Julia Stuart: What drives a father to kill?

It's the question everyone is asking in the wake of a murder spree by Karl Bluestone, the 'quiet, unassuming' policeman who battered his wife and two of his children to death. Julia Stuart looks for some answers
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The Independent Online

PC Karl Bluestone was a popular and respected officer. He was quiet and unassuming and clearly loved his four children, whom he walked to school every day. But, as anyone who has seen a newspaper in the past couple of days will know, after work on Tuesday he returned to his semi-detached house in Gravesend, Kent, picked up a claw hammer and killed his wife Jill, his three-year-old son Henry, and his 18-month-old toddler Chandler. He also seriously injured his eight-year-old son Jack. Only his seven-year-old daughter Jessica managed to escape the carnage. Bluestone, who was 36, then hanged himself in the garage.

His family, friends and colleagues are still trying to understand how a seemingly loving family man who dedicated his life to fighting crime could turn into a multiple killer. Nothing out of the ordinary appeared to have happened at work that day. A Kent police spokesman said that Bluestone had worked a normal shift on Tuesday, and his colleagues had noted nothing unusual about his behaviour. Peter Snelling, a friend and neighbour who had known the police officer all his life, summed up the atmosphere of incredulity and shock. "I can't believe what he has done to his kids. It seems so out of character as he adored them and they loved him," he said. A bewildered message on a card accompanying some flowers left at the family home simply asked "Why?" ­ a question that was repeated up and down the country as news of the tragic events sunk in.

"Any homicide is shocking," says Elie Godsi, a consultant clinical psychologist at Nottingham Forensic Service. "This goes right to the heart of all the myths that we like to hold ­ that the family is safe, and secure; that your father is there to protect you, rather than harm you; that policemen are law-abiding. And none of those things is actually true, very often, unfortunately."

It emerged on Thursday that this was a classic case of a peaceful public façade concealing considerable private turmoil. Bluestone appears to have had a number of affairs, while his wife was seeing another man as well. The couple had also been rowing over the fact that Mrs Bluestone, a £40,000-a-year accountant with Basildon Council in Essex, wanted to move closer to her work in order to further her career, while her husband did not want to uproot his young family. Even so, could anyone have predicted Tuesday's bloodbath?

Multiple murders are very rare in Britain. Since the late 1970s, there have been about a dozen cases. And most, like most homicides, happen in a family setting.

The image of the nice, ordinary man next door who suddenly breaks and goes on a wild killing spree is more Hollywood than reality, says Godsi, the author of Violence in Society ­ the reality behind violent crime. Most men who kill in the home have a history of violence. "It's very unusual for domestic violence, particularly when it's this severe, to be a one-off. There is usually a pattern of violence, or marital conflict close to violence, over a period of time," he says.

"We like to have an illusion that everything is OK, and then suddenly out of the blue things go wrong. The trouble with violence, particularly in a domestic setting, is that it's usually quite a private thing. People trot out and say that the perpetrator was laid-back, charming and nice. He may well have been in public, but that doesn't mean anything in terms of what was going on in private."

Though the facts about the Bluestone case are still emerging, it is known that most multiple killers were either emotionally, physically or sexually abused as a child, or had witnessed such behaviour as they were growing up. They may also have a background of marked insecurity and instability, perhaps due to an enormous amount of change in their home life, which would lead to them being very insecure in relationships as an adult.

As well as a predisposition to violence, there are usually current issues that push them over the edge, such as debts, infidelities on either side, threats to leave because of violence, or alcoholism. Lee Watts, 43, who lives with his wife and three daughters opposite the Bluestone family, said he had previously heard a "heated row" between the husband and wife.

And while it is difficult to say whether the officer intended to kill his family, or acted in a "moment of madness", Godsi believes that the slaughter may well have been premeditated. "What seems to point towards a degree of planning is that he attacked the children as well. If it was a temporary loss of control, more than likely he would have stopped and thought: 'Oh my God what have I done?'" It is very common for multiple murderers to then commit suicide. "It certainly seems to be that this guy would quite likely have been suffering from some sort of mental health problem," says Godsi. Indeed, some neighbours have reported that the officer had appeared depressed.

Godsi is not surprised that a police officer should turn to violent crime. "If you look at the history of multiple murders in this country, one of the features that emerges is an interest or preoccupation in military things ­ a macho, gun culture." He says the macho environment of the police force would certainly not have helped Bluestone. "It's the sort of culture in which you don't really talk about your problems. It's less likely that he would have received the right kind of professional help, actively sought it or accepted it if it was offered. And it may well have been that he was the sort of chap who wasn't particularly good at dealing with his feelings anyway. The fact that he did what he did suggests that that's probably true."

Bluestone's friend and neighbour Peter Snelling said that the officer, who worked with a rural tactical unit, had always been a quiet and introverted man who bottled up his feelings.

Certainly the pressures of the job would also have gone against anyone suffering from emotional problems. "The public sector over the last 10 or 15 years has become a ruthless place to work," says Godsi. "People are working longer hours, and they're expected to do more of what they've been told to do and less of what they want to do. Over the course of my career ­ particularly in the last five or 10 years ­ I've seen hordes of teachers, doctors and policemen all off with stress, wanting to leave the profession, wanting to retire early, or being retired on medical grounds."

Pressures on family life have also increased drastically over the last 10 to 15 years, during which time violence in general has risen at an unprecedented rate. People believe they should have a perfect relationship, and feel a failure if they don't live up to the image of the stereotypical happy couple. They are also expected to move around a lot with their jobs, which dislocates them from their community and extended families. Some couples believe that materialism is the key to happiness, and so work harder. And many parents find it almost impossible to bring up a family on one income, which puts enormous pressures on a family. "We are absolutely bombarded with complete myths, one of them being that the family home is a place of happiness and safety," says Godsi.

Whatever else PC Bluestone may or may not have done, he certainly shattered that particular illusion on Tuesday night.