Killer Dads: The Twisted Drives That Compel Fathers to Murder Their Own Kids” by Mary Papenfuss

c.2013, Prometheus Books
$19.00 / $20.00 Canada
271 pages



Snow White had it pretty bad.

She had an evil stepmother who tried to get some poor schlub to kill Snow, to no avail. Abandonment didn’t work for Hansel & Gretel’s stepmom, either, but it did almost get them eaten. Pity poor Cinderella – an evil stepmother and two stepsisters.

Unfairly or not, in literature and movies, stepmothers often get a bum rap. But what if the blame is mislaid?  In “Killer Dads” by Mary Papenfuss, you’ll see that murder can go both ways.

Mary Papenfuss keeps pictures of children on her office bulletin board. Not many are “pictures of happy kids,” she says. She doesn’t, in fact, know most of those children, except through court cases and news stories because those kids are dead by the hands of “people they loved and people they thought loved them.” In the last ten years, Papenfuss says, some 20,000 children have been murdered at home. Many of them were killed by a father or stepfather.

Take “James,” for instance.

James now sits in protective custody in a Washington prison, stringing beads and watching his back. He’s afraid because “his co-convicts want to murder him” like he murdered his five-year-old stepdaughter. A few years ago, James – who admits that he had problems with anger – fought with his wife, then took her “baby” downstairs and brutally killed the girl with a kitchen knife.

Anger is a common reason given for losing control, but it’s not the only one. Lawyer Bill Parente was beloved for his gentle demeanor and his talent for making money for his investment clients. When police discovered the bodies of Parente, his wife, and their two daughters in a motel, officials quickly learned that Parente was the creator of a crumbling Ponzi scheme and was deeply in debt. They ultimately believed that he killed his family to spare them the “humiliation” of losing their lifestyle.

Josh Powell famously killed himself and his sons in a rigged explosion; Powell’s wife is still missing. Scott Peterson was convicted of murdering his wife and unborn son. And officials still argue over the possibility of “honor killings” in several states around the country…

Are we little better than langur monkeys, the males of which ruthlessly murder the infants of their rivals?  That’s just one of the questions asked by author Mary Papenfuss in this surprising true crime book.

At first, “Killer Dads” may seem like any other in this genre: readers are given a bit of back-story, followed by an account of a violent murder and a brief bit of aftermath. But rather than quickly moving on to the next crime, Papenfuss offers in-between chapters that attempt to explain some disturbing facts. We teach our children, for example, of “stranger danger” (which, she says, is rarer) but the fact is that kids are astoundingly more likely to be killed by someone they trusted.

While this book is a guaranteed nightmare-maker for any parent, it’s a dream-read for true crime fanatics.  If you’re feeling brave, therefore, here’s your book. “Killer Dads” ain’t too bad.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin.