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Rage and despair defined Ronald Lee Haskell’s life in recent years, boiling over during fights with his wife and even after their messy breakup. But did his inner demons — and a possible taste for vengeance — drive him to murder six members of his ex-wife’s family?
Investigators in Harris County, Texas, haven’t said what triggered the shocking slayings Wednesday of parents Stephen and Katie Stay and four of their young children, although they believe they were caught in a domestic dispute between Haskell and his ex-wife. One of the Stay children, 15-year-old Cassidy, survived the attack and called 911.
Haskell now faces capital murder charges, and appeared for the first time in court Friday shaking and then collapsing before bailiffs had to usher him out in a wheelchair.
“Obviously the evidence is very compelling that he was responsible for the deaths of these children and his ex-wife's sister and her husband,” Haskell’s court-appointed attorney, Doug Durham, later said. “It’s a terrible tragedy. The question is: Is he legally responsible from a criminal standpoint?”
Defense lawyers are trying to determine the state of Haskell’s mental health as police continue to sift through the evidence and pinpoint what led to the twisted turn of events.
What happened in the home?
Haskell, 33, was disguised as a FedEx delivery worker when he went to the suburban Houston home of his ex-wife’s sister, Katie Stay, on Wednesday afternoon, police said. Oldest child Cassidy was home alone and answered the door. She told Haskell her parents weren’t home. He later returned, forcing his way in and tying Cassidy up, police said.
Minutes later, her parents and her four siblings, ages 4 to 13, returned. Haskell allegedly tied them up as well, and demanded to know the whereabouts of his ex-wife, Melannie Lyon. They said they didn’t know, and they were each shot in the back of the head. The bullet for Cassidy only grazed her, and she played dead until the gunman fled, she told police.
The critically wounded teenager was able to identify him to police as her ex-uncle, and said he was planning to drive to her grandparents’ home and kill them. Police, however, tracked him down and he was arrested after a 20-minute police chase and a three-hour standoff. Around 10 p.m., Haskell got out of his car, fell to his knees and surrendered.
Where is Haskell’s ex-wife and did her family know Haskell was pursuing them?
Melannie Lyon’s sister, Katie Stay, was the one who convinced her to leave Cache County, Utah, where she was living with Haskell and their four children, and move to Spring, Texas, relatives told NBC News. Around that time, Lyon had filed a protective order against Haskell and was planning to file for divorce after more than a decade of marriage.
Lyon ended up living with her parents in Spring. It’s unclear, however, where she and her children were at the time of the shootings. She has not appeared publicly or commented since the incident.
It doesn't appear that her family knew Haskell was headed for Texas. When he arrived at the Stay home, Cassidy didn't even recognize her ex-uncle right away, police said.
Did Haskell have run-ins with law enforcement before?
Several times in different capacities. One of his earliest arrests was in 2008 on suspicion of domestic violence, simple assault and committing an act of violence in front of children. Melannie Lyon told police her husband dragged her out of their bedroom by her hair and hit her in the side of the head.
Haskell said he had only pushed his wife, and that he was stressed from his job. Two of the couple’s children were ages 3 and 5 at the time. Haskell pleaded guilty to an assault charge in the case.
In 2009, Haskell flagged down a police officer saying that his wife had left the family and he believed she was going to harm herself. He called back and said he found his wife and was taking her to the hospital, records show.
Last October, a protective order filed by Lyon was dismissed when the couple agreed to a mutual restraining order and custody arrangements for their children. The judge said Ron Lee Haskell’s visits would have to be supervised by a psychologist.
Haskell had been living with his parents in San Marcos, California, before he traveled to Texas this week. He and his parents have a history of domestic disturbances, police records show.
As recently as July 2, Haskell allegedly choked his mother and threatened to kill her. Court documents say Haskell was upset that she was talking to his ex-wife. Karla Haskell reported to police her son “told me he was going to kill me, my family and any officer who stops him.” She filed a domestic violence protective order, and San Diego County Sheriff's Department detectives looked for Haskell for several days but never found him, the department said this week.
Did Haskell have a history with guns?
Karla Haskell told police that her son stole her husband’s guns during a previous domestic violence incident. The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department confiscated those firearms.
Did he show signs of instability?
Despite all of the run-ins with police, he never received proper mental health treatment, his lawyer said. There was a time last year when Haskell was going through his divorce and his brother became worried. He asked authorities to perform a welfare check. But the brother spoke with Haskell and called back police asking them not to investigate, according to court documents.
Earlier in his life, Haskell appeared to have an ordinary upbringing. He went to high school in Alaska, played on the football team and was even voted prom king and class clown his senior year, according to The Alaska Dispatch.
He was quoted in his yearbook: “Why did they pick me to be class clown? I think it’s because I'm so darn good looking.”
Will prosecutors seek the death penalty?
It hasn’t been ruled out. Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson will decide soon what punishment he will pursue, prosecutors said Friday. Meanwhile, Haskell’s defense attorney said they would review whether he would plead not guilty by reason of insanity. He continues to be held without bond.
“The focus of my defense with Mr. Haskell is his mental condition. Our laws say a person suffering from mental illness is not criminally responsible,” said Durham, his attorney.
NBC News’ Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.