Losing everything: `Gentle and generous’ couple doomed by depression, hard times — (East Side Journal)

Original article no longer available

East Side Journal

2002-11-11

by Lori Varosh, Journal Reporter

It wasn’t unusual for Howard Babroff and Katherine Kushell to take a week or two to return phone messages.
So their close friends, Phyllis and Don Foro of Kirkland, didn’t begin to worry until Oct. 6 —  “Kitty” Kushell’s birthday — one of many special occasions the two families typically celebrated together.
The Foros’ concern proved well-founded. Sunday, Oct. 6, Issaquah police would later speculate, is the day Howard killed Kitty with a single shot to the head, then turned his gun on himself.
Their deaths were not discovered until a King County Sheriff’s deputy arrived at their Sammamish Pointe condominium on Newport Way Northwest on Oct. 22 to serve an eviction notice. Their bodies were officially identified a week later.
News accounts of  “decomposed bodies” that neighbors believed “nobody missed” upset Phyllis Foro. That was no way to describe the gentle and generous couple who were her daughter’s godparents, she said.
“Those two bodies were people, and we loved them and they loved us,” Phyllis said.  “They were just wonderful people who came upon hard times.”
* * *
Ashleigh Foro, now 17, was a toddler when her mother met Howard Babroff at the Bellevue Acura dealership in 1987.
He was a service adviser, “and the level of customer service overwhelmed me,” Phyllis said. Howard not only drove her to work, he returned the repaired car, bill in hand, before noon the same day.
Phyllis and Howard identified with each other’s Jewish heritage. And Phyllis’ husband, Don, shared Howard’s love for classic cars and car racing.
“We just adopted each other,” Phyllis said.  “He reminded me of my brother.”
Howard became an integral part of the Foros’ traditions, sharing Passover meals and helping assemble a purple Big Wheel and other presents on Christmas Eve.
Then, in 1990, Howard met Kitty Kushell when her Acura needed service. A romance blossomed.
“They were loving people,” Phyllis said. “They were really good for each other.”
Kitty, who had been estranged from her family for years, embraced the warm friendship Howard enjoyed with the Foros.
“We were more family to them than their families,” Don said.
A stock broker, Kitty helped the Foros with some investments. The Foros found her “quiet, cultured and warm,” Phyllis said.
At first, Ashleigh resented having to share the attention of “Uncle Howard,” but she soon grew to love Kitty, too.
The two families picked pumpkins together each Halloween and shared feasts each Thanksgiving, where Phyllis’s specialty, pumpkin soup, was Kitty’s favorite, and everyone looked forward to Howard’s Boursin cheese-filled mashed potatoes and gravy.
Howard measured flour and worked on cars with the same precision and perfection, Phyllis recalled. But when it came to personal matters, he sometimes got cold feet.
He planned to surprise Kitty with a proposal at the Empress Hotel in Victoria, B.C. on Valentine’s Day 1999. By then Howard and Kitty were living in Vancouver, Wash., and Howard invited the Foros to come along.
Howard forgot to pack his dress shoes, however, and had to wear footwear they laughingly referred to as his black “dress tennies.” Just before proposing, he dragged the Foros toward the bathroom for a final pep talk.
“Every time Howard got nervous, his face would turn bright red like a tomato,” Ashleigh said.
Kitty, who thought the couples had come to the Empress merely for high tea, discovered her engagement ring tied to a wreath of crushed flowers among the desserts, Phyllis remembered.
Because they couldn’t have children of their own, Howard and Kitty asked to be Ashleigh’s godparents, and they took the role to heart.
They were “so close that, if you needed anything, you could ask them and they’d be there — like family,” Ashleigh said.
The couple showered their godchild with presents, including an Acura Legend in March that they had spent $9,000 to restore. In September, for her birthday, they gave her an aquamarine choker that had been Kitty’s grandmother’s.
“She asked if it was OK; she had nobody else to give it to,” Ashleigh said.
Kitty and Howard would drive across the state — from Vancouver, B.C., to Wenatchee to Portland — to cheer Ashleigh on in ice skating competitions. They insisted on buying the most boxes of her Girl Scout cookies, and participated in any fund-raiser or community service project she proposed.
