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November 19, 2000
Author: Tom Jackman; Washington Post Staff Writer
The classic nuclear family. For their own reasons and in their own visions, that’s all Rick Hamilton and Bene Svitavsky really wanted. Seemingly, they had it. A neat home in Herndon. Three healthy, happy children. Good jobs. Good friends. Good, stable lives.
But beneath it all was a wrenching pressure. And Hamilton, 47, was silently feeling crushed. He endured chronic neck pain for years, now aggravated by kidney stones. He was buried in mortgages and credit card debt. He argued regularly, bitterly with Svitavsky, 46, about finances and family, leading to a deepening depression. And he was trying to kick a chain-smoking habit.
Still, he managed to walk the line, getting up every morning and making the commute to his job as an electronics technician in Arlington, coffee thermos ever by his side. At the end of the day, he picked up his two daughters from day care, and friends said he adored 6-year-old Sara and 8-year-old Katy.
But on the morning of Thursday, Nov. 2, that line disappeared. Somehow, he could see only one way out.
It happened after his 20-year-old stepson left for work just before 7 a.m. His daughters were getting ready for school, eating cereal and watching television. Svitavsky, a nurse at the National Institutes of Health, was in the kitchen. She and Hamilton had quarreled again. That was a constant, friends and family said. Eight years of marriage had only heightened their differences: She was the gregarious, party-throwing liberal, he the quiet, model-train-building conservative.
At 7:15 a.m., Hamilton called his employer to say he would not be coming in that day. He and Svitavsky had just had another “knock-down drag-out,” the employer later told Hamilton’s father, and Hamilton had said he was leaving this time.
Instead of leaving, though, Hamilton took a Colt .45-caliber pistol and fatally shot his wife and two daughters in the head. Then he splashed kerosene and gasoline around the house, mostly in the room where he kept his prized model train collection.
At 7:50 a.m., he called his parents in central Illinois one last time. He seemed different, somehow “euphoric,” his father, Richard W. Hamilton Sr., recalled.
“I just wanted you to know things are bad here,” Hamilton told his parents. He told them that he, Bene and the children would not be able to make his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary party. He also said the arguing with his wife, in front of their small children, “tore him up.” Then he told his parents they might be getting a “bizarre call” from Virginia.
“He was saying goodbye,” his father says he knows now.
Then Rick Hamilton ignited the house, walked into the garage and shot himself in the head.
Firefighters found the four bodies within minutes of arriving at the Hamiltons’ seven-room colonial on Bayshire Lane.
Opposites Explode The paths that Rick Hamilton and Bene Svitavsky traveled from childhood through marriage to mutual disaster were starkly different, yet not so unusual when compared to the lives of countless other suburban families, friends and family say. Other couples have marital trouble, money problems, physical woes. But somehow, the pressures on this nuclear family exploded in violence.
The experts have a word for it: familicide, the murder of an entire family. Experts estimate it happens about 50 times a year in this country, a relatively small number compared with the roughly 22,000 homicides, but a ghastly figure when multiplied by the dozens of relatives and friends who are traumatized by each such sudden, unthinkable act.
The killer is nearly always the father, and he almost always takes his own life as well, said Richard J. Gelles, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has written extensively about family violence. Gelles said the fathers usually fall into one of two types: the quiet, well-ordered man whose true intent is suicide but who believes he should protect the rest of his family from the resulting pain; or the less organized, more controlling man who believes that his family may leave him and considers that unacceptable.
Gelles said that those of the latter type often “put out a certain notice that this was all unfolding.” And sure enough, two days before the shootings, Hamilton despairingly told a longtime friend, “I might as well just shoot everybody and burn the house down.” The friend had heard such talk before and gently shifted the conversation.
Hamilton’s friends think it was a combination of those factors: a quiet, uncommunicative man who, though intelligent, couldn’t picture any other escape. His parents think anti-depressant medication pushed him over the edge.
“Knowing the pain which his little girls would endure, the anxiety of separation, the almost impossible financial hurdle, his chemically altered brain seemed to find the perfect solution and in minutes, destroyed everything that was precious in his life,” Richard Hamilton Sr. said.
Richard W. Hamilton Jr. was born and raised in rural Findlay, Ill., the oldest of four children of a Korean War Army veteran and career postal employee. After six years in the Navy, much of it on a nuclear submarine, he got a college degree in design. He was 32, unmarried, and he moved to the Washington area for a job. After several years, he landed a traveling sales and collection job that took him, in his battered Dodge Colt, throughout the Southeast. At a wedding in Tennessee in 1991, he met Svitavsky, his father said.
By 1991, Bene M. Svitavsky was a twice-divorced single mother with an 11-year-old son, but she still had dreams of more children and the perfect family. “She was looking for love so desperately,” said Jayne Rogers, a friend since the mid-1970s, in part because of her own tough childhood.
