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The dangers were plain, but the killings went on

After a spike in domestic homicides across the state, questions linger about why they are so hard to prevent

By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / May 16, 2010

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By the time the officer kicked open the deadbolted door on Feb. 9, the woman was lying in the fetal position in a pool of her blood. Her husband stood nearby holding a bloodied kitchen knife.

“I just killed my wife,’’ he calmly told the officer.

It was the eighth such killing in a span of just 31 days, eight women killed by their partners or, in one case, by her father. And the bloodletting didn’t end there. Two others narrowly survived attacks and four of the assailants, all men, killed themselves.

The sudden alarming spike in domestic homicides across the state, like similarly devastating clusters of cases in 1995 and 2007, left authorities scrambling to discern a pattern — and finding none.

And yet these were cases with much in common, for this kind of killing is among the least random of crimes: Assailant and victim, by definition, know each other intimately. Power, and the unnatural need for it, is the recurrent motive.

The warning signs of mortal danger were often blindingly plain to view. Some of the women were counseled, repeatedly and loudly, to get away, to get help, to shun the men. A deeper look at three of the cases illumines why such warnings were and are so hard to heed, and why this remains, at a time when the stigma of leaving an abusive relationship is gone, among the most stubborn of crimes to prevent.

. . .

After 39 years, Joan Murphy thought she knew her husband’s habits.

But there he was, striding toward her on Jan. 17 at the Oriental Pearl, an Asian restaurant in Westport where she had become a regular on karaoke nights. They had never visited the restaurant together, and she had seen him there only once since they separated a year earlier. So she was startled to see him, and even more so by the look on his face.

“Crazy determined,’’ she said, recollecting the moment.

“You don’t love me anymore,’’ Paul Murphy said as he sat down in a chair opposite her in the crowded bar.

“I am not talking about that,’’ she recalled saying.

“I love you,’’ he said, and he pulled a handgun from his coat pocket and aimed it at her face.

He would shoot her three times before turning the gun on himself. He died; she survived.

Paul Murphy’s family declined to comment, saying that the episode is too painful, the act inexplicable for a man who doted on his grandchildren and children, reveled in Irish music, golf, and the Yankees.

In several extensive interviews, Joan, a 57-year-old former nurse and mother of two, described her long marriage as suffocating and distant, regimented, and unpredictable — with happiness elusive for both of them.

They had met at Fall River’s Charlton Memorial Hospital, where she worked and where Paul, also a Fall River native, was being treated for minor car accident injuries. He was confident, an Army man, and by the time he had recovered, they were going on dates at the drive-in. Joan would pick him up at the Marconi Club, a local bar where he hung out, and drop him there when their nights together were over.

“He was the tough guy,’’ Joan recalled. “I thought that was cool.’’

They wed a few months later, on Valentine’s Day 1970. She was pregnant.

Around his friends and colleagues at Bridgewater Correctional Complex, where he worked as a correctional officer after leaving the military, Paul Murphy proclaimed his wife a saint, she said. But at home, in their three-bedroom garrison with a sun porch and manicured gardens, it was as though she could do nothing right.

When he watched the Yankees, he would fume if she crocheted rather than focus on the game, she said; when she talked with a neighbor, he demanded afterward to know what they had discussed; when she visited a friend, he chafed; when they went to parties, he would lambaste her afterward for saying the wrong thing.

“I was always scared. He’d be nice one minute, and the next, he’d be violent,’’ Joan said. “He never physically hit me, but he threatened.’’

Denise Rego, a friend of the couple, recalled that Joan was often on “high alert’’ and that Paul often seemed on the verge of exploding.

“We talked about her leaving a hundred times,’’ Rego said. “But her family would talk her out of it.’’

Joan feared leaving.

“I knew he wasn’t just going to let me go,’’ she said. “Not that you expect to get shot, but you know it’s not going to be easy.’’

The marriage deteriorated further after hip problems forced her to quit work and stay home, and after Paul retired in 2003, compelling them to spend more time together.

“You needed someone to blame so it was easy to blame me because I drank and yelled,’’ Paul later wrote in an e-mail to his wife, provided to the Globe by Joan. “You told me to go see [a counselor] and I did. You did not think it was working but the tantrums were reduced by 90 percent and then it was the drinking so I quit. I took away the two things you said made you unhappy but it still did not satisfy you.’’

