As police and fire officials combed the site of a shocking multiple homicide-suicide southeast of Deer Lodge Monday, the biggest question of all — why? — remained a mystery.
A 59-year-old man shot and killed his 37-year-old wife and three children, ages 1, 4 and 6, and then killed himself at the family’s cabin Sunday.
The police released some harrowing details Monday morning after their initial investigation.
The man shot his wife first at the kitchen table inside the cabin, Anaconda-Deer Lodge Police Assistant Chief Bill Sather said at the scene.
The man then walked outside and shot the couple’s 4- and 6-year-old children and used the 45-caliber automatic pistol to kill their 1-year-old lying in a crib inside the cabin. He placed the bodies of the two older children on the bed next to the crib.
Sather said the man then called an acquaintance and said he'd killed the family and was going to kill himself. Then he started a fire in a chair in the kitchen, laid down next to the children’s bodies on the bed, and shot himself.
Jerry Thomas, Anaconda-Deer Lodge County coroner, released the ages of the children Monday morning but would not say whether they were boys or girls.
The bodies were transported to the state crime lab in Missoula on Sunday afternoon.
In Deer Lodge, people who knew the family expressed shock and disbelief.
Muriah Buck, owner of Muriah's of Montana Restaurant, said the family ate at the restaurant fairly frequently.
"She was just the nicest person," Buck said of the wife and mother. "We'd hold her baby for her so she could eat."
Buck said the father "was very controlling. He would say, 'OK, it's time to leave.' She'd say quietly, 'But we haven't finished,' but they'd go ahead and leave."
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She said the father "seemed off. He was a lot older ... and she was very docile around him.
"He had crazy eyes."
Police were still trying to locate and notify the family's relatives Monday and so did not disclose the names of the victims or the shooter.
The cabin is about 13 miles southeast of Deer Lodge, near the Orofino Campground in the Deerlodge National Forest.
Tim Barkell, Anaconda police chief, said police received a call at 10:09 a.m. Sunday from a friend of the shooter. He reported the shooter had called and said he'd killed his family and was about to kill himself.
“He (the shooter) called into a friend of his, and then his friend called our dispatcher,” he said.
Anaconda-Deer Lodge Detective Steve Barclay was one of the first on the scene. Barkell and Sather were also initial responders.
“It appears he (the shooter) set the house on fire before killing himself. We could not enter because of the smoke and the heat inside. We had to wait for the fire departments," Barkell said.
Sather said Monday morning law enforcement had to wait more than an hour to enter the cabin before responders could extinguish the fire.
Responders to the scene were the Anaconda-Deer Lodge Rural Fire Department, Opportunity Volunteer Fire Department, Race Track Volunteer Fire Department, and Sun Mountain Fire Department of Deer Lodge, Barkell said.
Barkell said his department had blocked off the road and property in the heavily forested area until the state fire marshal investigated the incident. Deputy Fire Marshal Pat Clinch completed an initial investigation Monday but referred all questions to Anaconda-Deer Lodge.
Orofino Campground is located 13 miles southeast of Deer Lodge on Boulder Creek Road, also called Forest Road 82.