Pushed past their breaking points, people are robbing banks to pay the rent, setting homes on fire — even taking their own lives.
The body count is still rising. For months on end, marked by bankruptcies, foreclosures, evictions, and layoffs, the economic meltdown has taken a heavy toll on Americans. In response, a range of extreme acts including suicide, self-inflicted injury, murder, and arson have hit the local news. By October 2008, an analysis of press reports nationwide indicated that an epidemic of tragedies spurred by the financial crisis had already spread from Pasadena, California, to Taunton, Massachusetts, from Roseville, Minnesota, to Ocala, Florida.
In the three months since, the pain has been migrating upwards. A growing number of the world’s rich have garnered headlines for high profile, financially-motivated suicides. Take the New Zealand-born “millionaire financier” who leapt in front of an express train in Great Britain or the “German tycoon” who did much the same in his homeland. These have, with increasing regularity, hit front pages around the world. An example would be New York-based money manager René-Thierry Magnon de la Villehuchet, who slashed his wrists after he “lost more than $1 billion of client money, including much, if not all, of his own family’s fortune.” In the end, he was yet another victim of financial swindler Bernard Madoff’s $50 billion Ponzi scheme.
An unknown but rising number of less wealthy but distinctly well-off workers in the financial field have also killed themselves as a result of the economic crisis — with less press coverage. Take, for instance, a 51-year-old former analyst at Bear Stearns. Learning that he would be laid off after JPMorgan Chase took over his failed employer, he “threw himself out of the window” of his 29th-floor apartment in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Or consider the 52-year-old commercial real estate broker from suburban Chicago who “took his life in a wildlife preserve” just “a month after he publicly worried over a challenging market,” or the 50-year-old “managing partner at Leeward Investments” from San Carlos, California, who got wiped out “in the markets” and “suffocated himself to death.”
Beverly Hills clinical psychologist Leslie Seppinni caught something of our moment when she told Forbes magazine that this was “the first time in her 18-year career that businessmen are calling her with suicidal impulses over their financial state.” In the last three months, alone, “she has intervened in at least 14 cases of men seriously considering taking their lives.” Seppinni offered this observation: “They feel guilt and shame because they think they should have known what was coming with the market or they should have pulled out faster.”
Still, it’s mostly on Main Street, not Wall Street, that people are being driven to once unthinkable extremes. And while it’s always impossible to know the myriad factors, including deeply personal ones, that contribute to drastic acts, violent or otherwise, many of those recently reported are undoubtedly tied, at least in part, to the way the bottom seems to be falling out of the economy.
As a result, reports of people driven to anything from armed robbery to financially-motivated suicide in response to new fiscal realities continue to bubble to the surface. And since only a certain percentage of such acts receive media coverage, the drumbeat of what is being reported definitely qualifies as startling.
Breaking the Bank
In September 2008, a 23-year-old woman from West Norriton, Pennsylvania, robbed a bank, police reported, to pay her rent. According to East Norriton Detective Sgt. Peter Mastrocola, “She said that the reason that she went to PNC Bank and committed the robbery was because she was two months behind in her rent and she was going to be evicted.” In fact, after stealing $1,410, the young woman reportedly told police that she “took the cash from the robbery and went to another bank where she purchased a cashier’s check for $1,410 made payable to Westover Village Apartments…”
The next month, in Northampton, Pennsylvania, a 49-year-old woman reportedly robbed a bank and, just 18 minutes later, “arrived at a check-cashing business and arranged for several money orders — totaling $1,090 — to pay a portion of the rent she owed her landlord.” According to court papers, a “confidential informant” told police the woman had confided that “she was going to rob the bank to satisfy about $1,800 in back rent.” The police reported that she was “in the process of being evicted.”
This, however, is no Keystone State phenomenon. As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, “Another sign of the bad economic times… [b]ank robberies, which had been declining for years, rose in 2008 in Southern California… [by] 22% compared to 2007.” In Orange County, the spike was especially acute, a jump of 41% to 145 robberies. Similarly, Inland Empire News Radio reported that authorities attributed a 13% rise in bank robberies in Riverside and San Bernardino counties to a “poor economy.”
