and herself.

How could so many mental-health professionals miss the warning signs? It’s a question that gnaws at the Corchis family. It’s a question I pose to Dr. Pierre Blier, Canada Research Chair in psychopharmacology and an internationally respected expert in mood disorders. Although he hasn’t seen Alison’s complete medical record, Dr. Blier says it’s possible Alison’s long-term depression resulted in a psychotic break. “If somebody is presented with all the evidence in the world and [still] doesn’t believe, by definition we call that a delusion, and it’s a symptom of a very serious psychopathology … and unless you question someone thoroughly as to their beliefs, you may miss it.”

If she was delusional, Blier says, Alison should have been treated with a stronger dose of medication and/or different drugs. He stresses that someone with an alarming family history of mental illness needs to be monitored more closely, as they are 40 percent more likely to attempt suicide. But Blier also points out that effective treatment is dependent on sufficient information. “There’s no blood test for mental illness. It’s the onus of the person to be honest. If patients don’t tell you the truth, there is no way we can know.”

The second envelope

Corchis never opened the second letter on the hallway table. That one was addressed to Ottawa Police. Detectives revealed its contents months after the loss of his family. In the handwritten note, Alison warned police about the “predator” who molested her daughter, urging them to reopen their investigation and to watch him closely before he victimized another child.

It’s proof Alison didn’t get better. Proof that she was hiding her paranoia. Proof that no one realized until it was too late.

Open wounds

There is a wooden bench in the foyer of the Stittsville Public School with the names of the Corchis children engraved into a simple plaque. When he visits Ottawa, Easton sits on that bench and takes comfort in the fact that his grandchildren were loved by many. But Windsor is their final resting place. Alex and Katie are buried in the city where Alison was raised. When strangers ask Easton how many children and grandchildren he has, the three are always included in his final count. But years later, the pain is still raw. Easton tries to lose himself in work, but grief pangs still wrack his body. The paralyzing sobs don’t last as long nor do they strike as often, but they still come.

“It’s better lately, but it comes and goes. Time helps.”

Jon Corchis has also returned to Windsor, to the city where he and Alison first met — to be closer to family and to start over. There are no pieces of their lives left to pick up, but Corchis has learned through grief therapy to accept his suffering as an opportunity to create something new. He has remarried but still carries the past with him. The home screen of his phone displays a photo of Alex and Katie at the top of a play structure. The kids are waving and smiling ear-to-ear — a reminder of what was lost and the scars that will never heal.