Tragedy in the foothills

Warning signs could be missed if murder-suicides aren’t closely tracked, says advocacy group

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the September 13, 2018, issue.

Brad Wheat pounded on the door of a closed supplements shop anchoring a strip mall in the high-elevation town of Martell last Tuesday night. Inside were his wife and the shop’s owner, who was on the phone with 911. Wheat was a California Highway Patrol officer, the owner said. He had a gun.

The tragedy that unfolded September 4 happened slow and fast, like tragedies sometimes do. And when it was over, two high school sweethearts who built a life in the foothills lay dead in a parking lot.

According to the Amador County Sheriff’s Office, an off-duty CHP officer used his duty weapon to fatally shoot his wife and kill himself. The event buckled a community that came to think of Brad and Mary Wheat as pillars: He was a respected lawman. She was a successful business owner. They volunteered at their church, coached youth sports, raised four children and embodied happily ever after. Now that story is in shambles.

According to public health statistics, alarming rates of suicide and firearm deaths are the grim reality hiding behind the picaresque facade in rural communities. Amador County, with approximately 37,000 residents, has the third highest suicide rate in the state, according to the latest County Health Status Profiles.

Of course there’s a big difference between suicides and murder-suicides. The former is considered a solitary act of desperation. The latter leaves a trail of victims and often has a “frustrated, turbulent, intimate, long-term personal relationship” at its core, according to a 2012 article on by psychiatric nurse Pamela Kulbarsh.

This was Amador County’s second murder-suicide in five months.

In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2017, there were at least six murder-suicides in Sacramento County, including one in which children were present, the Domestic Violence Death Review Team reported last year. Outside the county, murder-suicides aren’t tracked in a comprehensive way. A study published in a medical journal in 1997 estimated that between 1,000 and 1,500 people die annually from murder-suicides in the United States.

More recently, the nation drew an incomplete picture of the toll perpetrators of murder-suicides leave behind. Three years ago, 27 states received federal funding to participate in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initiative to track violent deaths. The CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System found that 319 people died in homicides followed by suicides in 2015, at a rate of .21 per 100,000 residents. California wasn’t included in the count, but the state and all others have received funding to participate this year, said a California Department of Public Health spokesperson.

One of the few groups attempting to quantify the trend nationally is the Violence Policy Center, an educational organization focused on ending gun violence. Every few years since 2001, the Washington D.C.-based advocacy group has put out a report titled “American Roulette,” which combs online news accounts to approximate the number of murder-suicides in the United States. The center’s latest report, released in June, counted 296 murder-suicide events across the country through the first half of 2017. Those 296 events left 663 dead, meaning most of the people killed were victims of homicide. VPC’s review of online news reports assigned California the second-highest total of murder-suicide deaths at 66, sandwiched between Texas (84) and Florida (61).

Perpetrators were almost always men armed with guns. Sixty-five percent of the events involved an intimate partner.

“Murder-suicides occur daily across our nation, claiming the lives of spouses, intimate partners, children, and co-workers,” VPC legislative director Kristen Rand said in a release accompanying the report. “The disturbing findings in our study make clear the need for a comprehensive national data collection system that measures the full extent of murder-suicide in our country.”

The full extent is still being felt in Amador County.

Rarely does a murder victim appear alongside their killer in a celebration of life, but those left reeling from Brad Wheat’s final act are reluctant to surrender the fairy tale. According to a joint obituary published Sunday in the Amador Ledger Dispatch, Brad and Mary met attending Colfax High School and youth group in Auburn.

The two married a couple years after graduating and spent most of that union in Amador County, where Mary opened a gym in 2010. At the time of her death, she was running a crossfit studio in Ione. He worked out of the Jackson CHP office.

A GoFundMe page for the couple’s four children eclipsed its $40,000 goal in five days.

While authorities have released an account of what they believe transpired last week, haunting questions are likely to remain. Within minutes of the 911 call, deputies arrived at Get Ripped Nutrition on Prospect Drive to the sound of gunfire, a sheriff’s release states. Mary and Brad Wheat were dead. The store’s owner, Trae deBeaubien, nursed a nonfatal gunshot wound to his shoulder. DeBeaubien and another witness told authorities that Brad Wheat gained entry to the store by shooting through the window. He winged deBeaubien, the altercation spilled outside and deBeaubien escaped. Then Brad allegedly pointed his sidearm at Mary and pulled the trigger several times. Then he turned the gun on himself. He was 45. She was 42.

Two days after the murder-suicide, a vigil drew hundreds to Amador High School. Underneath a black sky, candles did what they could to prick the darkness.