2 Sonoma County elderly murder-suicides in as many days

For two days in a row, Sonoma County has seen married couples die in murder-suicides. 

Wednesday, deputies responded to a Timber Cove campground on the coast and found a man who had shot his wife to death and then himself. Relatives said the pair was despondent over poor health and financial problems. 

Thursday afternoon, Petaluma Police made a similar discovery in a quiet east side neighborhood. 

"They were the best neighbors and both incredible characters," said Heather Thornton, describing the elderly couple she had come to know on Echo Court.   

Thornton gave their names as Rick and Patty, high school sweethearts who spent a life together and raised two daughters, living on the street since the 70s when the subdivision was new.

Their eldest daughter found their bodies Thursday about 4 p.m., dead of gunshot wounds.  
They were in failing health, apparently spiraling the past few months. 

"Both of them were in bad shape and I can't imagine one of them wanting to live without the other," said Thornton, sadly. 

For several hours Thursday evening, Echo Court was cordoned off while police conducted their investigation. 

"I was shocked when I came home yesterday and heard this news, they will be greatly missed," said neighbor Raymond De Leon. "I used to go over and have coffee with them, bring my dog and visit, solve all the world's problems."

Neighbors are heartsick they did not detect the couple's desperate situation. 

"If somebody wanted to take their life, isn't there going to be some better option than this?" posed neighbor Kathy De Leon. "I just don't get it. Something has to be done."  

Those who work with elders note depression is a potent threat, particularly as health declines. 
"If we don't find resources for these individuals that's when these tragic things happen," said Elece Hempel, Executive Director of Petaluma People Service Center, a non-profit that serves human needs in the community. 

"You can ask for help, and people are there to help, and there are so many safety net programs in Northern California and throughout the state," Hempel told KTVU. 

Hempel says communities are startled to realize seniors in their midst are so despondent. Taking care of an ailing spouse, she points out, is stressful and exhausting, especially when the caregiver's own health is frail. 

It helps for everyone to pause and pay attention.

"Ask yourself, ‘Is there a difference? Is somebody not coming down to the mailbox?’" said Hempel. “Because I haven't seen that neighbor in a while, maybe I should go knock on their door and see if everything is okay." 

Isolation, a change in behavior, no interest in eating, are all red flags among seniors. 

"I tried really hard to get them to bring in some elderly care," said neighbor Thornton, mourning the couple she had grown close to over the years. 

Like many of their generation, Rick and Patty were proud of being independent, stoic about their struggles, and not inclined to seek help. 

"There was no foul play here, they were two lifetime lovers, and I believe they made this choice together," said Thornton. “But I'm really sad. They were really beautiful people and I will miss them." 

In both the Petaluma and Timber Cove cases, there were warning signs. Law enforcement had been called to both households in recent months, responding to suicidal behavior. 

In both instances, guns were confiscated, and the distraught spouse given a psychiatric evaluation.