Making sense of a murder-suicide: A family story — (Indy Star)

SSRI Ed note: "Good" man, loving husband with jealous streak and quick temper takes antidepressants, murders wide and self.

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The Indianapolis Star

Jill Disis,

6:05 p.m. EDT June 7, 2014

EDINBURGH — It’s Saturday morning, and Isiah Stitt is spending the fifth consecutive day in a bed that is not his own in a house he doesn’t live in.

The week has been hell, and today’s not looking a whole lot better. But the sleep-starved 14-year-old knows he has to get through it, so he jumps in the shower, brushes his moppy black hair and makes sure he looks presentable.

He puts on a smart-looking black suit with a red shirt and blue tie that his grandfather helped him pick out earlier that week at Greenwood Park Mall. He bought it specifically for today’s occasion.

Down the hall, Isiah’s great-aunt, Denise Owens, already is awake, her face bare of makeup except for a touch of lip gloss. She has barely slept in days.

The white T-shirt Denise picks out is an unusual choice for a funeral. On the front is a portrait of a happy couple, taken at their wedding seven years ago. The bride’s dress is sheer white with a red sash tied around the middle. The groom is wearing a matching red vest.

Denise finishes dressing by putting on one orange and yellow sock. The other sock is zebra and cheetah print.

Denise and Isiah are ready. They pile into the blue Mustang outside and drive the few minutes it takes to get to the church.

This is the second-worst day of their lives.

When they get to Assembly of God church, they shuffle through the doors and head toward the front.

There, near the altar, lies the body of the woman on Denise’s white T-shirt. There lies Amber Stitt.

The black-haired woman of 30 looks peaceful in the blue-and-silver casket. She is dressed in a No. 12 New England Patriots jersey. Quarterback Tom Brady was her favorite player.

One of her socks is orange and yellow. The other is zebra and cheetah print.

As the beginning of the service draws near, the pews fill up. More than 100 mourners file in. Denise stands next to the casket.  Isiah watches from the front row. Family members next to him are wearing similar white T-shirts.

The service is about to start. The small blue urn with gold trim isn’t immediately visible to most of the congregation. But they all know it is there.  As the preacher steps up to the lectern, Isiah, Denise and the rest of Amber’s family look on. They ignore murmurs coming from the pews.

Are they really burying them together?

How could they do this?

What’s wrong with them?

Five days earlier on Aug. 26, 2013, Amber was fatally shot near a street intersection blocks from her home. Her husband, Kevin Stitt, pulled the trigger before killing himself.

A troubled man

Ask any of Amber’s relatives what they thought of Kevin. In spite of everything, they considered him a good man.   Kevin was a committed father and worked as many as 10 hours a day to support his wife and son.

His love for his wife, family members said, was unwavering.  But from a young age, he was troubled.

Kevin grew up in downtown Columbus, about 45 minutes south of Indianapolis, in a modest brick home with his mother, sister and four-years-younger brother, Mikey. Dad wasn’t around much at the time.

Mikey was Kevin’s best friend. The boys often spent their weekends fishing along the White River.  One time, while playing by the river, 8-year-old Mikey fell off the bank and into the water. Kevin reached out to grab his hand, but Mikey was sucked under by the current.   He never resurfaced.

For years, Kevin refused to talk about what happened to his brother. Kevin was reluctant to grow close to anyone else.  Until he met Amber Burton.

The Burton family used this Halloween party photograph as part of a memorial card to celebrate the life of her and her husband, Kevin.

Parents at a young age

Amber grew up in Edinburgh, a town of 4,000 about 13 miles north of Columbus that sits at the intersection of three south-central Indiana counties.

The Burton family name is synonymous with the town. Local folklore suggests most of the forebears of residents came from Kentucky decades ago looking for work. Some stay close to their family roots, often heading back south for a family reunion with the remaining Burton Kentuckians.

Amber’s family doesn’t know whether they can count themselves among this particular branch of Burtons. But the family is entrenched in the town, nevertheless. Even the oldest of Amber’s relatives, her grandmother Katie Gross, 66, can’t remember a time when her relatives didn’t live in Edinburgh. Burtons stick together.

When Kevin met Amber in November 1997, he discovered a girl who represented everything he wasn’t. Kevin, then 14, was shy and stoic. Amber, also 14, was outgoing and friendly.

His family was fractured. Her family still gathered at Grandma Katie’s.  Their relationship quickly grew serious. Within a few months, Amber was pregnant.

Amber’s family welcomed Isiah — and Isiah’s father — with open arms. But even with that support, the teenagers were forced to grow up fast.

Amber and Kevin finished school and moved in with Grandma Katie. Amber bounced around at a few jobs in fast food and other services. Kevin picked up work as a mechanic.

