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Data shows Texas has a family annihilation problem, and North Texas is feeling the effects

Cases of “family annihilation,” in which a person kills at least two types of relatives in a single incident, are more common in Texas than any other state, one analysis found.

A day after four relatives were found fatally shot in an Allen home, Imam Abdul Rahman Bashir presided over the prayer at the family’s mosque just 10 minutes away from the crime scene.

About 600 people huddled shoulder to shoulder on carpet to pray for the dead. Mourners braved near triple-digit weather with a line pushing outside the sprawling, two-story house of worship.

Investigators called the deaths of the Sherwanis — a husband, a wife and their two children — a murder-suicide. They died just weeks after Farman and Layla Sherwani’s lone daughter drowned in a swimming pool at a family party.

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Bashir has presided over many funeral services, also known as a janazah, yet these deaths weighed heavily on him.

His calling demands poise and composure to help others grieve, but he was not prepared for the answer to one question. As relatives carried in the third coffin, Bashir asked, “Where’s the fourth?”

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The Sherwanis’ two boys, a grade-schooler and a toddler, shared a casket, he was told, and would be laid to rest together.

His face sank. He was reminded of the dual roles he plays — as an imam and as a father of three grade-school children.

“Immediately I just had this vision of my kids sleeping together,” Bashir said.

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Inside the mosque, grief and sorrow were mixed with confusion, Bashir said. How could this happen? Not just once but multiple times in Allen, a city of 100,000 about 25 miles north of Dallas.

Two years earlier, a Muslim family of six had been found dead.

Experts who study family and intimate partner violence are beginning to use another name for these crimes: family annihilations.

No other state has more family annihilations since 2020, according to an analysis by the Indianapolis Star. The Texas Council on Family Violence that analyzes intimate partner violence says easy, quick access to firearms, a lack of mechanisms to confiscate guns from those who shouldn’t have them, and gaps in services to survivors make the problem worse here than elsewhere.

There have been at least 33 cases of family annihilation in Texas since 2020; Florida has the second-most over that span with 18. Texas ranks lower when population is factored in because of higher rates of similar events in sparsely populated parts of the South.

Still, the state ranks no lower than No. 11 for family annihilations per capita and ranks as high as No. 4. It especially stands out when compared to states with similar populations such as Florida and California — Texas’ per capita rate was nearly double Florida’s during two of the last three years and at least five times higher than California’s.

With these cases making headlines each year in Texas, family violence researchers, community leaders and people connected to the victims are looking for solutions.

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Discovering a tragedy

The Indianapolis Star defines family annihilations as cases in which a person kills at least two types of family members, either a spouse, a former or current partner, a child, a sibling or a parent, in a single incident. The analysis also included stepfamily.

The Texas Council on Family Violence uses the same definition but only notes cases in which a current or former partner or stalking victim is killed. The council found more cases than the Star’s research, with more than a dozen family annihilations involving intimate partners and at least 28 people killed each year from 2019 to 2022.

According to the Indianapolis Star, which conducted a national investigation on family annihilations, the primary risk factors include prior domestic violence, substance abuse and access to guns.

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As with many family annihilations, little information is publicly available about the Sherwanis’ case because there is no suspect to question, but police found Farman Sherwani, his wife, Layla, and their two boys, Mateen and Shaheen, dead in a home on Aug. 28 in the 1200 block of Aberdeen Drive. Collin County medical examiner reports obtained by a records request show the woman and children died by homicide and the father died by suicide.

The Islamic Association of Allen identified the family members and other relatives released a statement, remembering Farman as a caring father. The family had been staying with his mother, according to a police report.

The Islamic Association of Allen. (Stewart F. House/Special Contributor)
The Islamic Association of Allen. (Stewart F. House/Special Contributor)(Stewart F. House / Special Contributor)

Farman Sherwani’s mother left for a daily walk at about 6:30 that morning, according to a police report. When she returned 20 to 30 minutes later, all the doors and windows were locked.

