By Jane Musgrave
When Jennifer Rey heard that Delray Beach police in July were trying to find out who shot a woman, dismembered her body and stuffed it into suitcases, she immediately suspected a husband or a lover.
“My gut reaction was this was a domestic,” said Rey, chief program officer at the Palm Beach County chapter of Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse. “Domestic murders are very violent.”
Others, who have spent decades analyzing what drives otherwise law-abiding people to kill, agreed that the level of brutality signaled that the woman’s assailant was someone who knew her well.
“The chopping her up,” said Palm Beach Gardens forensic psychologist Adam White. “This shows the perpetrator was very angry and hated the person. It’s a symbolic way of showing hatred.”
Ultimately surprising were the ages of those involved.
While an artist rendering of the victim depicted a woman between the ages of 35 and 55, police eventually identified her as 80-year-old Aydil Barbosa Fontes. Her husband of two decades, 78-year-old William Lowe, was charged with the murder.
Lowe was indicted after police found blood in the condo the couple shared just blocks from the ocean and on a chainsaw they discovered in a storage unit Lowe rented. He has pleaded not guilty.
Murders among the elderly are rare. Of the roughly 16,500 people who were murdered nationwide in 2021, only 1,250 were over the age of 65, according to numbers compiled by Statista.
Although research is ongoing, studies have shown that many elderly murder victims are women and their assailants are people who are known to them, often their longtime partners.
“For many older women, the latter stages of their life are not the golden years,” Canadian researcher Myrna Dawson wrote in a 2021 paper. “Instead many older women’s lives are rife with abuse and violence which sometimes ends in their deaths.”
Further, the notion that elderly women are killed by loving husbands who simply want to end their suffering is simply wrong, said Donna Cohen, professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of South Florida.
Her research showed that men are almost always the perpetrators. She also found that in most cases there was no suicide pact and no evidence that the woman wanted to die. They were not “mercy” killings.
“Homicide-suicides in older people are not acts of altruism,” she wrote. “They are acts of depression and desperation.”
There is nothing about Barbosa Fontes’ killing that resembles a murder-suicide, White said.
Rather than a crime of desperation, it was meticulously planned, he said. After Barbosa Fontes was shot and dismembered, her body parts were stuffed into suitcases and thrown into the Intracoastal Waterway, where they were discovered by passersby.
Clearly, her assailant didn’t want to get caught, White said.
Lowe’s former attorney said it appeared Lowe suffers from mental health problems that may have stemmed from his service in the Marines during the Vietnam War.
Lowe, who owned an auto parts store in Kentucky before moving to Delray Beach, qualified for a state program that allows veterans who are permanently and totally disabled to avoid paying property taxes. Lowe, who shows no signs of a physical disability, was also involved in Delray’s alcohol recovery community.
Little is known about his relationship with his wife. Neighbors told police they didn’t know the couple well. Barbosa Fontes owned two rental units in Pompano Beach. A tenant, who saw her shortly before her death, said she seemed healthy — both mentally and physically.
Delray Beach police said their officers had not been summoned to the couple’s home in the two years before Barbosa Fontes’ death. Lowe has never before been charged with a crime, according to records in Palm Beach County and Kentucky. White said neither is unusual.
But, he said, regardless of any claims of mental woes, the careful planning of Barbosa Fontes’ murder would likely thwart any efforts to mount an insanity defense:
Whoever killed Barbosa Fontes knew what he was doing was wrong and tried to hide it.
Rey, who has spent more than two decades working with victims of intimate partner violence, said Barbosa Fontes’ slaying confirms an ugly truth: “Domestic violence can and does happen to people of any age group.”
For years, health experts have warned that women are at risk from men they know. Noting that 38% of all women globally who were slain were killed by their intimate partners and many more sustained life-altering injuries, the World Health Organization in 2013 declared violence against women a serious public health problem.
But, despite its declaration and a call to action, little has changed.
According to a 2022 report by the Violence Policy Center, 89% of U.S. women who were murdered in 2020 were killed by men they knew and 60% died at the hands of intimate partners. Eight times as many women were killed by men they knew rather than by strangers, it found in its annual report, “When Men Murder Women.”
The vast majority of victims of domestic violence are women of child-bearing age and they are most often shot to death.
But less research has been done into domestic violence among the elderly. With the elderly population skyrocketing as the last of the Baby Boomers reach retirement age, researchers such as Dawson and others say more study is needed.
Dr. D’Andrea Joseph, chief of acute care surgery and trauma at NYU School of Medicine, said the information would help doctors identify elderly abuse and help those who are suffering.
“Intimate partner violence in the abuse of elderly and vulnerable adults is common in the United States but often remains undetected,” she wrote in 2019, pushing for a sweeping study to identify warning signs.
Many elderly women are loath to report abuse. ElderSafe, a Washington, D.C., organization that provides shelter for elderly abuse victims, estimated that just one out of every 23 battered seniors seeks help. By comparison, overall, about 50% of domestic violence cases nationally aren’t reported.
Researchers suggest that an elderly woman who is financially dependent on her husband feels trapped. Her age or health problems make it impossible for her to find a job to support herself.
She is less likely to be able to defend herself if she is attacked. She also may have grown up believing she couldn’t and shouldn’t talk to anyone about violence inflicted on her by her husband. She may worry what friends and family will think.
Rey said younger women fall silent for similar reasons. Financial dependence, children, religious beliefs, family support and peer pressure are all part of the mix.
But, she said, fear is always the driver. “I’ll kill you if you leave me,” is a constant threat.
And the threat isn’t an idle one. Roughly 75% of women are killed after they leave or attempt to leave their abusers, Rey said.
“It’s a very dangerous time,” she said. “People don’t come to us because they need a place to stay. They come here to be safe.”
When the coronavirus pandemic forced unhappy couples to remain together in their homes, domestic violence exploded and it hasn’t abated, Rey said. “It’s unprecedented,” she said.
In the last year, Rey’s agency has received bomb threats and been warned to expect a mass shooting. It has been forced to spend extra money to beef up security, leaving it desperate for cash, she said. Fundraising has become critical.
Abused women desperately need help, she said. No matter their age, they all suffer similar trauma. The motives of their abusers, people who supposedly love them, are nearly always the same.
“The goal is to exert control over that one person and use violence and manipulation to do so,” Rey said. “It’s all about what can I do to instill fear in you.”
Sometimes, the rage intensifies with tragic results.
“I believe I own you and I’ll make sure no one else can have you,” as Rey described it.
Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse has a 24-hour crisis line for those who need help. It can be reached at 800-355-8547. Its administrative office is 561-265-3797. Information about its services is available at www.avdaonline.org.