“We’ve certainly seen a rise in bank robberies across the country particularly in our metropolitan areas,” FBI Special Agent Scott Wilson recently pointed out. “The bank robbery rate has risen dramatically.”
Last year, according to the New York City Police Department, bank robberies in that city jumped to more than 430, a 54% rise over 2007. On December 29th alone, CNN noted, “robbers targeted five banks in the Big Apple, some striking in broad daylight and near famous landmarks.” Interviewed by the New York Times, a customer in one of the robbed banks put the obvious into words: “It makes me think that the recession is making people go to extreme measures.” Illinois Wesleyan University Economics Professor Mike Seeborg agrees. Commenting on a similar local spike in crime, he told a Central Illinois TV station, “There’s a clear linkage nationwide that when the economy is in bad shape, when unemployment begins to increase, if people lose their jobs and output falls, that crimes against property especially increase.”
At least 33 people chose to commit suicide in national parks in 2008. And there seemed to be an economic component to at least some of the cases. For example, an Associated Press report noted that a “49-year-old builder blamed the economy in a note he left for his ex-wife and attorney before killing himself at the edge of the woods at Georgia’s Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park.” Similarly, in October, Bruce J. Colburn, a “[f]reshly unemployed, former business executive” from Reading, Pennsylvania, traveled to Montana’s scenic Glacier National Park where “he shot himself in the chest with a handgun, according to park officials.”
Others stayed closer to home.
On October 14, 2008, a woman in Bogart, Georgia, was “supposed to go to court for an eviction hearing.” Instead, she called the police and informed them that she was thinking of killing herself. Not long afterward, she shot herself in the head. On October 29th, a 47-year-old man from Blount County, Tennessee, “killed himself when sheriff’s deputies tried to evict him from his rented home.” The next month, according to Mike Witzky, the executive director of the Mental Health and Recovery Board in Union County, Ohio, two local men committed suicide due to financial problems, while another failed in his attempt.
On December 5, 2008, Ricky Guseman of West Palm Beach, Florida, was to be evicted. Instead, local officials told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, he “barricaded himself in a mobile home… set the place on fire and then shot himself in the head with a shotgun.”
In December, coroner’s investigators in Kern County, California, revealed that they were “seeing a wave of people committing suicide because of financial stress,” a 5-10% increase over 2007.
An analysis of 2008 “death reports” in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, by local ABC television affiliate WISN-TV found “[f]inancial pressure in a difficult economy has led to desperate measures.” Of 108 suicides — a 20% jump over any of the last three years — at least 25% of the victims “were struggling financially.” For example, Wauwatosa resident Tom Brisch, a married father of two, fell on hard times after his wife of 20 years, Sherry, lost her job. At the same time, his job as a commission-only Ford car salesman fell victim to the sluggish auto market. As Sherry summed the situation up after his suicide, “[T]he economic picture with a kid going to college, another one starting high school… was pretty grim and we were struggling.” She returned home one day to find that her husband had hanged himself. In his shirt pocket was a suicide note in which “he asked for forgiveness and wrote that he could not get it together to provide for them.”
WISN-TV uncovered a host of similar tragedies including:
* A 21-year-old Milwaukee man who shot himself in the face after “he ran out of unemployment [insurance].”
* A 43-year-old West Allis man who hanged himself in his basement with a belt. “[T]he mortgage payments are behind,” his girlfriend told the police. “There are astronomical medical bills.”
* A 40-year-old Milwaukee woman who overdosed after having “financial problems.”
* A 24-year-old Milwaukee man, “fired from his job three weeks before,” who suffocated himself with Saran Wrap.
* And a 38-year-old Milwaukee man who shot himself in the head. He’d lost his job six weeks earlier.
In January, less than an hour’s drive south of Milwaukee, 37-year-old Staci Paul’s car was pulled from Lake Michigan, but they couldn’t find the body of the Kenosha, Wisconsin, woman. As an article in the Kenosha News noted, however, friends “said they knew things hadn’t been easy for Paul. A single mother, she worked hard to find jobs and as the economy worsened, friends speculated, Paul might have run into some financial trouble. Court records also show Paul had been evicted from her home in October.”