Joan sought counseling as well and began stashing money in a bank envelope that she wrapped in a plastic bag and hid at the bottom of her purse. In February 2009, with $1,000 in the envelope, she moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Fall River.

Soon, he was calling. One day, he wanted to know where she had hidden his gun. A year earlier, after his therapist warned her that he could be suicidal, she had stashed it in a hole under the kitchen sink. Now, he said he wanted to turn it over to police, and she told him where it was.

There were demands, too, that she return to him.

“It was getting confrontational,’’ she said. “I finally said, ‘If you have something to say to me, e-mail me.’ ’’

Shortly after Christmas, he did.

He wanted a divorce. She agreed.

A few weeks later, she saw him at the Oriental Pearl for the first time. He was dancing with another woman and tried to make eye contact with her. She wondered if he had followed her there, and then she fled, slipping out the side door, she said.

Two nights later, at 10:30 on a Sunday, Joan was again at the Oriental Pearl, when Paul sat down at her table and pointed the gun.

The first bullet missed her, grazing a hand she reflexively raised to protect her face. She fell off her chair, and Paul leaned over the table, firing into her neck.

Then, another shot fired.

“I could hear the cops saying, ‘Don’t bother with him, he’s dead.’ And I thought: ‘Good. He’s dead. He won’t shoot me again.’ ’’

. . .

The youngest of the eight victims was 19-year-old Allison Myrick, who just months before had begun her freshman year at Fitchburg State College.

With a high school resume that included yearbook editor, MSPCA volunteer, and fund-raiser for ALS research, she had hoped to attend a bigger-name university. But her applications had been rejected, and she had scrambled to get into Fitchburg State.

Then, days before classes started, her high school boyfriend ended their relationship.

“She was devastated by that,’’ said her father, Steve.

At a campus party weeks after she arrived at school, Myrick met Robert Gulla, a 19-year-old who delivered bread for a bakery and lived in a basement bedroom at his mother’s house in Shirley.

Gulla took her to dinner, and soon they were seeing each other frequently, prosecutors allege. It wasn’t long before a volatile streak showed.

Myrick confided to her mother that one day at her dormitory, Gulla had gone from room to room, banging on doors and demanding that students tell him whether they ever visited her room. When the building director asked Gulla to leave, Gulla grabbed him by the collar, according to campus police records. Police banned him from campus.

Weeks later, according to Fitchburg State police records and prosecutors’ testimony, Myrick was sitting in the office of her dormitory resident assistant, trembling and crying as she told campus police that Gulla had beaten and choked her the night before, enraged about her text messaging.

She told police that when she had tried to call a friend for help, Gulla had grabbed her phone and thrown it. Still, after Gulla apologized, Myrick stayed the night at his house, she told police.

The officers urged her to get a restraining order; but she declined. She told her parents she would not see him anymore.

“At that point, we thought, ‘Wow. She’s OK, and thank God he didn’t kill her,’ ’’ said her father.

John Galvin, Gulla’s lawyer, declined to comment, as did Gulla family members.

Despite Myrick’s vow to stay away from Gulla, her parents worried. Their daughter called less frequently and removed them as friends from her Facebook page. When they questioned her about him, she balked, then confessed to seeing Gulla.

“She was being told by him that he loved her and that he wouldn’t do it again, and she couldn’t reconcile that someone who loved her would hurt her,’’ said Myrick’s mother, Susan.

But he did, prosecutors say. Police were summoned by Gulla’s mother on Dec. 11, after Gulla allegedly hit Myrick, again after becoming enraged over text messages on her phone.

Shirley police arranged for an emergency one-day restraining order, but she did not seek to extend it later that day. Myrick’s parents again implored her to stay away, and again she said she would.

She had even found someone new, a Fitchburg State classmate, John O’Brien. Still, she continued to see Gulla, prosecutors say. He demanded more attention and, on Jan. 19, he began texting and phoning her “incessantly,’’ at one point writing that he hoped her whole family died, she told police.

This time, Myrick told campus police she wanted a restraining order, and they escorted her to Fitchburg District Court to get it.

Yet at 11 p.m. on Jan. 22, after leaving O’Brien’s room, Myrick texted Gulla. Prosecutor’s say that Gulla borrowed his mother’s car about that time, telling her he was going to “pick Allie up.’’

The next afternoon, O’Brien began receiving texts from Myrick.