When Isiah was young, Kevin was preoccupied with his work and his hobbies, including dirt track racing.  But when Kevin finally embraced fatherhood, Isiah said, he did it well. In their free time, Kevin helped Isiah build toy race cars modeled off classic movies and television shows, like the DeLorean from “Back to the Future” or the orange Dodge Charger, “General Lee,” from “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

And when it came to school projects, Kevin could be counted on to help Isiah make the coolest ones in class.  “In fourth grade we did this ‘Wizard of Oz’ thing where you had to make something to do with the (movie),” Isiah says. “He just put a bunch of sheet metal and ribbons together and made an awesome Tin Man.”

Kevin also introduced Isiah to some of his favorite movies, including blockbusters like “Die Hard” and flicks starring Kevin’s favorite actor, action hero Steven Seagal.

As Isiah got older, movie nights at the Stitt house turned into family outings to the movie theater.

On one outing, Amber, on a whim, picked “Charlie St. Cloud,” a drama starring actor Zac Efron.

They grabbed their seats. As the picture played, the plot turned dark. Efron’s character is wracked by guilt after he crashes a car late at night in an accident that kills his younger brother.  Isiah turned to look at his dad.  Kevin held back his tears. Almost.

Amber Stitt enjoyed going to karaoke and dance bars to blow off steam. But her outings were not well-received by her husband. (Photo: Family photo)

When tempers flared

The family rarely stayed in the same home for more than a year or two because they never found a place that felt right for them.  Amid working, moving and raising Isiah, Kevin and Amber occasionally were able to squirrel away their own time together. Amber also was able to squirrel away some time for herself.

When Kevin turned in for the night, she would head out to Ziggy’s, Outer Limits or Caddies, where she could sing karaoke or dance to whatever tunes the local DJs would play.

For Amber, the trips were a way to blow off steam, a way to relive the youth she lost after Isiah was born.  Kevin saw them differently.

“He was really jealous,” Isiah says.  “He was just so paranoid that she was going to leave him.”

When tempers flared, the couple fought — sometimes with words, sometimes with fists.   On a few occasions, Kevin landed in legal trouble. In February 2002 he hit Amber during an argument in their Taylorsville apartment. Isiah was 3.

“It was nothing dramatic,” Denise, Amber’s aunt, says. “She had maybe a bloody mouth.”   Although Amber didn’t want to file charges, a witness still called police. Kevin pleaded guilty to battery and was put on probation.

“Most of the time he got in trouble, it wasn’t because she told the law,” Isiah says.  She never took Kevin’s anger seriously.

The first two times Kevin was arrested ended the same way. He was sentenced to probation. He took all of the required anger-management courses. Doctors prescribed antidepressant medication.

For a few years, things seemed to calm down. But in early 2007, Kevin’s jealousy re-emerged.   That January, Amber was working at an Edinburgh-area Arby’s restaurant when Kevin started suspecting she was seeing someone else.

Her family says none of it was true. But fueled by anger, Kevin formulated a plan for revenge.  He got a shotgun, drove to Wal-Mart and picked up a box of shotgun shells.   When he arrived in the Arby’s parking lot, Kevin fired a round in the air and tossed the gun in a trash bin. Onlookers called police, and Kevin was arrested and charged with criminal recklessness. Yet again, he was sentenced to probation. He was required to resume anger management counseling and began taking anti-depressants again as prescribed by a doctor.

Despite the three separate incidents, Kevin never served more than a few days in jail.  Three months later, the couple were engaged. An Independence Day wedding followed in July.   “It was not a situation that Amber lived in daily domestic violence,” Denise says.  “Yeah,” says Lucretia Blaker, Amber’s cousin and best friend. “He might have got mad and done smacked her.”    “And she,” Denise says, “did the same to him.”

Jealousy and rage

The couple’s tumultuous cycle continued. If they separated, it was never for more than a few days or weeks.  Until last summer.

A spat over an alleged lover would mark the longest Kevin and Amber had ever been broken up. Amber took Isiah and moved in with Aunt Denise. Kevin began hanging out with another woman.  The spouses were not on friendly terms.

Amber chalked up her husband’s short temper to harmless jealousy. The Burtons suspected the pair would be back together in no time.  But sometime last August, things changed.

Although Kevin was by then prohibited from having firearms, he stole a revolver from Amber’s grandfather and started hinting to family members that he was packing heat.   Soon came mumblings of threats against Amber’s life.

On Aug. 12, while Amber and Isiah were at Denise’s home, Kevin flew into a jealous rage.   Police reports and family accounts say he stalked around the house, peering through the windows and knocking on the door.

Kevin threatened to kill Amber. The menace in his voice scared her. She barricaded herself inside the bathroom and called police.   When police arrived, Kevin was on the lawn, screaming.

“I will shoot myself, you will see!” he called out. “I hope you’re happy, Amber, getting me arrested!”    Kevin was thrown in jail for a night. Amber declined to press charges. Police told her to get a restraining order.

That night, a friend bailed Kevin out of jail. Believing a restraining order had been filed by police, Amber didn’t think to head to the city clerk’s office to file it herself.

