They seemed like an ideal Long Island family: William Parente was a lawyer, his wife Betty a stay-at-home mom active in the community. Their daughters were well-liked by teachers and classmates.
Friends and neighbors said they never suspected anything was amiss and were dumbfounded to learn the Parentes had died Monday in an apparent murder-suicide in a suburban Baltimore hotel room.
Experts say that's typical of family killings. Several similar high-profile cases in recent months have been tied to families' economic woes, though there's no indication that was the case with the Parentes.
They lived in a neighborhood of million-dollar homes in Garden City, N.Y., next to a golf course. William, 59, was a tax and estate planning attorney who commuted to his Manhattan office. Betty, 58, volunteered.
They were in Maryland to visit older daughter Stephanie, 19, a sophomore at Loyola College in Baltimore. With them was her sister, Catherine, 11, a sixth-grader at Garden City Middle School.
Housekeeper found bodies
"I can't tell you how heartsick I am," next-door neighbor Mary Opulente Krener said. "This is the most wonderful family, the most kind and loving family. I'm astounded."
The Parentes ate breakfast together Sunday morning and an employee of the Sheraton Baltimore North Hotel in Towson saw them together Sunday afternoon.
On Monday, after they failed to check out of their room on time, a housekeeper found their bodies.
Baltimore County police said they were investigating the deaths as a murder-suicide, but did not indicate who was the killer. They declined to release the results of autopsies conducted Tuesday.
Cpl. Michael Hill, a police spokesman, said only that the Parentes were not shot or stabbed.
Maryland was already reeling from a similar tragedy when word of the Parentes' deaths began to spread. Sometime late Thursday night or Friday morning, a father in a small northwest Maryland town fatally shot his wife and their three young children, police said.
The father, Christopher A. Wood, 34, then shot himself. Police revealed Tuesday that the family was having extreme financial problems.
Familicides are considered rare
An analysis by the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., found an average of nine or 10 murder-suicides a week. But familicides — in which both parents and all their children are killed — generally happen only happen two or three times every six months, said Kristen Rand, legislative director for the center, a nonprofit gun-control advocacy group.
"They were so rare that we didn't really bother to count them as a separate category," Rand said. But in the last few months, she said, "there's a clear rash" of such killings.
They can be tied to the nation's economic woes, said Richard Gelles, dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.
'Canaries in a mineshaft'
He describes familicides as "canaries in a mineshaft" — sensational cases that herald an uptick in more common forms of domestic violence.
"You can only speculate over whether the economy is going to affect the broad swath of abuse of children and abuse of women," he said. "But the warning sign is when these familicide cases begin to cluster. In the past few months, they have begun to pop off across the country."
Familicides have also occurred this year in Los Angeles and Santa Clara, Calif., and in Belle Valley, Ohio. The slayings are usually committed by men, usually because of shame over financial problems, and people close to the families never see it coming, Gelles said.
While details of the Parente case remained sketchy, the reactions of those who knew the family fit the pattern.
'Wonderful, beautiful, adorable people'
The Parentes were "the most wonderful, beautiful, adorable people. This is impossible, impossible," said a sobbing Lucille Messina, who worked with Betty Parente on the board of the Tri Town Auxiliary of United Cerebral Palsy of Nassau. "I can't believe this, she's the sweetest lady you'd ever want to meet. You'd fall in love with her instantly."
The Rev. Brian F. Linnane, president of Loyola College, did not know Stephanie Parente well but had met her parents twice at an annual parents' gathering on Long Island.
"They were very memorable to me for how lovely they were. What a wonderful couple," Linnane said. "I'm stunned, because they were just very gracious and obviously devoted to their children."
Kremer, the Parentes' next-door neighbor and a clinical social worker, said she saw nothing to indicate the family was having financial or psychological problems. She did note that William's parents and Betty's mother had died somewhat recently.
Memorial mass planned
A memorial Mass was planned Tuesday night at Loyola, and counselors were made available to students there and at Garden City Middle School. The younger daughter, Catherine, "was a wonderful, talented and sweet child who was treasured by teachers and staff members," according to a statement from the school system.
Stephanie was a former member of the women's crew team at Loyola and a coxswain for the men's team. She volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and at a Catholic school in Baltimore, and had been accepted to study abroad next year in Newcastle, England.
Such events are baffling even to theologians, Linnane said.
"It's very important for the students to realize that all of us are struggling with this mystery of evil," he said. "We're trying to find a way to move forward and bring some meaning to something that seems so meaningless."