Raised in upstate Rockport, N.Y., her parents divorced when she was 8 and her younger brother, Jon, was 5. Her mother, a diagnosed manic depressive, moved to South Florida, and her father remarried and had four more children. She and her brother bounced between the two parents and didn’t have good relations with their stepmother, Jon Svitavsky said. Friends said the unsettled family made Bene determined to establish her own stable homestead.
She met her first husband at Beloit College in Wisconsin and moved to the Washington area with him in the mid-1970s. While here, she met her second husband, William McLeese, and gave birth to a son, Evan McLeese, in 1980. That marriage soon ended, and Svitavsky returned to college, getting a nursing degree at George Mason University. She worked at a veterans hospital in Richmond and eventually became a psychiatric nurse at the NIH hospital in Bethesda.
By the time she met Hamilton, she had been a single mom for 11 years. “It was tough for her,” said Bob Counts, a longtime friend. “She had good friends, but she needed a man. She was an emotional person and needed a lot of emotional support.” Her work as a psychiatric nurse honed her nurturing skills, Counts said, but she needed someone other than hospital patients to share with.
She and Hamilton conducted a long-distance relationship for a time before Hamilton settled in Northern Virginia. “It was clear they weren’t that compatible,” said Barbara Wolanin, another close friend of Svitavsky’s. She was talkative, politically liberal. Hamilton was laid-back, emotionally reserved, politically conservative.
“He wasn’t anywhere near as intense as her,” Rogers said. “With her need to take care of people, she thought she could get him to be that way if she just loved him enough.”
Plus, Svitavsky was pregnant with Katy. Hamilton told his family he would “do the right thing.” In the spring of 1992, they went to a justice of the peace and got married. Katy was born that August, and the next year, they bought the three-bedroom house in Herndon for their growing family. Less than a year later, Sara, was born.
Instant Family Man They had made it. Svitavsky had the stable home and family she had long craved. Hamilton, in two years, had gone from a single guy to married with three children–a role he felt was expected of an upstanding, traditional husband, friends said.
Their circle of friends grew through work and hobbies and intersected at the three or four large parties Svitavsky threw every year. She would lay out huge spreads of food and play good music. Lively conversation chattered on past midnight.
Hamilton grew more immersed in his model trains, amassing a valuable collection of engines in a room behind the garage and indulging his love of carpentry by building intricate layouts. He was active in the National Capital Trackers and attended numerous meetings and displays, sometimes with the girls in tow. A huge Grateful Dead fan, he also amassed thousands of CDs.
Svitavsky had her own hideaway in the house–a well-supplied sewing room where she sewed endlessly, both for her family and for friends. “Everybody who knows Bene has a quilt,” her brother said. He added that she also doted on her daughters “and was a wonderful mother.” At work, she was a warm and creative caregiver who didn’t hesitate to suggest better approaches to depressed and psychotic patients, said her former boss, John J. Tuskan Jr.
But the couple’s personalities never meshed. “He was actively passive-aggressive, utter sarcasm,” said Paul Flint, a longtime friend of the couple. “And she could do sarcasm better. It was difficult to be around. You thought you were in a ‘Roseanne’ episode.”
Exacerbating those tensions were the everyday troubles. Neither was good at finances, and their credit card debt ballooned, followed by a second mortgage on the house. Hamilton’s physical ailments–chronic neck pain from a car accident in college, then kidney stones–may have seemed more aggravating as he tried to quit smoking. Their cars were constantly breaking down, and Flint said it was a struggle for the two commuters to get to work sometimes.
Both confided frustration with the marriage. “I think it caused her tremendous pain,” Svitavsky’s brother said, “that she and Rick didn’t have a real warm, close, nurturing relationship.” Some thought that Svitavsky’s expectations of openness and intimacy put more pressure on Hamilton, who didn’t want or need such closeness.
Hamilton last month told another old friend, Doug Stewart, of the money troubles, and Stewart suggested the family declare bankruptcy. “That was not something he could accept,” Stewart said. He also mentioned feeling depressed. Hamilton later told his father he was taking a combined anti-depressant and anti-smoking drug.
Breaking up did not appear to be an option. Stewart attributed that to Hamilton’s Midwestern values and a belief that a family always sticks together. Flint thought it was his military background, which traced through his family for generations. “Navy men stand fast,” Flint said. “He was not going to be dishonored.”
Hamilton’s father said his son could not afford to leave his wife and still support his children, and “he just couldn’t stand to think he had left them.” Hamilton also liked stability. Friends noted he drove his Dodge for 300,000 miles before it expired. “Rick didn’t change things,” his father said. “He liked things as they were.”
Svitavsky’s mental health training did not help her anticipate her husband’s explosion, friends say. In fact, she held out hope for better days. In the rubble of her burned house, Stewart found a card Svitavsky wrote to her husband earlier this year. It contained this plea: “Please let me in.”
Record Number: 111900LC01IN9316