She had made a big mistake, he recalled her writing, and was at Gulla’s house. He told her to leave and get on the next train. But at 4:30 she had not left and texted, “I’m so scared. I’m not even kidding,’’ court records show. When O’Brien asked what was going on, Myrick replied “He went through my phone again.’’

Nearly three hours later, police found Myrick lying lifeless in the basement of Gulla’s house.

Prosecutors allege that Gulla beat her, strangled her, stabbed her multiple times, and shot her between the eyes with a pellet gun. At 5:09, he texted his mother. “I love you,’’ he wrote, prosecutors allege. Then he cut his left wrist and fired a pellet gun at his right temple, producing wounds that required a three-day hospital stay, prosecutors said. When his mother found him two hours later, prosecutors said, he was lying next to Myrick’s body, moaning.

Gulla has pleaded not guiltyin Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn to charges of first-degree murder, three counts of assault and battery, and violation of a restraining order.

. . .

Three more women died in the first week of February. Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray convened a domestic violence forum in Fitchburg to call attention to the tragedies.

Four days later, Christina Mulgrave was dead.

Mulgrave had been married four times, the first time when she was 24 and pregnant. Now 43, she had met a new man and seemed transformed — infused with a sense of reclaimed youth, family and friends said.

“It’s like ‘How Stella Got Her Groove Back,’ ’’ Christina Mulgrave told her sister, Michelle Gonzalez, shortly after returning home from a solo trip to Jamaica in 2007.

Craig Mulgrave was a maintenance worker in the hotel where she had stayed in Negril. He was charming, with a slender build and a quiet manner. And he was 12 years Christina’s junior.

“She liked the fact that she was older than him and that she was desirable to him,’’ her sister said.

Within months, Christina was making return trips, sending money to help his family, and soon, wedding plans were underway.

Family and friends were puzzled and concerned. Did she really know this man? But then, they figured, that was Christina, always on to the next thing. She was perpetually working toward another degree in nursing. She had moved frequently, uprooting her son and daughter. She had ended four marriages.

“Her relationships were never reciprocated the way she wanted them to be,’’ said Ellen Fortes, a longtime friend. She married Craig in a beachside ceremony in Negril in July 2008, said Narda Daley, a cousin of Craig’s.

It was a first marriage for Craig, an electrician whose father had died when he was young and whose mother had worked while raising him and his four siblings, Daley said. He had never been in trouble with the law, Daley said. “He’s not violent. He would walk away from an argument before he lost control.’’

While immigration paperwork was arranged, the two carried on a long-distance relationship — he in Jamaica and she in Las Vegas, where she had moved when her children were grown. Soon, the relationship was showing strain, Fortes said. Craig Mulgrave would anger quickly if he didn’t know where she was from moment to moment.

“This guy, on a daily basis, would tell her, you can’t go out of your house, you can’t go to the casino, you can’t go to your best friend’s house,’’ Fortes said. “Obviously, she would not not go out.’’

After arguments, which were frequent, Craig Mulgrave would call her cellphone dozens of times, Fortes said. She wouldn’t answer, she said.

“ ‘He’s just jealous,’ she’d say. ‘He’ll get over it,’ ’’ Fortes recalled Christina saying.

In the fall of 2009, Craig arrived in Las Vegas, and a few months later, in December, the pair moved east to be closer to her family. They rented a second-floor apartment in Haverhill. She worked as a labor and delivery nurse in Worcester; he struggled to find work, Daley said.

Gonzalez saw signs of tension. One day in early February, when Christina stopped by her house in Lowell, she seemed bothered and unhappy. She confessed that her marriage was in trouble.

“I want him to go back to Jamaica but he won’t go,’’ her sister recalled her saying.

Ninety minutes later, Christina Mulgrave called police, pleading for help; she was being stabbed, police records show. When police arrived, they could hear her screams, but by the time they entered the apartment, she was lying on the floor in the pool of her blood, the records show.

Craig Mulgrave has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in Essex Superior Court in Salem.

Since Christina’s death, the incidence of domestic murders ebbed just as unaccountably as it surged. But the questions remain, especially for the families left behind.

“When you see something like this on television, you say, ‘That poor family,’ ’’ said Christina Mulgrave’s mother, Mary Fidler. “But you haven’t even a clue what they have to go through.’’

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at schweitzer@globe.com.

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