When home isn’t safe: Experts see patterns, potential warning signs in family shootings

Jan 23, 2023, 6:42 PM | Updated: May 21, 2023, 4:27 pm

SALT LAKE CITYThe state’s deadliest shooting in recent memory took place in a rural Utah home, where police say Michael Haight killed his five children, their mother and grandmother before taking his own life. 

The tragedy in Enoch was a grim reminder that mass killings in Utah and on a national level tend to happen away from public places.    

“We’re socialized to believe that we’re always safe at home,” said University of Utah sociology professor Sonia Salari, who studies murder-suicides involving intimate partners.  

But especially for women — and often their children — Salari said home can be the most dangerous place. Most mass shootings involve domestic violence, she told KSL. 

In Grantsville in 2020, a teenager shot and killed three of his siblings, along with his mother. That was six years after a police officer took the lives of his wife, their two children and his mother-in-law in Spanish Fork, then turned the gun on himself. 

Second to the tragedy in Enoch, those were Utah’s deadliest shootings in the past decade, according to news coverage and a publicly available database maintained by the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.   

This sort of violence can sometimes be difficult to predict, but experts say certain patterns and warning signs tend to arise.  

ENOCH, UT – JANUARY 05: Two unidentified women hold back tears at a news conference at city hall on the murder of eight people in the same family on January 5, 2023 in Enoch, Utah. Michael Haight, who was 42, is accused of killing his wife, mother-in-law and his five kids that range in ages from 17 to 4 years old with a gun in his home. The police say there are no additional suspects and the community is not in further danger. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

In many cases, prior threatening behavior has been reported to police, Salari said.  

Her research has found higher rates of these types of crimes — combinations of homicides and suicides involving intimate partners — in parts of the country with less restrictive gun laws and higher gun ownership. The Northeast sees few, she said; the South and Intermountain West more. 

“Victims are most vulnerable when the perpetrator has a firearm,” Salari told KSL. 

Todd Grey, Utah’s former chief medical examiner, agreed. While he investigated deaths where a person shot and killed an attacker, those cases were fewer “than where the use of the gun was just tragic all around,” Grey said.  

Domestic violence was blamed for about one in four homicides he investigated — more than any other category, he told KSL.  

“We see this all the time, and it’s way too damn common,” said Grey, who retired in 2016 after almost 30 years in the job.  

He recalled examining deaths of entire families, along with their household pets. Before retiring, Grey served on a state committee investigating the deaths with an eye toward crafting prevention strategies.  

“They become unfortunately predictable, given a certain set of circumstances,” Grey said. “You’d see all of the things that you pointed out before and seen in multiple other cases, just like a turning wheel always going round and round.” 

The persistent themes included uneven power dynamics in the home, and a view shared by victims and aggressors that “the man of the family was the one that had the right to control everything,” he said.  

Another common thread was looming separation — either in the form of divorce, or a woman ending the relationship — that could lead a perpetrator to make an attempt to regain control and escalate violence, he said.  

In Enoch, Tausha Haight had filed for divorce two weeks before her death, court records show.  

Additionally, attempted strangulation is a “big red flag,” Grey said, even if a victim doesn’t stop breathing and doesn’t lose consciousness. 

“If somebody’s using strangulation as a method of control or punishment for whatever perceived slights the aggressor is addressing, that’s a very dangerous situation,” Grey said. 

Abusers who choke their intimate partners are 10 times more likely to kill them later on, research has shown.  

Macie Haight told Enoch police in 2020 that her father, Michael Haight, had choked her, according to a police report, but police and prosecutors decided not to file charges 

Salari and Grey both champion lethality assessments, a type of questionnaire police use to determine a person’s risk of being killed by a current intimate partner or an ex. They say it’s a good sign more police agencies are using the surveys than in the past.  

pending Utah bill would mandate the protocol statewide. It’s set to be heard by a Senate criminal justice committee Tuesday.  

Domestic violence resources

If you or someone you know is going through abuse, help is available.

  • Utah Domestic Violence Coalition operates a confidential statewide, 24-hour domestic abuse hotline at 1-800-897-LINK (5465).
  • Resources are also available online at the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition website.

There are several ways the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition can help people. Previous examples include providing financial assistance for funerals, for moving, for a variety of things, counseling that help people find a different path or stay healthy and safe and the relationship they’re in.

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When home isn’t safe: Experts see patterns, potential warning signs in family shootings