Paul apparently felt she had to deal with her problems on her own. Others, however, have called for help. According to a January 9th report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, local police received a phone call concerning a 64-year-old resident of Westview, Pennsylvania, who was “apparently distraught over losing his house.” When they arrived at the home, they found him “sitting in a lawn chair in his driveway with a rifle under his chin.” He was later taken into custody and sent to a psychiatric clinic for “evaluation.”
Increasing numbers of desperate souls have also called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which logged a record 568,437 calls in 2008. (There were only 412,768 such calls the previous year.) Similarly, a recent investigation by USA Today’s Marilyn Elias found that suicide hotlines in Dallas, Pittsburgh, suburban San Francisco, Hyattsville (Maryland), Georgia, Delaware, and Detroit have all reported “increases in callers since the economy slid.” The report added:
“In Boston, more hotline callers with mental health problems mention job losses, evictions or fear that they’ll lose their homes, says Roberta Hurtig, executive director at Samaritans Inc. [a not-for-profit volunteer organization dedicated to reducing the incidence of suicide.] In Kalamazoo, Mich[igan], and other locales, callers with mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder say loss of insurance and cutbacks in public health programs are preventing them from getting medications.
“At the Gary, Ind[iana], Crisis Center, suicidal callers with economic worries are increasing, and their depression is more severe, says Willie Perry, program coordinator for the hotline.”
In Franklin County, Ohio, suicide hot line volunteers are “logging more calls from people in financial distress, says Mary Brennen-Hofmann, coordinator of suicide-prevention services at North Central Mental Health Services in Columbus.” She continued, “We have seen a lot more calls dealing with financial problems, evictions, foreclosures and job loss.”
Similarly, the Hopeline of North Carolina Inc. in Raleigh saw a 50% jump in calls in October and November. “We get calls from people who are suicidal because the stock market is down,” said executive director Courtney Atwood. “They have lost money and are not able to provide for their family.”
In Los Angeles, calls to the city’s “busiest suicide hot line” increased by as much as 60% last year. “A year ago, many of the calls we would get were from people with mental illnesses,” commented Sandri Kramer, the program director of the center that operates the hot line. “Now many of the calls are from people who have lost their home, or their job, or who still have a job but can’t meet the cost of living.”
Not surprisingly, the economic meltdown has also strained marriages and, according to experts, is contributing to a rise in domestic violence. Retha Fielding, a spokeswoman for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, notes that calls increased 18% between October 2007 and October 2008 and attributes the spike to the poor economy. “It is bringing increased stress and violence into the home. Domestic violence is about control. If you lose your job, that’s control you don’t have, so you may want to have more control at home.”
Sometimes economically exacerbated violence can turn deadly.
On December 9th, for example, 59-year-old Thomas Garrett of Midwest City, Oklahoma, murdered his wife. According to Midwest City Police Chief Brandon Clabes, “Garrett told officers he shot his wife because he didn’t know how to explain that they were evicted from their home while she was in the hospital.” He apparently planned to kill himself too, but was stopped by the police.
Thirty-one-year-old Eryn Allegra had lost her home as well as her job, and had, according to press accounts, been thinking about suicide for weeks. On Christmas day, the Port St. Lucie, Florida, resident reportedly checked into a hotel, gave her 8-year-old son over-the-counter medicine to put him to sleep, and then smothered him. She subsequently slit her own wrists in a failed suicide attempt.
Noting a man’s pickup truck parked in his driveway at a time when he was normally at work, neighbors in an “upscale neighborhood” in Manteca, Georgia, entered his home which a bank had recently approved for a short sale. (A short sale often takes place when a buyer in default is trying to avoid foreclosure.) According to the Manteca Bulletin, they found him “lying in the foyer of the home… dead of a gunshot wound.” Arriving at the scene soon after, police discovered the body of his wife nearby “and located a firearm near the two bodies.”
On January 11th, Pinole, California police responding to a domestic disturbance call found 43-year-old Kimberly Petretti sitting on the curb in front of the home. She was being evicted that morning. Inside the house, which “showed no signs of a preparation for the move,” they found the woman’s mother, 62-year-old Claudia Petretti, dead — shot in the head with an assault rifle. According to Deputy District Attorney Harold Jewett, a two-page letter on the scene indicated a murder-suicide plan linked to the family’s financial difficulties. “It was a significant event in their lives that may have precipitated this tragic and desperate act,” he said.
