Family in mourning as motive remains a mystery — (The Wenatchee World)

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The Wenatchee World

By Jaime Adame, World staff writer

Posted July 24, 2008

This is the second of a two-part report on the July 7 deaths of Taunya Hilliard and her son, Spencer Hepko. The Wenatchee World has gathered information from family members, Child Protective Services and police and court records.

EAST WENATCHEE — More than 100 people were in attendance July 11 at the funeral for Taunya L. Hilliard. Dozens of photographs filled the lobby of Telford’s Chapel of the Valley, many showing a smiling woman with family. A few people shared memories of Hilliard. Some described her as a loving parent.
Yet police say the 37-year-old mother of three intentionally shot her 9-year-old son, Spencer Hepko, before turning the gun on herself.
Found on the ground in the area known as Porter’s Pond in East Wenatchee was a two-page handwritten note that police say was authored by Hilliard.
Hilliard’s brother, Brandon Jones, said in phone interviews that he had not read the note, but some family members had.
“All I’ll say about the note is that it didn’t give any indication at all as to why she would do this,” Jones said. “The note gave no reason.”
No information about a possible motive in the shooting has been released by East Wenatchee police.
Jerry Ripley, father of Hilliard and grandfather of Spencer, said family members were “dumbstruck” following the July 7 shootings near the Apple Capital Recreation Loop Trail.
“The question comes up, ‘Why?’ We don’t know why,” Ripley said in a phone interview.

Medication and counseling

The police investigation remains open, with toxicology results pending from an autopsy performed on Hilliard.
Though Jones said his sister had abused drugs in the past, he said he thought she had been off drugs for the past two years.
Another brother, Tom Ripley, 41, said his sister only used drugs briefly several years ago.
Both, however, said their sister was taking antidepressant medication, and there had been a change in her medication within the week before the shootings.
Jerry Ripley said his daughter was seeing a counselor, but he didn’t know why or for how long.
“All I know is that Sunday she had tried numerous times to get ahold of her counselor and couldn’t,” he said.
Tom Ripley, of Waterville, said his sister saw a counselor “on and off for a few years” and battled depression.
“She was trying like hell to deal with it,” he said.
Jones said he thought his sister might have had a mental illness, based on “erratic behavior.”
Hilliard “wasn’t a perfect daughter, but she was a wonderful one,” said her father.
She moved to the Wenatchee area in 2002 with Spencer to be closer to family, with her siblings living in the area, said Jerry Ripley, 63. Hilliard’s two other children live with their father out-of-state.
Ripley said his daughter was raised in Silverdale by her mother and stepfather, but he and Taunya were close.
At family get-togethers, “she was always doing funny little tricks, playing tricks on people, and everybody just loved it,” said Jerry Ripley, adding he didn’t know of anything that would have been recently troubling his daughter or any problems with Spencer.
She worked as a flagger, and a pink hard hat was on display in the chapel lobby during her funeral service.
His sister “was one tough chick,” said Tom Ripley, recalling outdoor wrestling matches when they would try to throw each other into whatever water might be around.
Jerry Ripley said his daughter “really enjoyed helping people” and also worked as a caregiver. Public records show she had a pending registration with the state as a nursing assistant.

‘A turnaround’

Prior relationships had ended in divorce and included reports of domestic violence. In 2005, a live-in boyfriend was charged in Chelan County District Court with assaulting Hilliard. He pleaded not guilty before failing to appear at hearings in the case, and a warrant has been issued for his arrest.
But family members have praised Hilliard’s husband of the last two and a half years, Sam Hilliard. The couple and Spencer lived together in East Wenatchee, according to police and family. The gun found at the scene was registered in Sam’s name, police said.
“Sam really loved her; he thought of Spencer as his own,” said her father.
Sam Hilliard did not respond to requests from a reporter seeking an interview.
“What she had done with Sam was a turnaround,” said Jerry Ripley.
Jones said his sister attempted suicide in 2005 by taking pills and had to have her stomach pumped. There were also several letters written in 2005 that described Hilliard — then known as Taunya Brons — as an angry woman, with one letter from her then-husband referencing a welfare worker’s report written several years earlier.
The letter described the report as stating, “There is some concern that the mother lacks the ability to control her frustration and anger.”
Child Protective Services had some involvement with Hilliard and her son, but not within the past year.
Jones said that while he had filed neglect reports about his sister with CPS in the past, he hadn’t done so since her marriage to Sam Hilliard.
“I saw her last summer and she seemed more normal to me than I had ever remembered her, more calm,” Jones said.
Jerry Ripley remembered Spencer, a Lee Elementary School student who had completed the third grade, as “just full of energy,” a child who “loved to play.”

A rare event

In 2005, 70 children between the ages of 6 and 11 were killed by family members in the United States, according to the latest FBI statistics available online.
Catherine Lewis, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Health Center, has studied the link between psychosis and mothers who kill their children.
“The bottom line is, it’s going to be very hard to sit back and predict who might kill their children. But it is possible to identify mental illness, to detect substance abuse and dependency and address those issues,” Lewis said in a phone interview.
Before killing, most women she studied had expressed concern about themselves or their child, Lewis said. But she added, “People can be quite paranoid and guarded and not have people recognize it. … People can be profoundly depressed and hopeless and keep that to themselves.”
In interviews with family members, “none of the people in my sample had said, ‘Goodness, we have to commit this woman, she’s going to kill somebody,’ ” Lewis said.
Susan Hatters Friedman, a forensic psychiatrist and a senior instructor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, has also studied parents who kill their children.
“The most common motive we found in men and women was altruism, which means murder out of love,” said Hatters Friedman by phone. “Which means what they thought they were doing was to protect the child or save the child.”
Her study looked at 30 murder-suicides involving parents in the Cleveland area from 1958 through 2002.
“It ranged from that day ’til a couple of weeks long that they had been pondering it,” said Hatters Friedman.
Parents who kill their children may be responding to real concerns, or they can be out of touch with reality, she said.
In some cases, the killing of a child can stem from a parent’s own suicidal thoughts. “They wouldn’t want to leave them (their children) in an awful world they’re planning on leaving themselves,” said Hatters Friedman.
Michelle Oberman, a law professor at Santa Clara University in California, is co-author with Cheryl L. Meyer of the book “When Mothers Kill: Interviews From Prison.”
In many cases, women who kill their children “don’t feel they can confide in or rely on anyone in their lives,” sometimes as a result of their own mental illness, Oberman said by phone. Typically, such killings are not spontaneous, compulsive acts, she said.
“I think that we as a society feel more comfortable thinking there are two kinds of mothers: loving mothers and bad mothers. But nobody is really all one and all the other,” Oberman said. “You can be both a loving mother and an angry mother, loving and a deeply troubled mother, a loving mother and a sick mother.”
“Our job as a society is to figure out what to do with a more complex reality.”
Jaime Adame: 664-7144
adame@wenworld.com