They helped sew her costumes for ballet recitals, took her for her first drive on the ocean beach, and helped her adopt a kitten.
They would stay with Ashleigh when her parents were away on business, and they agreed to raise her if anything happened to Phyllis and Don.
Both Kitty and Howard suffered from depression, but the Foros knew both were taking medication and believed they were getting the help they needed.
In the last couple of years, however, the couple seemed to back out of more and more commitments — often because Kitty wasn’t feeling well, Ashleigh said.
The Foros knew they had troubled lives.
* *
Kitty hadn’t been on speaking terms with her family ever since she’d sued her father in 1992 for sexually abusing her from age 8 to 14.
Kushell told police the call had upset his mother and he felt compelled to warn Kitty sternly to leave her alone, said Issaquah Police Cmdr. Stan Conrad. Prosecutors didn’t consider the call enough of a threat to warrant prosecution.
It wasn’t the first time Kushell had threatened Kitty. Court documents show Kushell sent Kitty a threatening letter in September 1992 when she filed the lawsuit against her father. In those documents, Kitty said she had repressed the memory of the abuse until age 34.
In 1994, Kitty and Howard moved to Vancouver to distance themselves from Kushell, the documents indicate.
The abuse lawsuit was settled out of court in 1999, Kitty said in the documents. She also said she was eventually due to inherit more than $1 million from a family trust.
Kitty further told the court she had been on disability since February and that the stress of the harassment was making her intestinal ailment worse.
The Foros didn’t think twice about giving Kitty a key to their house, so she could have a safe haven.
At the same time, in an attempt to get down to size 8 by her wedding day, Kitty was subsisting on Slim Fast and losing weight at a rate friends thought was far too rapid. But she said she felt better because she looked so trim in the last month or two, Ashleigh said.
In early summer, however, Kitty had to be rushed to the hospital after a prescription pain killer she took reacted with other prescription drugs, Phyllis said.
In July, Howard lost his job with Acura of Lynnwood, where he worked in the parts department, Phyllis said. Employees at the dealership would say only that his departure was “a tough subject.”
The couple immediately began falling behind in their rent.
At Ashleigh’s birthday party Sept. 16, the Foros noticed Kitty wasn’t wearing her 1-karat engagement ring. She told them it was because of her weight loss, but the Foros now wonder if she’d hocked the ring to pay living expenses.
But every time the
Foros asked, Kitty and Howard would say, “Everything is fine.”
Kitty was upbeat about leads she said she had for brokerage jobs on the Eastside, Phyllis said. “She was happy she wouldn’t have to cross the bridge.”
The couple was planning a small civil wedding ceremony between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
A week and a half after her Sept. 16 birthday, Ashleigh said, Howard talked of helping her change the oil in her car. He gave no inkling of any departure plans.
Within days, however, things unraveled.
In late September, Phyllis learned later, Howard phoned his mother and told her he would be homeless in two days.
On Sept. 29, Howard was admitted to Overlake Hospital for a mental health evaluation. Police said he had threatened to kill himself and Kitty. On Oct. 1, Howard walked out of the hospital against Overlake physicians’ advice.
Howard had called his mother twice, once in late September and once from the hospital, asking for money and threatening suicide, police would later learn. She had given him money in the past, and just couldn’t do it again, police said.
By Oct. 6, Phyllis Foro was worrying in earnest. She’d left Kitty a message inviting her to an Oct. 3 breakfast at Nordstrom, where Oscar de la Renta would introduce a new fragrance, but received no response. It wasn’t like Kitty not to reply, nor to let her birthday pass without a word.
More than two weeks later, a King County Sheriff’s deputy was sent to serve an eviction notice at the Sammamish Pointe condominium the couple rented from an out-of-state owner. Howard and Kitty had paid no rent since June.
As he approached the condo, the deputy smelled the distinctive odor of death, police said.
The deputy entered through an unlocked garage door and found the couple in a third-floor bedroom. Kitty was under the covers, and had likely been asleep when she was shot, Issaquah Police Cmdr. Conrad said. Howard was lying next to her, on his back, with a handgun on his chest. A phone book next to him was open to gun listings in the yellow pages. Two shell casings lay nearby.
