Trying to make sense of the unfathomable: a mother’s killing of her own child

— Photo from Elizabeth Gracin 
Selfie: Caitlin Melville, at top, loved her daughter, Sasha Melville, said Caitlin’s sister Elizabeth Gracin. 

GUILDERLAND —  Family and educators describe a relatively isolated young woman who struggled with depression, her child with social challenges but no diagnosis of any learning disabilities, and a man who loved them both but was in declining health.

Caitlin Melville, 27, shot and killed her daughter, Sasha Melville, on Friday, May 17, at their home at 169 Schoolhouse Road, Guilderland Police say, and then turned the gun on herself.

The murder-suicide occurred just over a week after her boyfriend, Uwe Donaldson, 50, who had owned the house where the three of them had lived, died unexpectedly on May 8 of heart complications. Melville killed herself and her daughter two days after Melville had learned, her sister said, that she was going to have 30 days to find a new place to live.

Deputy Chief of the Guilderland Police Curtis Cox said he could not comment on whether Melville had been about to lose her home.

Melville had been raised in Endicott, New York and had come to the Albany area two years ago with Donaldson, her sister Elizabeth Gracin said, adding that her world was small and revolved around Donaldson and Sasha. Caitlin Melville had no driver’s license.

“She loved her daughter,” Gracin said. “I think they were just both in pain because of her boyfriend’s passing. She probably thought she was taking her away from that pain. She didn’t do it maliciously. She thought she was sparing her the pain of losing her parents.

“What she did was messed up,” Gracin said, “but I think she did it out of messed-up love.”

 

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
A bunny and a bouquet are among the objects left near the front door of the home at 169 Schoolhouse Road where Caitlin Melville, police say, killed her child and then herself on May 17. 

 

Gracin described Sasha as “always a bright, cheerful girl.” She liked the children’s shows “Paw Patrol” and “Sheriff Callie,” Gracin said.

Melville was a very kind and caring person, Gracin said. She was funny. She liked dragons a lot and enjoyed playing video games with Gracin.

Michelle Melville, another of Caitlin’s three sisters, told The Enterprise, “On Wednesday she had that beautiful daughter and the house and the boyfriend she loved.” Then, Michelle said, her world was “flipped upside-down.”

Sisters left behind

Gracin said she had had no idea just how distressed her sister was after Donaldson’s death.

Caitlin did not call Gracin after Donaldson died — Gracin heard about it from Michelle Melville — and the only things Caitlin Melville had posted on Facebook after his death were a couple of repostings of funny things, Gracin said.

When Gracin heard about Donaldson’s death, she had sent Caitlin Melville Facebook messages, asking if there was anything she could do and saying that Melville could come and stay with her and her family if she wanted to.

Gracin said she could see that Melville had read the messages she sent, but that Melville didn’t respond. “I just thought she was thinking it over,” Gracin said, adding, “After he died, we were trying to give her a little bit of space to grieve.”

“If I had known it would come to this,” Gracin said, “I’d have driven that two hours and picked them up, whether she wanted to or not.”

In hindsight, Gracin says that she believes Melville probably didn’t want to feel like a burden.

Michelle Melville said that Caitlin had reached out to her, texting her soon after Donaldson’s death. Michelle had offered to make the four-hour trip to visit her the following week.

But Caitlin texted her, saying, “I need somebody down here. Can you come tomorrow?” So Michelle drove there that Friday, May 10 — one week before her sister and niece died — and stayed through Sunday, she said.

One of the things Michelle Melville planned to do with Caitlin, she said, was try to help her with her road test, so she could get a driver’s license, which would have made things easier for her.

Caitlin was “down in the dumps,” Michelle Melville said. “She was grieving, she was trying to deal with everything.”

When she left on Sunday, she asked Caitlin, she said, “Are you going to be OK, do you need me to stay longer?” Caitlin had told her no, she didn’t need her to stay.

“If she had just reached out in any way, I would have jumped in the car again and driven the four hours,” Michelle Melville said. She can “almost understand,” she said, the idea of wanting to end one’s own pain, “but then to take my niece with you — that’s the part I’m having trouble with right now. I don’t know what was going through her mind. It’s all supposition at this point.”

Caitlin “absolutely adored” Sasha, said Michelle Melville. “She was good about taking care of her, and they liked to laugh and play together.”

People who only read about this tragic event don’t see that Caitlin was “a loving mother and a beautiful, intelligent woman,” Michelle Melville said. “They just see who she was in the end, and that’s not who she was.”

