Baltimore County has had two murder-suicides, homicides within families and among longtime friends, and an increase in suicides in the past few months. And on Tuesday evening, officers defused a hostage situation on the 12th floor of a high rise.
The recent spate of violence prompted health officials and police to organize a news conference Wednesday that addressed holiday stress and the tragedies that can occur when family, friends and neighbors miss the signs of emotional, economic or physical troubles in others. Officials also outlined resources available, often around the clock, for those in crisis.
"We have spent weeks promoting the positives of the holidays, encouraging shopping and enjoyment of the season," said County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. "We also recognize these are tough economic times and many are struggling."
Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson said many often ignore signs of depression or changes in personality. He urged the public "to reach out to us, to health officials or the private sector."
Dr. Gregory Branch, county health officer, said the holidays often exacerbate family crises, sagging finances and employment pressures, and can lead to unhealthy choices. The response often is what Branch called the "too much syndrome," referring to overindulgence in liquor, drugs and even food.
"People manage their stress with unhealthy coping that leads to bigger health and safety issues," he said.
Lisa Spicknall, whose husband killed their two small children, related her personal tragedy to bolster the county's "get-help" message. She was abused by her husband for years before leaving him.
"I often wished someone would have heard my screams and called police," she said. "But that never happened."
She was granted a protective order and custody of her two young children. Richard Spicknall, who had visitation rights, took the children on a trip to Ocean City in September 1999. On the way, he shot Destiny, 3, and Richie, 2. His son died immediately. Destiny suffered alone in the abandoned car for eight hours and died later at the hospital.
Their father was convicted in the murders and sentenced to life in prison, where he was killed in 2006.
"This was the ultimate act of domestic violence," Spicknall said. "Reach out and ask for help. Don't allow domestic violence to be swept under the carpet."
She is now 37, remarried and working as a victim's advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She frequently speaks on issues related to domestic violence.
"I do this for Destiny and Richie," she said. "They were beautiful children and the joy of my life."
At the end of the conference, Branch spoke quietly with Spicknall. He thanked her, praised her courage and told her to "stay strong."
She said she derives strength from the memory of her two children.
For assistance: http://www.baltimorecountymd.gov
The Domestic Violence 24-hour hotline: 410-828-6390.
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services: 410-887-3828.
Baltimore County Crisis Response System: 410-931-2214.