Daniel Coe tried fire once. He set a lighter to gasoline and ended up killing his wife, not himself.
On Jan. 18, Coe tried water. Hours before he was to begin a 10-year prison sentence for his wife’s death, he drove his truck off the Mukilteo ferry dock into Puget Sound and sank into the cold darkness.
Coe’s psychiatrist, who saw him as a victim, and the Snohomish County prosecutor, who saw him as a killer, traded criticisms. Relations between Superior Court Judge Linda Krese, who sentenced Coe, and new Judge George Bowden, formerly Coe’s defense attorney who had asked Krese to spare Coe prison, turned suddenly delicate.
“It’s awkward,” Bowden said. “It’s just a very tragic end to what was from the beginning a tragic story.”
The Coe case undoubtedly was unusual. But suicide is not.
Just 18 days into the new year, Coe’s was the seventh suicide in Snohomish County. Suicides nationally outpace homicides, ranking ninth overall as a cause of death in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Washington, suicide is ranked the eighth-leading killer. And it might be even higher.
“For every suicide in King County, there is another case where we’re not sure if it was suicide,” said Christos Dagadakis, director of emergency psychiatry at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
King County reported 238 suicides in 1996, the most recent figures available. Statewide, 776 people killed themselves. The same year there were 88 homicides in King County and 259 statewide.
King County’s suicide rate in 1996, 14.6 people per 100,000, was higher than the national rate of 11.9 per 100,000.
Washington, like the rest of the West, always has had a higher suicide rate than the rest of the country. That’s partially, Dagadakis said, because of its higher rate of people from elsewhere.
“More rootless people kill themselves more often,” Dagadakis said.
Dreary days, however, seem to have no effect, contrary to popular wisdom. After a 10-year study of suicide in Seattle, Dr. David Avery of Harborview concluded, he said, “There is no seasonal variation.”
Despite suicide’s frequency, the causes are only partly understood. What is clear is that the reasons are complex, involving physical, psychological, social and perhaps genetic factors.
That’s why experts warn against accepting the usual explanations in suicide notes, left about a third of the time. Although relationships or economic problems and other stressful events can be triggers, the problem usually lies deeper, said Douglas Jacobs, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and an expert on depression and suicide.
Up to 90 percent of people who kill themselves are suffering from depression or from bipolar disorder, Jacobs says. Both disorders can distort thinking and cause feelings of hopelessness. Additionally, says Jacobs, 75 percent are both depressed and have an additional psychiatric disorder, such as drug or alcohol addiction, or a personality disorder.
Yet mental illness doesn’t explain suicide, either. Most people suffering from depression do not kill themselves.
“Suicide is not just due to an illness,” Jacobs said. “It’s something more. It’s the person, their family history, their personal situation.”
Even though women make more attempts – and recent studies show an association between battered women and suicide – about 80 percent of completed suicides are men.
Experts suggest that men, who also commit most homicides, are more violent and use methods – such as a shooting – in which rescue is impossible. They also are less likely to talk with others about their desperation or to seek psychiatric help.
Drug and alcohol use also increase the risk, in part because they increase impulsiveness: A half of suicide victims are drunk at the time of their death, Jacobs said. Physical illness and a family history of suicide also increase the risk.
By all accounts, Coe, 50, was depressed, isolated and a difficult man. He had a family history of depression and had taken early retirement from GTE rather than risk a poor evaluation. He was upset over relaxations in his church’s dogma, according to court documents, and also was perturbed that the family home in Stanwood was failing to sell, delaying plans to move to Hawaii.
But if he wanted to kill himself, why would he set his home ablaze with his wife of 26 years inside? Why, in November 1996, did he leave his bed before dawn, pour gasoline on the recreation-room carpet and light it?
Murder-suicide is rare
It’s extremely rare that people attempting to kill themselves accidentally kill others, experts say. But an estimated 5 percent of suicides intentionally kill another – usually their mates or children – before killing themselves.
Rescuers found Debra Coe, 44, on the garage floor with burns covering 94 percent of her body. She asked for water. When asked if her husband had tried to kill himself, she nodded yes. She died a few hours later.