The couple’s answering machine and caller ID were full of apparently unanswered messages. Unopened mail, including numerous late-payment and collection notices, were piled in the kitchen, living room, garage and car.
Investigating detective Scott Trial concluded “they never threw any mail away” in the year they lived there, Conrad said.
More than a month’s worth of newspapers, still in their bags, were piled inside and outside the front door. Inside, there were documents that showed Kitty was appealing a decision to end her disability payments.
Because of the position of the bodies and the wounds, the gun and shell casings found at the scene, and the evidence of financial and emotional distress, Issaquah Police believed the case might be a murder-suicide. The King County Medical Examiner’s office made that the official ruling a week later.
Police sorted through bags of mail, looking for a suicide note. They finally found one last Monday, typed on the couple’s computer.
Howard’s note said he had forced himself into a situation “from which I’m unable to recover.” He declared his love for Kitty, but said he could no longer protect her from life and “I do not want her to see me as I really am.”
The events to come would be the “last act of my caring for her,” he said.
“Anything we have worth keeping, please give to Ashleigh,” he directed in the note, adding that “life is no longer worth living.”
It was not clear whether Kitty agreed.
“She knew he had a gun in the house, and she didn’t say anything. I think she probably wanted him to (kill her),” Phyllis said. “They were both hurting people.”
Police aren’t so sure. They found a cryptic note in Kitty’s handwriting in a kitchen garbage can that said, “Get rid of guns” next to the single word “Overlake.” Police surmise she may have been taking notes while talking to Overlake hospital personnel.
On the other hand, Kitty and Howard had been giving away prized possessions, including the nicer of their two cars, for months — a sign of suicidal plans, Conrad said.
“We may never know whether she agreed to it or not.”
* * *
The circumstances of Howard’s and Kitty’s deaths left their loved ones groping for answers.
“I’m very heartbroken,” was all Howard’s mother, Alice Babroff, would say by telephone from her home in Downey, Calif., a week ago. “This is the hardest thing for a mother to face.”
She may find solace in Howard’s expressions of love for her and his father in his suicide note.
Phyllis Foro was in Hawaii, on business, when Don learned of the two deaths Oct. 22 on the evening news. Though Howard and Kitty were not identified, Don and Ashleigh thought they recognized the condominium.
“I couldn’t cry; I was just shaking,” Ashleigh said. “I couldn’t stop shaking until the 11 o’clock news showed it again.”
Howard was a fixture in her life for as long as she could remember. She said he was a “very sensitive, sincere” man, and Kitty was the same way.
“I can’t imagine Howard doing that,” Ashleigh said. “Howard was the type of person who could never hurt a fly.”
The Foros hope Howard and Kitty can reside together at Wright Funeral Home in Seattle, where Howard’s cremated remains are to be placed in a memorial wall. His mother’s temple held a memorial service last weekend in California.
The deaths leave an aching hole in the Foros’ lives. Ashley will graduate from high school this year — without her godparents to celebrate a milestone they would never have passed up.
Another friend of Howard’s told Phyllis that “he was always too proud to ask for help, even as a child,” and that failure leaves the Foros feeling bitterly disappointed.
“I’m past-president of Bellevue Sunrise Rotary,” which supports agencies like Northwest Harvest and Eastside Mental Health, Phyllis said. “He knew that. … The whole goal of those organizations is to prevent what happened.
“It disappoints me they didn’t say anything, so we could say, `We love you no matter what. Let’s see how to get you help.”’
The apparently inexplicable act of murder-suicide is “hardest for those of us who are left behind,” Phyllis said. “We’re wondering what are the answers. What could we have done differently?”
All they can do, she concluded, is remember the good times.
“If they were going through all this without saying anything to anybody, maybe now they’re at peace.”
Lori Varosh can be reached at lori.varosh@eastsidejournal.com or 425-453-4243.