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Police arrived after a call around 8:40 a.m. While knocking on doors, officers heard a scream. One family member peering in through a bedroom window saw someone’s leg, the report states. Another relative then broke the glass using his elbow.

He screamed, “They’re all dead, they’re all dead!”

Officers saw multiple people lying on the floor just below the window.

It’s not clear what led to the deaths and officials did not provide a singular motive. The police report stated a Glock handgun and cartridges were found between Farman Sherwani’s legs.

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The mosque said the family’s 4-year-old daughter, Lyian, drowned in a pool three weeks before. Police later cited her death as a factor in the slayings.

Following her death, a police report mentioned that a child protective services investigator was assigned to work with the family. The investigator told officers the family was attending a party when the girl exited the back door of a home and entered the pool.

According to the report, the investigator, who spoke through other family members due to a language barrier, told officers there were “no danger indicators of Farman or other family members being homicidal or suicidal.”

The family’s eldest son, Shaheen, was a fifth grader who attended Olson Elementary School. Principal Susanne Miller shared in a letter to parents that the school was shocked and saddened by the news.

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During the service for the family, Bashir encouraged mourners to reach out to anyone struggling mentally or emotionally. He said it reminded him of a similar message he had in April 2021 during a service for a Muslim family of six killed by family annihilation.

“Your few minutes of time and care and attention may be the difference between life and death,” Bashir said during the service.

Analysis finds guns as a key contributor

Instances of family annihilation have affected several religious and ethnic communities in Dallas-Fort Worth and Texas.

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Charles Schoenfeld fatally shot his two grade-school sons, Charlie and Noah, and his wife, Brittany Howard, before he took his own life in a north Dallas hotel room in 2020. Although his motives were unclear, Elizabeth Schonfeld, his ex-wife and the boys’ mother, previously told The News the two were in a lengthy custody battle for the children, who attended school in Richardson ISD.

Charlie and Noah focused on helping others and stood apart because of their compassion for others, grandfather Lonny Schonfeld said at the time, “they always chose to do the right things.”

Noah Schoenfeld (left) and Charlie Schoenfeld on Charlie's 7th birthday
Noah Schoenfeld (left) and Charlie Schoenfeld on Charlie's 7th birthday(Elizabeth Schonfeld)

The following year, Amanda Broderick was waiting in Travis County to meet her husband, Stephen, for a custody exchange, when he crashed into her car and shot and killed her, her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend, the Austin-American Statesman reported. Stephen Broderick was sentenced to life in prison.

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Stephen Broderick had a gun, even though an active protective order against him made such possession illegal. A former Travis County deputy, he was out on bond after being arrested in 2020 for sexual assault of a child, according to the Statesman.

Though it’s rare, familicide can include parents being killed by their children. The 2021 Allen case involved two brothers, Farhan and Tanvir Towhid, who killed four family members and themselves. Last year, police said William Randolph Singer, 53, killed his father and sister in Carrollton before fatally shooting himself; they were found dead by authorities after their home caught fire.

Experts who study intimate partner violence say there are warning signs in many cases, and there are dynamics of power and control at play. Some of the most common motives involve a person who wants revenge against an intimate partner; or a person who plans their family’s deaths as an extension of their own suicide, said Robert Hanlon, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Researchers note mental illness, relationship problems and financial difficulties are prevalent — the perpetrator may be going through or fearing an impending loss, whether that’s a death in the family or divorce, Hanlon said.

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Roy Rios, the Texas Council on Family Violence’s director of prevention, says the crimes are overwhelmingly committed by men and guns most often account for the means of death, which is noteworthy in a state with minimal oversight for who has a gun. Twenty-nine of the 33 attacks found by the IndyStar were carried out by men. In one case, a woman killed her mother and children and in another a man and woman killed their children then themselves. In the two other cases, a minor male was involved.

In a suicide note, the Towhid brothers remarked upon the ease of getting a gun despite the fact that at least one of the siblings had a history of depression.

