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Pennsylvania mother strangled son so he wouldn't face family's financial troubles, authorities say

Ruth DiRienzo-Whitehead was accused of killing the 11-year-old boy in his sleep and charged with first-degree murder.
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A Pennsylvania mother was charged with murder Wednesday after she told authorities she strangled her 11-year-old son because she didn’t want him to grow up with the family’s financial difficulties, court records show.

A criminal complaint obtained by NBC Philadelphia alleges that Ruth DiRienzo-Whitehead, 50, said she killed Matthew Whitehead with her husband’s belt while the boy slept.

DiRienzo-Whitehead was also charged with third-degree murder and possessing an instrument of a crime, online court records show. 

She is being held in Cape May, New Jersey, and will be extradited to Pennsylvania for arraignment, the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office said in a statement.

Investigators at the home of Ruth Dirienzo-Whitehead in Horsham Township, Pa.
Investigators at the home of Ruth Dirienzo-Whitehead in Horsham Township, Pa.NBC Philadelphia

Matthew’s father called 911 on Monday morning after he found his SUV missing and the door locked to the master bedroom of the family’s home in Horsham, roughly 24 miles north of Philadelphia, the prosecutor’s office said.

Officers found Matthew’s body in the bedroom, where he had gone to sleep with his mother, the statement said. He had ligature marks around his neck and other signs of strangulation, according to the statement.

Authorities learned that DiRienzo-Whitehead was alleged to have killed her son after he went to bed the night before and then drove the family’s SUV to Cape May, New Jersey, about 125 miles south.

According to the complaint, DiRienzo-Whitehead took the vehicle to a popular beach and drove it into the ocean.

A photo published by NBC Philadelphia shows the vehicle partly submerged in the water.

Cape May Police said they found Dirienzo-Whitehead’s empty Toyota Highlander partially submerged in the ocean.
Cape May police said they found DiRienzo-Whitehead’s empty Toyota Highlander partly submerged in the ocean.via NBC Philadelphia

DiRienzo-Whitehead left the car and walked to the nearby town of Wildwood Crest, the prosecutor's office said. A police officer spotted her walking down the street wearing "tattered" pajamas and appearing disheveled and confused, according to an affidavit for probable cause obtained by NBC Philadelphia.

"I know what I did," she said, according to the affidavit.

She told authorities that her son had been upset and cried about the family’s financial struggles the day before, according to the complaint.

“DiRienzo-Whitehead explained that she did not want Matthew to grow up with these struggles so she strangled him with her husband’s belt,” the complaint says.

It isn't clear whether DiRienzo-Whitehead has a lawyer to speak on her behalf. Court records didn't list one.