As she spoke on the phone to The Enterprise, Michelle Melville paused often to talk sweetly to a dog. It was the same dog taken by animal-control officers from Caitlin’s home at 169 Schoolhouse Road. The family had also had a cat, which is now with a friend and may be adopted by Gracin, Michelle Melville said.

 

“A really good guy”

Donaldson and Caitlin Melville “weren’t legally husband and wife, but they practically were,” said Gracin. “They loved each other.

“He was a really good guy,” Gracin continued. “He was like a father to my niece.”

Donaldson’s LinkedIn page says that he worked remotely as a senior help-desk and network engineer for an information technology company, and that his work included remotely installing and repairing networks and systems. He also owned a computer consulting firm. He worked as a volunteer, his LInkedIn page says, designing and maintaining the website of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

Donaldson had been having some health issues, Gracin said, “and he just kind of went downhill too quickly.”

Gracin said that Melville and Donaldson didn’t hunt and that she thought a gun in the house was for protection.

According to the Violence Policy Center, guns are the most commonly used method of suicide for both women and men in the United States.

 

The Enterprise — Michael Koff 
Beth Bini, at far right, principal of Westmere Elementary School, attends a vigil on May 21 along with other Westmere faculty for kindergarten student Sasha Melville. Bini was also among those gathered on May 17 at the crime scene, the house at 169 Schoolhouse Road, next to the church where the vigil was held. 

 

Sasha blossomed

Westmere Elementary School Principal Beth Bini said that she and other members of the Westmere team had met with Caitlin Melville often, to try to strategize ways to address Sasha’s social challenges, particularly in the beginning of the year. Sasha had joined the school late, in October, and had blossomed over the course of the year, said Bini.

“The loss of a student is almost like the loss of your own child. It’s very heartbreaking,” Bini told The Enterprise this week.

Bini had been gone to the home at 169 Schoolhouse Road on the night of May 17 hours after first responders had initially arrived, once she had heard that something involving a Westmere student had happened there. She did not know at that point which student was involved, she said, or what had happened.

“I just thought I would stop by, and see if there was anything I could learn,” she said.

Outside the house that evening, she recalled, “It was very emotional, wanting to know that things were OK on the inside, but I did not know that. I wanted to hope for the best …”

Sasha Melville had opened up a great deal over her year at Westmere, said Bini. “She loved art, she loved drawing. She soaked everything up. The more she was in that classroom, the more engaged she became, and just opened up to learning.

“When she smiled, it lit up the room. It was a joy to watch her interact with her peers, and play,” the principal said.

“She had some challenges, some social challenges, and she came so far as a student,” said Bini. “She was in a class with a teacher who supported her and really guided her to become a valued, important person in that classroom.”

Sasha had spoken very little when she first joined the kindergarten class in October, Bini said, after the start of the school year in September. Bini said Sasha’s family had moved to town then, but two of Melville’s sisters said that they had moved to Guilderland in 2017 and they did not know why Sasha didn’t start school in September. Students in New York State are not required to attend kindergarten.

Through The Enterprise, Michelle Melville agreed with what Bini had said about the changes in the child over the year. “As she progressed in the school year, you could see her opening up more and just being more a typical 5-year-old. She was pretty quiet at that point. She was definitely making progress.”

Michelle Melville told The Enterprise that the family had some friends but that, until starting school, Sasha would not have had a lot of contact with other children. “They kept to themselves pretty much,” she said.

Michelle Melville said Sasha would occasionally see Gracin’s children in Endicott. Michelle Melville saw Sasha more often; she does not have children herself.

In the beginning of her school career, Sasha would at times get “stuck,” Bini said, and need more adult support. The teacher would sometimes call Bini to assist, if the class needed to move on to another activity and Sasha wasn’t ready.

“She had a hard time with transitions,” Bini said. The principal would sometimes walk Sasha around in the halls.

The need for Bini to visit Sasha’s classroom decreased over time. “In the beginning, I was involved a lot more,” she said. “It was hard for her learning the school routine. But as the weeks progressed, my involvement and the school counselor’s involvement was less and less. I still saw her, said hello, randomly checked in on her.”

Early on, Caitlin Melville came in pretty often, Bini said, to meet with Sasha’s teacher and support staff, to talk about strategies.

Melville had told staff that she suffered from “some pretty serious depression,” Bini said, but seemed to be doing “the best she could.”  

