Authorities Conclude Investigation: Car fire ruled suicide-double homicide Mother, her 2 small children died in Ozaukee County park — (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

SSRI Ed note: Woman given antidepressants becomes suicidal, kills herself and 2 small children in car fire.

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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

November 8, 1995

Author: EDMUND S. TIJERINA; Journal Sentinel staff

After more than a month of investigation, authorities here officially have reached the conclusion that seemed inevitable: Susan Kercher killed her two children and herself in an Oct. 10 car fire in an Ozaukee County park.

The Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Department on Tuesday concluded its investigation into the incident and ruled it a suicide-double homicide. Susan Kercher, 36; Melissa Kercher, 3; and Daniel Kercher, 5 months, died in a car fire in Waubedonia County Park in the Town of Fredonia.   Authorities said Kercher, who thought she had cancer, wanted to spare herself the agony of a slow death and she feared for her children’s well-being if they were without her. There never was any cancer.

“With the fire originating where it did, the way the fire spread, the reconstruction, our investigators interviewing the family, friends, doctors, psychiatrists’ opinions, all lead to a conclusion,” said Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Lt. Rodney Galbraith. “Step by step, when you talk to all these people, it all made sense in the end.”

Kercher’s father has maintained that the deaths must have been accidental, that his daughter could not have been so depressed as to have taken her life and the lives of her children.   But the investigative report portrays a woman in great turmoil, surrounded by family and friends who desperately wanted to help her, but in the end were powerless.

Kercher; her husband, Mark; and their two children lived in Sussex until about six months before the incident. They had moved to a nearby rural area in the Town of Lisbon, in northern Waukesha County.  According to the report:

About a month before Kercher killed herself, she began telling her doctor, family and friends that she had cancer, ignoring tests that all came back negative. A few weeks before the fire, she began talking about wanting to kill herself and avoiding the agony of dying of cancer, like her mother died two years earlier. She said she did not want her children to have another mother after she died.  Her depression began shortly after her youngest son was born in May, and she also complained of intestinal problems. She was treated for depression and given medication for depression and anxiety.

Shortly before the fire, her husband took his guns out of the house out of fear that she would kill herself. She told him to bring them back, but he refused. Her response was that she would “just set herself on fire.”  Days before the fire, friends began saying she needed inpatient psychiatric care. The day before, Mark Kercher had talked to her doctor and made arrangements for a room at a psychiatric facility. That same day, Susan Kercher called her doctor to ask for more cancer tests. The doctor talked to her about mental health care and said that he and her husband had spoken about it.  That day, she left the Sussex-area house with her children. She telephoned her husband and brother early in the evening and both spoke of psychiatric care. She did not return home, apparently fearing that she would be involuntarily committed and she would not be able to see her children.

She called her husband at 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. The latter call came from a pay phone that authorities traced to a pay phone outside a restaurant in Jackson, a crossroads community at Highways 45 and 60.  Also in Jackson, she used her cash card at an automated teller machine in the village that night. She also may have made a reservation at the Jackson Motel, as a clerk told authorities that a woman named Susan, whose last name began with a K, made reservations for herself and her two children.

From Jackson, she drove to West Bend and made a call to her husband around 5:30 a.m.  About 7 a.m., the fire began. She had poured gasoline over the front and back seats of the 1990 Chevrolet Beretta, before setting the gasoline can on the front passenger seat. She took out a match book and lighter, and lighted the gas can. Investigators suspect that she may have lighted the fire while the car was moving.

The car, traveling less than 20 mph, veered off Upper Park Road, hit a tree and came to rest before bursting into flames. The impact had no effect on the fire. Kercher and her children all died in the fire, as a result of smoke inhalation. Authorities found the plastic gasoline can on the floor of the front passenger seat.

Copyright 1995, 1996 Journal Sentinel Inc.
Record Number:  MLWK269711