Kevin’s time in jail didn’t seem to sober him up. At an REO Speedwagon concert on Aug. 17, friends said, he seemed out of it. They heard from him he was taking a cocktail of anti-depressants.

The couple’s fights, meanwhile, continued to escalate. Police records say Kevin showed up at Amber’s workplace on Aug. 19, threatening once again to kill her with a gun. That evening, an officer took statements from Amber and her family.

The following day, Kevin filed his own restraining order against Amber. According to the order, Kevin feared Amber was stalking him.

On Aug. 26, the couple’s battle reached a flashpoint. Amber, realizing she would have to file her own restraining order herself, finally went to the city clerk’s office.   A secretary told Amber her order would go into effect immediately. If Kevin so much as whispered a threat, all she would need to do is show police her papers and they would take care of him.

That evening after work at a mortgage lender, she went home to Aunt Denise’s and called Kevin to tell him she had filed the restraining order. As far as Amber was concerned, their relationship was done.   An hour later, Amber changed out of her work clothes and made plans to visit Grandma Katie, who lived a few blocks away.

As Amber approached the intersection of Franklin and East Center Cross streets shortly after 6 p.m. on Aug 26, Kevin rolled up on a moped. He pulled out the .380-caliber handgun stolen from Amber’s grandfather and shot her twice: once in the head and again in the chest. He then fatally shot himself.

Not the Kevin they knew

Fingers were quick to point blame.  Some family members said the police should have locked Kevin up sooner.   Edinburgh Police Chief David Mann said Amber should have requested a restraining order sooner.

The courts, despite Kevin’s repeated arrests, rarely put Kevin behind bars.   Other family members, such as Aunt Denise and Grandma Katie, suspected that Kevin had started using illegal drugs.

An autopsy report later confirmed the family’s suspicions. There were several drugs in Kevin’s system at the time of his death, according to the autopsy report, including marijuana, stimulants and Xanax, whose side effects can include mood swings, changes in behavior and thoughts of suicide.

The autopsy proved to the Burton family what they believed all along: The Kevin that pulled the trigger wasn’t the Kevin they knew.    “In his mind, I know he did it out of love,” Denise says. “And I know that’s a sick, crazy love, but that’s what he felt.  “He was going to be with her, and nobody else was.”

Denise Owens places a wreath on the grave site of Amber and Kevin Stitt in Edinburgh.

Trying to move on

The Burtons have spent the past nine months trying to move on from Amber’s slaying.   Denise adopted Isiah. She tried keeping him in the same Edinburgh middle school he attended before his parents’ deaths, but things got too hard for the now-15 year old. Students and teachers accused him of lashing out at his classmates. He was suspended after an altercation with a former girlfriend last fall.

Isiah started seeing a counselor but still has troubles. In January, Denise says, he told the counselor he had visions of bringing a gun into school. Administrators shut down the school for a day.

Denise and Isiah think a lot of the backlash has been unfair. Kevin’s actions, Denise says, have stigmatized Isiah as a loose cannon who might attack others at a moment’s notice.

Denise has talked about home-schooling Isiah in the hopes that he can finish the eighth grade and start high school soon.

At one time, the goal was a fresh start by this fall. Now, Denise isn’t so sure.

Visiting the grave site is difficult for the family. Isiah has only been a few times. Grandma Katie doesn’t like visiting at all. Scarred by the memory of her granddaughter’s death, she refuses to talk about many of the events leading up to it. When family members are asked about the circumstances under which Amber died, Katie covers her ears.

“I just wish he shot her in the leg and crippled her so she could still be here today,” Katie says. “He told me all along, he said, ‘Grandma’ – he always called me grandma – ‘I love her so much. I’d never do nothing to hurt her.'”

The family clings to memories as it also struggles to move on.

Earlier this year, they took their regular family trip to Pigeon Forge, a mountain resort city in Tennessee. It was the first time they had been down since Amber and Kevin’s death.

Last Halloween, they threw a party in Amber’s honor. It was always her favorite holiday.

Every month or so, Denise and Isiah try to round up family members and head to the site of the shooting to place a fresh bouquet of flowers on the ground.

And they always will have photographs.

Grandma Katie keeps a portrait of Amber by the bedside. Every night, she kisses it and tells Amber she misses her.

One of Denise’s favorites is from the wedding. It’s the image that made it on to her white T-shirt, the portrait of Kevin and Amber dressed to the nines and holding each other close.

Amber is smiling.   So is he.

About this story

Crime and public safety reporter Jill Disis set out to tell this story shortly after the murder-suicide occurred on Aug. 26. Over the next few months, she interviewed Edinburgh police, Kevin Stitt’s attorney, Johnson County court officials, an Edinburgh Public Library librarian and, in multiple interviews over the following months, relatives of Kevin and Amber Stitt. Disis also reviewed dozens of pages of police reports, protective orders, probable cause affidavits, sentencing orders and other court documents.