Caitlin’s sister Michelle Melville confirmed this through The Enterprise, saying that Caitlin had been on medication and had been working with doctors to try to find just the right medication that would work for her, but had not yet been able to find it.

As Sasha became more acclimated to kindergarten, parent meetings also happened less often, Bini said.

Sasha’s classmates were “patient with her, and accepting of her differences,” Bini said. “Classmates of hers invited her to play or to sit with them, and walked down the hall holding her hand,” she said.

“She liked school,” the principal said.

Telling others

Bini said that she worked closely with the school counselor, Alyssa Hansen, and Sasha’s classroom teacher, Julia Shudt, on Saturday, to develop a plan for how to tell students about the loss of a member of the community.

On Sunday, Bini said, she and Hansen called the parents of every student in Sash’s class, to let them know what had happened, and Bini also sent an email to all Westmere Elementary School families, telling them about what had happened.

School officials decided to tell students that the school had lost a valuable member of the community, but not to use any words like “murder-suicide” or “gun,” Bini said.

“We had wanted to recognize the need for conversation,” the principal said, “but wanted to make the day feel as routine as possible, because we want students to feel safe and comfortable.”

Additional social workers, school counselors, and psychologists were on hand this week to help students if they had any questions or wanted to talk, Bini said, and some teachers elected to have one of them help talk with their classes about what had happened, Bini said.

The social workers were also very visible, Bini said, during lunch, when “there is a lot more unstructured conversation.”

Bini did not see any children crying on Monday, she said that afternoon. Some children did become emotional and have tears in their eyes while talking with counselors, and some children seemed very sad.

Lynnwood Elementary School’s therapy dog Copeland also spent much of the week at Westmere, and some children really benefited from hugging him and sharing their feelings with him, Bini said.

One teacher also rode on each school bus in the morning and afternoon, Bini said, because the district wanted to make sure that students weren’t talking about the deaths “inaccurately or inappropriately.”

Classroom teacher Shudt had initially agreed to talk with The Enterprise about Sasha on Tuesday, but then changed her mind, saying through an email from Bini that she was “just not ready to talk.”

Expert’s view

Dr. Griffan Randall, a psychiatrist from Guilderland who has a private outpatient practice in Slingerlands, works with patients ranging from adolescents to geriatrics, and one of her areas of specialization is maternal-fetal psychiatric conditions.

One-third of the women who kill their children go on to kill themselves, Randall said.

In cases when a parent kills a child and then commits suicide, Randall said, “The data shows that more often than not, it’s an ‘altruistic filicide.’”

She explained that parents who commit altruistic filicide believe that they cannot leave the child alone, or abandon her, “because the world is perceived as cruel,” and parents come to believe that they should protect their child from the same misery that they have suffered.

Of murder-suicides by a parent, she said, “There isn’t a tremendous amount of research because there’s no one to go and run this by.” Study necessarily has to be done retrospectively.

With this kind of suicide, Randall said, the idea that comes first is the suicide, not the harming of the child. The parent thinks, “I can’t do this. I’m going to commit suicide.” But the next thought is, she said, “I can’t leave my child alone, I can’t abandon them, I need to take them with me.”

Randall said that the parent’s thinking in a case of altruistic filicide can be, “I can’t go on, and I’m going to save my child from this as well.”

“Mercy” would not be exactly the right word, Randall mused, but altruistic filicide is intended as “a final act of love.”

Randall discussed the harsh tone of some of the comments about Melville that have appeared on social media, and about the need for compassion.

“To think that if this mother really was doing this out of love,” she said, “imagine how desperate she must have felt — how horrible! That’s when the compassion can come in.”

****

Last June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a Vital Signs report showing that suicide rates between 1999 and 2016 went up more than 30 percent in half the states; in New York, the increase was 28.8 percent. Nearly 45,000 people lost their lives to suicide in 2016.

If someone you love has killed themselves, help is available through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which provides toolkits for schools and workplaces after a suicide, bereavement clinicians, and support groups.

The New York State’s Office of Mental Health recently partnered with Crisis Text Line, a national not-for-profit group that provides free around-the-clock text-based support for people in crisis, helping people facing suicidal thoughts, cyberbullying, family emergencies, maternal depression, and more. Users are connected to a trained crisis counselor by texting “GOT5” to 741-741. Data usage is free and text messages are confidential, anonymous, and secure. This is in addition to the National Suicide Preventioni Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. 

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