Features » December 19, 2008
The Body Count On Main Street
The financial crisis takes a human toll
Wall Street's financial meltdown is beginning to be measured not only in dollars and cents, but also in blood. Without debt- or mortgage-forgiveness, more casualties are sure to come.
On Oct. 4, in Los Angeles, Karthik Rajaram, 45, shot his wife, mother-in-law and three sons before turning the gun on himself. In a suicide note, Rajaram wrote that he was broke, having incurred massive financial losses in the economic meltdown. “I understand he was unemployed, his dealings in the stock market had taken a disastrous turn for the worse,” said Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Michel R. Moore in a public statement.
In recent weeks, the media has begun to address the burgeoning body count, at least anecdotally. Suicide is, however, just one type of extreme act that has resulted from the financial crisis, and the attendant rise in foreclosures. Stories of resistance to eviction, arson, self-inflicted injury and murder have also bubbled up into the local news. Nationally, the media has paid scant attention to the pattern of these events.
It’s impossible to know what personal factors contribute to such extreme acts, but it is a fact that during periods of economic turmoil, the rates of stress, depression and suicide climb.
In May, Kathleen Hall, founder of the Stress Institute in Atlanta, told USA Today’s Stephanie Armour, “Suicides are very much tied to the economy.”
Rich Paul, a vice president at ValueOptions Inc., which handles mental health referrals, recently told the Los Angeles Times that in the last year, stress-related calls arising from foreclosures or financial hardship had increased by 200 percent in California. Similarly, Dr. Mason Turner, chief of psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente’s San Francisco Medical Center, reported “a fourfold increase in psychiatric admissions at his hospital during August, with roughly 60 percent of patients saying financial stress contributed to their problems.”
What follows are some of the causalties’ stories:
In February, when a sheriff’s deputy went to serve an eviction notice on a homeowner in Greeley, Colo., he found the man had slashed his wrists and was lying in a pool of blood. The Denver Post, however, reported that the sheriff’s office “wasn’t linking the suicide attempt to the eviction because the man had known for a week that he was to be kicked out.”
In March, in Ocala, Fla., Roland Gore killed his dog and his wife, set fire to his home – which was in foreclosure – and then killed himself.
On June 3, agents of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) informed New Orleans resident Eric Minshew, 49, that he would be evicted from his Katrina trailer. Threats by Minshew eventually led to a SWAT team being called, after which Minshew opened fire with a pistol. When he refused to drop his weapon, officers gunned him down.
In July, Sacramento County Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Habecker told the Sacramento Bee that twice this year, “homeowners about to be evicted have committed suicide as he approached to do a lockout.” In another case, Habecker said one of his fellow deputies discovered a note in an evictee’s home that told him where to find the homeowner’s body. The Bee reported that such cases “received no publicity when they happened,” which raises the question of just how many similar suicides have gone unreported nationwide.
On July 23, about 90 minutes before her foreclosed Taunton, Mass., home was scheduled to be auctioned off, Carlene Balderrama, 52, faxed a letter to her mortgage company, letting them know that “by the time they foreclosed on the house today, she’d be dead.” She continued, “I hope you’re more compassionate with my husband and son than you were with me.” In her suicide note, she instructed, “Take the [life] insurance money and pay for the house.”
Bay City, Mich., residents David and Sharron Hetzel, both 56, lost their home to foreclosure. On Aug. 1, David mailed a letter of apology to his family members. That night, according to police reports, he attacked his sleeping wife with a golf club and a kitchen knife. He then set fire throughout the house before crawling into bed beside his wife and killing himself.
Roseville, Minn., resident Sylvia Sieferman, 60, was beset by financial difficulties. She worried about how she would care for her two 11-year-old daughters. On Aug. 21, according to police reports, Sieferman repeatedly stabbed the girls and herself. “She reached her limit,” her friend Carrie Micko told the Star Tribune. “She couldn’t cope anymore. … She felt that her daughters were suffering because she was failing to provide for them.”
Two days earlier, in northern California, Cliff Kendall, 55, Petaluma’s chief building official, shot himself with a rifle. A week earlier, Kendall had learned that he was being laid off. “He was afraid we’d lose our home, and we probably will because I can’t afford to keep it,” his wife Patricia, who is on disability with a back injury, told the Press Democrat.
On Oct. 3, with sheriff’s deputies at her door, Addie Polk, 90, tried to kill herself to avoid eviction from her Akron, Ohio, home. Her neighbor Robert Dillon, hearing loud noises from her home, used a ladder to enter the second floor window and found Polk lying on her bed. As he told CNN, “Then she kind of moved toward me a little and I saw that blood, and I said, ‘Oh, no. Miss Polk musta done shot herself.’ ” As she recovered in the hospital from two self-inflicted gunshot wounds, Fannie Mae forgave her debt.
On Oct. 6, in Sevier County, Tenn., sheriff’s deputies arrived to evict Jimmy and Pamela Ross from their home. They heard a shot and entered the home to find 57-year-old Pamela dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Neighbor Ruth Blakey told WVLT-TV, “I know she really hated to leave that house.”
Wanda Dunn told neighbors she would rather die than leave her home. On Oct. 13, the day she was to be evicted, the 53-year-old Pasadena, Calif., native apparently set fire her home before shooting herself in the head. “We knew it was going to happen,” neighbor Steve Brooks told the Los Angeles Times.
Defend and resist
In Boston, members of City Life, a nonprofit that seeks to halt foreclosures, are putting their bodies on the line to stop evictions. On Sept. 25, as politicians in Washington, D.C., tried to hash out a bailout for financial institutions, six Boston police officers confronted 40 City Life activists in front of the home of Ana Esquivel, a public school employee, and her husband Raul, a construction worker, both in their 50s. The Boston Globe reported that four protesters were arrested as police shoved their way through in order to allow a locksmith into the house to bar the Esquivels from their home.
“We’ve been destroyed by the bank,” Ana Esquivel sobbed: “The bank is too big for us.” Though the Esquivel blockade failed, Steven Meacham, a City Life organizer, told the Globe that “the protests have helped to stop about nine evictions. In the successful blockades, the homeowners were given additional time by their mortgage holders to negotiate alternatives to foreclosure.”
In September, readers of Slate’s “Explainer” column asked the following question: “How come we aren’t hearing about executives jumping out of windows?” Writer Nina Shen Rastogi answered:
Because the current situation hasn’t had nearly as devastating an effect on people’s personal finances. The Great Crash of 1929 – and, to a lesser extent, the crash of 1987 – did lead some people to commit suicide. But in nearly all of those cases, the deceased had suffered a major loss when the market collapsed. Now, due in large part to those earlier experiences, investors tend to keep their portfolios far more diversified, so as to avoid having their entire fortunes wiped out when stocks take a downturn.
So far, at least, Wall Street’s suicides seem to have been outsourced to places that its executives have probably never heard of. There, on the main streets of America, Wall Street’s financial meltdown is beginning to be measured not only in dollars and cents, but in blood.
With no end in sight for either the foreclosures or the economic turmoil, Americans will have to brace themselves for many more casualties on the home front. Unless measures, like mortgage- and debt-forgiveness, are implemented, the final body count may reach levels no one wants to contemplate.
A longer version of this article is available at TomDispatch.com.
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Nick Turse, associate editor of TomDispatch.com, is the author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives (Metropolitan Books) and a forthcoming history of U.S. war crimes in Vietnam, Kill Anything That Moves (Metropolitan/Henry Holt). His website is NickTurse.com.