Last October, a man in Los Angeles, beset by financial troubles, shot his wife, mother-in-law, and three sons before turning the gun on himself. An eerily similar scene replayed itself this week, when another Los Angeles resident apparently killed his wife and five children — an 8-year-old girl, twin 5-year-old girls, and twin 2-year-old boys — before faxing a letter to a local television station and then killing himself. “This was a financial and job-related issue that led to the slayings,” Deputy Chief Kenneth Garner http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2009/01/4-children-moth.htmlsaid. “In these tough economic times, there are other options. In my 32 years, I’ve never seen anything like this.”
As the World Burns
On December 15th, a 41-year-old Dubuque, Iowa man “used liquid pre-shave to set his apartment on fire because he thought he was going to be evicted.”
On December 21st, a 31-year-old woman who had been evicted from her Orange Park, Florida, apartment, “started a weekend fire that caused an estimated $500,000 in damage” to the complex that was her former home. That same day, a woman in St. Augustine, Florida, “was charged with arson… after vacating a house she was evicted from that was later found burning.”
On January 5, 2009, Bobby Crigler, the property manager for Holly Street Apartments in Fayetteville, Arkansas, said, “I went over and had a confrontation with [tenants about an eviction notice], and they got belligerent.” After that, he sent the property’s maintenance man, his son, 49-year-old Kent Crigler, to change the locks at another tenant’s apartment. When friends of the tenant facing eviction spotted Kent, they assumed, according to Bobby, that he was there to evict their buddy. They set upon Kent, punching and kicking the father of four to death, according to a report in the Northwest Arkansas Times.
Generally, however, if you weren’t a multimillionaire intent on suicide, what you did to your house, your husband, your wife, your child, your bank, your neighbors, your landlord, or yourself remained a distinctly local story, a passing moment in the neighborhood gazette or a regional paper. And for the range of such acts, unlike sports statistics, there are no centralized databases toting up and keeping score. Every now and then, though, a spectacular act of extreme desperation makes it out of the neighborhood and into the national news.
One of these occurred this January, although the media generally played it as a sensational screwball story rather than another extreme act stemming from the economic crisis. In December, Marcus Schrenker, a money manager and sometime stunt pilot, penned a letter that read, in part: “It needs to be known that I am financially insolvent… I am intending on filing bankruptcy in 2009 should my financial conditions continue to deteriorate.” They did.
As the Indiana investment adviser grew more desperate to escape mounting financial difficulties and legal issues stemming from accusations of investor fraud, he reportedly hatched a plan that was splashed all over national television as it unfolded. According to news reports, he staged a Hollywood-style getaway from his rapidly deteriorating life, complete with a fake mid-air mayday call, a parachute jump over Alabama, and a faked death from a plane he put on autopilot that crashed in a swamp near a residential area in the Florida Panhandle. Schrenker then raced away on a carefully pre-stashed motorcycle, before being discovered by federal marshals just after he had slashed his wrists at a Florida campsite. He recently pleaded not guilty in federal court to charges that he willfully destroyed an aircraft and made a fake distress call.
Going to Extremes
Across the United States, people have been reacting to dire circumstances with extreme acts, including murder, suicide and suicide attempts, self-inflicted injury, bank robberies, flights from the law, and arson, as well as resistance to eviction and armed self-defense. And yet, while various bailout schemes have been introduced and implemented for banks and giant corporations, no significant plans have been outlined or introduced into public debate, let alone implemented by Washington, to take strong measures to combat the dire circumstances affecting ordinary Americans.
There has been next to no talk of debt or mortgage forgiveness, or of an enhanced and massively bulked-up version of the Nixonian guaranteed income plan (which would pay stipends to the neediest), or of buying up and handing over the glut of homes on the market, with adequate fix-up funds, to the homeless, or of any significant gesture toward even the most modest redistributions of wealth. Until then, for many, hope will be nothing but a slogan, the body count will rise, and Americans will undoubtedly continue going to extremes.
Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of Tomdispatch.com. His first book, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, an exploration of the new military-corporate complex in America, was recently published by Metropolitan Books. His website is Nick Turse.com.