In Herndon, trying to make sense of a father who kills his family


Police tape is seen where four family members were found dead in a home Tuesday in Herndon. (Dayna Smith/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist September 27, 2012

No horror movie can compare with what these kids in Herndon are imagining, again and again.

It wasn’t a scary intruder or a demon who got into the boys’ bedrooms that night. It was their dad who killed them.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Dad.

“How can you talk about it? I felt helpless,” said Patty Pleasant, as she watched her daughter’s cry/hug/cry cycle at a church vigil Wednesday night.

There would be no making sense of this, the death of an entire family at the hands of their father.

Dad teaches you to ride a bike and swim. He barbecues and kicks the soccer ball with you. Maybe he grounds you and won’t let you take the car, but how on Earth do teenagers deal with the fact that a father could kill his kids?

Speculation about the killings is all over Twitter and the blogosphere. Some folks said that “his medication changed him,” others blamed “mental illness,” still others typed “conspiracy.” None of it will adequately explain why Albert Peterson shot his two teenage sons, Matthew and Christopher; his wife, Kathleen; and then himself in the tidy brick house he had called home for 30 years.

Hundreds of families gathered for the candlelight vigil at Floris United Methodist Church, filling the church parking lot and its school parking lot and lining the block on Frying Pan Road with their minivans and sport-utility vehicles.

On most Sundays, “Al and Kathie” were sitting right there, in one of the pews. One of their sons recently attended a youth retreat at the church.

“Last time I saw him was on the field.” “I saw him last in that class.” That was what a small group of middle school boys said as they awkwardly remembered Christopher, 13, who was an eighth-grader at Rachel Carson Middle School.

Matthew, 16, was a sophomore at Westfield High School. These were not babies drowned by a postpartum mother or a toddler hurled over a ledge by a mentally ill and depraved grandmother. The boys were teens, with their own communities and personalities. For their friends and classmates, the impact of their deaths will ripple across miles and years.

The church was filled with soccer uniforms and lanky legs and braces. When the candles were lit, the sounds of kids sobbing was audible between stanzas of “Amazing Grace.”


Chris Peterson's locker at Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon. (Courtesy Fairfax County schools)

This is not an unknown pattern, the family murder-suicide. But it never gets easier to understand. We need a cause to make it explainable, a clue that something was amiss, a sign that we could have seen had it been our family.

But right now, there’s so little here to go on.

One of the Petersons’ neighbors told The Washington Post that Al was “morose” and talking about the bad economy and politics. Well, yeah, that describes 90 percent of Washington.

Both parents worked for defense contractors. Well, that describes about 80 percent of Washington.

He had a heart attack and was on meds. Yup, and so are half the leaders of the free world.

What could it have been?

As parents struggled for answers, they focused on their kids. Pleasant, a kindergarten teacher, said she had to realize that her instinct to hold her daughter tight was being rejected. So she stepped back and let her mourn with her friends, let them cry and hold one another.

She helped them make a little memorial, and they drove past the Peterson house, which was surrounded by police tape and investigators.

“This is the house, and this is death,” Pleasant told them. “And it’s also okay to just let them say that ‘this sucks’ and their lives were too short. That’s all you can say now.”

At church, the Petersons weren’t “Kathleen and Albert” but “Kathie and Al.” They waved at everyone from their corner home — a reminder, Pleasant said, that “it could be any of us.”

If that’s the case, how much do we begin to wonder about a spouse who is testy after his recent layoff? Do we protect the kids from Grandma, who just had heart surgery and is loopy while on her meds? Where is that evil? Where does it hide?

At the vigil, the Rev. Tom Berlin urged mourners to take comfort in their sense of community.

“We’re all in this together,” he reminded them. “Nobody should be alone.”

And in that megachurch, with arms intertwined and emotions raw, nobody was.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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