Texas law bars people from owning a gun for at least a few years if they’ve been convicted of a domestic violence charge or if they’re the subject of a protective order. For misdemeanor crimes, the law does not apply to current or former dating partners outside the house, which some refer to as the “boyfriend loophole.” But some perpetrators in family annihilation cases had a firearm illegally. Taking guns from these people is one thing the state can do to prevent these tragedies, Rios said.

According to the Texas Council on Family Violence, fewer than 10 counties in the state have a protocol to remove the guns and turn them over to law enforcement. A proposal was introduced in the state Legislature this year to require any person prohibited from owning a gun to submit a signed affidavit to the court to say they surrendered their guns or didn’t have any to surrender, but it stalled in a House committee. One bill that would have required courts to tell people if their conviction prevented them from owning or acquiring a gun passed the House, but it stalled in a Senate committee.

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Of the 13 family annihilation cases in Texas that the Texas Council on Family Violence analyzed in 2022, only one did not involve a firearm.

‘Doesn’t need to happen’

The killings have spurred religious leaders and advocates such as Mona Kafeel to raise awareness about domestic violence and mental health. Kafeel — CEO of the Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation that provides counseling, legal and housing services for domestic violence survivors and others — said her organization offers free services and creates safe spaces where children can speak their mind without being judged.

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“[In 2021], that was the first time where we saw young children who were fine, like any other neighbor next door to you, and that was a shocking event for all of us,” Kafeel said.

After each tragedy in Allen, the community has held healing circles with faith leaders and licensed mental health counselors.

A candlelight vigil for an Allen family of six who died in a murder-suicide tragedy...
A candlelight vigil for an Allen family of six who died in a murder-suicide tragedy attracted many young people to Celebration Park in the Collin County city on April 7, 2021.(Shelby Tauber / Special Contributor)

The day after the funeral service for the Sherwanis, dozens attended a town hall at the mosque on grief, challenges and sorrow.

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Lack of resources and information may impede others to seek help, and people may not want to speak to professionals who don’t understand their language or cultural background. To provide culturally sensitive options, some mosques and local organizations have partnered with the Muslim Association of Psychological Services, launched in 2017 as a directory for people to seek out licensed Muslim mental health professionals in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“There’s a lot of misunderstandings that can happen when we’re not able to understand the cultural nuances or the language that someone is speaking,” said Heena Khan, a licensed professional counselor and one of the co-founders of the association.

Community and religious leaders conduct awareness campaigns each spring during the month of Ramadan and once in October — domestic violence awareness month — to speak about domestic violence and signs of different types of abuse.

Kafeel said it’s difficult for Muslims to talk candidly about domestic violence, and families will reach out to imams rather than calling a hotline or a domestic violence provider. Her foundation helps train imams on the dynamics of domestic violence because they’re often the first to hear about something awry in a family.

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Aisha U-Kiu, one of the organizers of a town hall last year on domestic violence, said despite these efforts the past few years, North Texas Muslims still had two domestic homicides in 2023, pointing to the deaths of the Sherwanis in Allen and Maysaa Zaaroor, a woman killed in May in Arlington.

U-Kiu, a community activist with the Muslimah Leadership Council of North Texas, said she struggles to get answers when she asks religious leaders about whether the women involved in cases of domestic violence sought help. The council, set up to combat mistreatment against Muslim women in the community, implored Muslim leaders and Islamic institutions to increase dialogue around family violence, intervene on behalf of survivors and victims and provide funding for legal support.

Bashir said he continually reminds people how they need to live — with their relationship to God and with the people around them. But even he is searching for answers on what more can be done, so more families aren’t swept up in these tragedies.

“There’s a lot of people in a lot of communities throughout the country and the world that are quietly suffering within the four walls of their homes, and that doesn’t need to happen,” Bashir said.

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The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available at 1-800-799-7233, and other resources are available at thehotline.org. If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org.

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