Original article no longer available
By Farah Stockman and Francie Latour, Globe Staff
Late Tuesday night, hours after Colleen Mitchell shot a prominent cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and then killed herself, Boston police opened the door to the tiny, Beacon Hill apartment where the secretary lived alone.
Inside apartment No. 2, they found signs of a woman who suffered from depression, and who had prepared for the violence she would later unleash: There were 40 rounds of .38-caliber ammunition, and a gun cleaning kit. Investigators also found personal papers and prescription bottles of two antidepressants among the items Mitchell left behind at Champney Place, according to a law enforcement official who was briefed by investigators.
As a police spokeswoman yesterday confirmed the deaths of Mitchell and Dr. Brian A. McGovern as a murder-suicide, the other official, who asked not to be identified, painted a grim picture of what trauma workers must have seen when they entered his office near the hospital’s main lobby.
McGovern was lying on the floor, to the right, and Mitchell was slouched against the wall with a .38-caliber revolver beside her left hand. Mitchell had shot McGovern three times; one bullet grazed McGovern’s right arm, indicating a defensive wound.
Then Mitchell – a quiet neighbor and reliable employee who, by all accounts, showed no signs of inner turmoil – turned the gun on herself.
”It appears that Mitchell was suffering from depression and shot Dr. McGovern several times before shooting herself,” police said in a statement. Police spokeswoman Mariellen Burns said the gun Mitchell used had not been reported stolen. But she also said Mitchell had no license to carry a gun in Boston, and police doubted she had a license to carry one anywhere else in the state.
The new details yesterday shed little light on a motive for the shooting of McGovern, whom friends recalled as a man who helped underprivileged children and led his medical school class in Ireland. Later, as a husband and father, he loved to watch his oldest daughter play soccer, and he had just returned from a whitewater-rafting trip with his family in Ecuador, they said.
”His family was everything to him,” said Dr. David Keane, also from Dublin, who had worked with McGovern at MGH since 1995. ”He’s not one of the people who went off to play golf or ski on his own – it was always with his family.”
Keane was baffled by the shooting. ”He was the least likely person to upset anyone, very respectful to everyone who worked in the department,” Keane said. ”I don’t think he had anything to do with her [Mitchell]. She wasn’t his secretary.”
The shooting’s aftermath rippled across two countries, from the small Virginia Beach hamlet where Mitchell’s elderly parents have lived for 25 years, to Dublin, where stations broadcast the death of an Irishman who became a world-renowned physician. There, they asked the same questions that have haunted Mitchell’s co-workers since Tuesday morning.
”We’ve looked through her employment record and history and everything is very rosy,” said a Massachusetts General Hospital executive, who asked not to be named. ”There was no disciplinary actions or misconduct.”
Mitchell began working at MGH in May 2001, one of a pool of roughly 1,000 employees for Bulfinch Temporary Services, an inhouse agency that places secretarial and service workers. She had worked in 25 different temporary assignments, ranging from one day to several weeks in duration, usually filling in for a secretary on vacation. Her most recent assignment began in September at McGovern’s laboratory, where he studied and diagnosed disturbances in heart rhythms.
Mitchell performed so well there that the hospital offered her a full-time position in December, according to Jeff Davis, senior vice president for human resources at MGH.
”She really did well in all her assignments,” Davis said. ”It is very hard for us to understand. We can’t find anything that could have predicted this.”
Before moving to Boston, Mitchell was a well-respected social worker at Elizabeth General Medical Center, now called Trinitas Hospital, in Elizabeth, N.J., where she worked from 1974 to 1997 and left voluntarily. ”She was a good employee,” said Doug Harris, a hospital spokesman.
In Cranford, N.J., where she had lived, Mitchell was known as a collector of antiques, a lover of Victorian styles, and a caring social worker. She was licensed as a certified social worker in 1994, renewed it once, and let it expire in 1998, according to the New Jersey State Board of Social Work Examiners. She was never disciplined while practicing social work, according to state records.
As investigators and Mitchell’s own family continued to search for answers, it appeared yesterday that the only clear sign of turbulence in her life lay in the two bottles of pills police found in her apartment: prescriptions for Wellbutrin and Zoloft, commonly used antidepressants.
Dr. Anthony Rothschild, director of clinical research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, said the two drugs are frequently prescribed together.
Zoloft is prescribed to combat depression, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress. Wellbutrin is sometimes added to counteract sexual dysfunction, a side effect of Zoloft, Rothschild said.
”There’s no evidence that people who take Wellbutrin or Zoloft, or both, have a higher rate of committing crimes than anyone else,” he said. ”People committing suicide is sometimes an unfortunate outcome of suffering from depression. But not homicide. In her situation, it doesn’t make sense. There must have been some other thing we don’t know about.”
Yesterday, a friend said the depression and suicide showed a side of Mitchell he never knew.
”She was just happy, upbeat … happy-go-lucky,” said Chris McDonough, a longtime friend from New Jersey. ”Something had to snap, somewhere along the line. She was so normal. I can’t see it being any other thing.”
Douglas Belkin, Alice Dembner, and Liz Kowalczyk of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.
This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 4/10/2003.