Local lesbian murder-suicide shakes community

On the afternoon of Dec. 16, two women, married to one another, were found dead by two of their three children — ages 12 and 6 — in the kitchen of their residence on the 8400 block of Cedarbrook Avenue.

Witnesses at the scene said the children ran from the home and returned to their nearby school, where police were called to the scene. 

Police arrived almost immediately at 3:43 p.m.

On Dec. 17, the Philadelphia Police Department ruled the case a murder-suicide, according to Acting Police Commissioner Christine Coulter.

Coulter was on the scene of the shootings. She has nearly 30 years in patrol, narcotics intelligence, investigations and special patrol and described the circumstances as “a horrific scene.”

Coulter said the department’s top priority is the well-being of the children, who were interviewed by homicide detectives. The children, including a third, 17-year-old teenage girl, are being cared for by relatives.

Philadelphia Police Chief Inspector Scott Small, who was also at the scene, said there did not appear to be any sign of a struggle. Staff Inspector Sekou Kinebrew, commanding officer for the Philadelphia Police Department Public Affairs and Media Relations Office, told PGN that the names of the two women are not being released by the Police Department at this time, as the investigation is ongoing. But some details were provided. 

Kinebrew said the two women, ages 50 and 36 years old, “were unresponsive, and were subsequently pronounced [dead] on scene by PFD [Philadelphia Fire Department] medics.”

At this point, Kinebrew said, the investigation has determined that “the 50-year-old woman shot her 36-year-old wife, then shot herself, mortally wounding both.” The couple had gunshot wounds to the head and chest, with shell casings and a handgun near both bodies.

A neighbor at the scene, Cynthia Nottingham, told police and local news media, “A friend of mine told me they ran into some children that were crying, and they ran back to the crossing guard to tell them that their parents were dead.”

Another neighbor, Roland Johnson, said he saw the 36-year-old victim just hours earlier. “I spoke to her; she’s always got a friendly smile, no hint of anything being wrong, though,” said Johnson.

Police were told that the women were “a nice couple,” but family members told police the couple had “some domestic strife in the past.”

Lauren Cox, Deputy Communications Director for the Office of the Mayor, told PGN, “Domestic violence reaches into all of our communities — regardless of class, race, sexual orientation or gender identity. And, unfortunately, it often goes undetected and unreported.”

Cox said, “It is important to remember that if you or someone you know is in immediate danger, you should contact the police by calling 911. Philadelphia also has a 24-hour domestic violence hotline: 866-723-3014, that can provide guidance and help connect you to resources.”

Roberta L. Hacker was executive director of Women in Transition, the nation’s oldest continuing service agency for abused women for 30 years. Hacker developed the country’s first program for lesbian abuse victims at WIT and is also co-founder of Philadelphia Women’s Death Review Team, which works with the Medical Examiner’s Office to chart violent deaths of women in Philadelphia.

Hacker told PGN, “This is another tragic case of domestic violence that leaves so many victims in its wake — the wife, the children, the extended family, the community, the perpetrator herself.”

Hacker said, “The holidays are a very difficult time of year for many people — extremely stressful. We see a surge of domestic violence at this time. It is critical that women — anyone — experiencing domestic abuse seek help immediately. You may think you can handle the situation yourself, but tragic cases like this one happen literally every day.”

Hacker stressed, “Escalation can happen so quickly, and a gun in the home makes it far for likely for domestic violence to turn deadly.”

Sgt. Nicholas Tees, who is assigned to the PPD Community Relations Division, serves as a liaison to the LGBTQ community. Tees told PGN that there had been no calls to the police about the couple and that he had previously worked the district in which they lived. “These were not people who were known to me or to us,” he said.

Kinebrew said, “The Homicide Unit’s victim’s assistance officer, along with the District Attorney’s Office’s ‘DAO C.A.R.E.S. Program’, is coordinating the delivery of various services to the three children.”

She added, “Sgt. Tees is available to facilitate reporting incidents of domestic violence for [LGBTQ] community members who may have reservations about reporting to police. Sgt. Tees can be reached at (215) 686-3380.”

Police are waiting for an autopsy to determine the exact cause of death. Anyone with any information is asked to call police at 215-686-TIPS.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.