Daniel Coe, burned over 40 percent of his body, was heard to say, “I’ve killed her, and kill me,” according to court documents. He told firefighters he had started the fire to kill himself.
“What have I done? I’m so stupid,” he said.
Coe was charged with second-degree murder, but the case never went to trial. Because of state laws classifying deaths that occur during commission of other felonies as murder, prosecutors didn’t have to prove Coe was trying to kill his wife, as her family believed; only that he purposely had started the fire.
Coe pleaded guilty. He said he loved his wife and denied allegations that he had abused her. He said he had wanted to kill only himself. His wife died coming to his aid, he said.
It was in Coe’s sentencing that his attorney, Bowden, hoped to make a case that Coe also was a victim – of mental illness.
Bowden asked Krese to let Coe go free. A prison sentence, Bowden said, would dishonor Debra Coe’s love for her husband.
Bowden brought in Dr. Julia Moore, a Federal Way psychiatrist who treated Coe after the fire, to testify about his depression. Moore said Coe was stricken with a depression so severe that it interfered with his thought processes, rendered him incapable of foreseeing consequences and allowed an irrational, impulsive suicide attempt.
It was wrong, Moore said, to have charged Coe with murder at all, and wrong to sentence him to a long prison term for what essentially was an accident beyond his control.
“We’re criminalizing mental illness,” Moore said. “He suffered a lot.”
But Krese was not convinced. Before handing down a 10-year sentence, the bottom of the standard range for second-degree murder, she said Coe must face consequences for his wife’s death.
And she said evidence – Coe was fully dressed, had splashed gas only on his shoes and socks, and had left himself an escape route through the garage – made her question whether the fire had been a suicide attempt.
Sentencing judge won’t comment
Krese has declined to comment on the sentence or Coe’s suicide. Snohomish County Deputy Prosecutor David Hiltner said that while he sympathized with Coe’s two adult children, the case had been dealt with appropriately.
Hiltner had argued that the fire might have been Coe’s attempt to torch a house that wasn’t selling, and he introduced evidence – which was disputed by a defense expert – that Coe had disabled the smoke alarms in the house.
After Coe’s suicide, the prosecutor remained unconvinced that the act of a widowed, injured man facing prison proved Coe was trying to kill himself in the fire.
“It’s an interesting thing: He does it before going off to prison and after fighting it out to the end to get the very least sentence he can,” Hiltner said. “And then, when the court did not give him just what he requested, he did this.
“. . . We went in there to do what the law required us to do. We weren’t asking for the death penalty. Apparently, he decided to impose that on himself.”
Hiltner added that Coe might not have been allowed 10 days’ freedom before reporting to jail – and the opportunity to kill himself – if Moore had not said Coe was responding well to anti-depressants and was not a suicide risk.
The Coes’ children, Mark Coe and Jenifer Wieck, both in their 20s, stood by their father, testifying about their parents’ mutual love.
Neither wanted to comment on their father’s death. “It’s been horrible from the very beginning,” Wieck said from her Everett apartment.
It’s impossible for anyone to know what was in Coe’s mind when he set the house on fire, and when he drove into Puget Sound.
“Does the suicide mean he really didn’t intend to kill her?” Jacobs asked, or was it the delayed second act of a murder-suicide?
“You can argue either way, and that shows that despite what we know about suicide, it’s still a mystery.”
Nancy Montgomery’s phone message number is 425-745-7803. Her e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
———– Death rates ———–
Suicides, homicides and traffic deaths in King and Snohomish counties, 1993-96:
Sources: County medical examiner’s offices.
————— Suicide methods —————
Ten most frequent suicide methods in Washington state in 1996:
1. Guns, 447 deaths.
2. Hanging, 98.
3. Drugs, 90.
4. Motor-vehicle exhaust, 58.
5. Jumping from a height, 29.
6. Suffocation, 15.
7. Knives and other sharp instruments, 13.
8. Drowning, 8.
9. Jumping or lying in front of a moving object, 7.
10. Fire, 4.
Sources: state Center for Health Statistics; data analysis by Seattle Times researcher Vince Kueter.