Virtual Library of Newspaper Articles

Dayton Daily News

Devoted mom turned into 'classic' killer
Friends baffled, but expert not surprised at local case

Dayton Daily News, Dayton, OH, U.S.A., By Mary McCarty and Anthony Gottschlich, May 2006

"If anybody ever messes with my boys, I'll kill 'em," Tonya Hawks once told her friend Wayne Owens.

Now Owens is grappling with the realization that it was Hawks who took a gun to her three young sons before ending her own life Feb. 7 in their Phillipsburg home. "I will never understand it," Owens said. "This is not the Tonya I knew. Something has happened to change her from the person who lived her life for her kids to someone who would take their lives."

The 30-year-old mother and her three children Chase Love, 5, Chole Love, 4, and Hunter Hawks, 2 were found Feb. 11, four days after the shootings and eight days after she purchased the semiautomatic handgun found in the home.

Investigators, family and friends may never know what caused Tonya Lynn Hawks to snap. Maybe it was the breakup with her boyfriend, at least her third failed relationship in five years. Maybe it was the prospect of raising three boys alone on a factory laborer's wages.

Court records show a woman whose life was in constant turmoil in recent years, her Dayton home lost to bankruptcy and a series of relationships in tatters. But co-workers and friends describe a model employee and cool-headed woman who seemed intent on rising above all of that and putting her sons first. She plastered photos of her sons inside and outside of her locker at the Behr Thermal Plant in Dayton, where she worked. The boys trailed after her at the company Reds outing last summer, the very portrait of the happy family. "They're all she talked about," said co-worker Kari Shields. "She loved those boys. They were her whole life."

The slayings left friends baffled. But Wright State University professor Cheryl Meyer, a nationally known expert on women who kill their children, calls it a "classic case."

"Let me guess," she speculated. "She was a devoted mother, right?"

"These are extraordinarily devoted moms. I know that sounds like an oxymoron because they killed their kids, but the bottom line is they see their kids almost as an extension of themselves, like an appendage. So it only makes sense (in the mother's mind) to kill the kids, because if you're getting rid of yourself, there's a reason to get rid of the kids as well."

Mom's actions fit pattern, but her motive is a puzzle

No one can fathom why Tonya Hawks would shoot and kill her three little boys not this doting mother who lived for her kids.

But Cheryl Meyer has seen cases like this before. "Tonya Hawks so fits the pattern it's almost amazing," said Meyer, author of Mothers Who Kill Their Children: Understanding the Acts of Mothers from Susan Smith to the Prom Mom.

"Typically, they're younger, and when a mom kills her kids, in the majority of cases, she almost always kills them all and she almost always has a plan to kill herself," said Meyer, who studied Read More .. than 1,000 cases in the 1990s of mothers who killed their children.

"They're described, by and large, as devoted and loving mothers," Meyer said. "People are shocked they did this and most of the time (the mothers) have experienced a recent loss, either through death or divorce. They use very, very sure methods to kill their children. They know it's going to be successful; they use a fire, or guns or knives."

In many ways Hawks does fit the profile. She was two weeks away from a final divorce decree with Brent D. Hawks, the father of her youngest son, Hunter. Her live-in boyfriend, whose name has not been released by authorities, had just moved out neighbors say the same day Hawks killed her three children and then herself. Her wedding anniversary with Brent Hawks was just one week away, Valentine's Day, yet another reminder of lost love.

Yet as much as she fits the profile, none of these explanations make sense to friends who say Hawks typically took her troubles in stride. "Tonya had financial problems from the day I met her, even though she made good money at the plant," said Wayne Owens of Union, who worked with Hawks for several years at Englewood Precision Inc. "She bought a new Ford Bronco and a new house at the same time, and it ended up being too much for her, so she lost both. But it didn't seem to bother her too much."

Nor is Owens convinced she committed the crimes because of a failed relationship: "She loved both of the boys' fathers, but when that ended she was able to handle it."

But those kind of losses can lead to hopelessness, despair and the tipping point toward violence, Meyer said. "If her life was that bad, why would she take her children with her?" wondered co-worker Kari Shields.

That's the question on people's minds at Behr Dayton Thermal Products LLC plant, where Hawks worked since February 2004. Plant general manager Dean Arneson described her as energetic and someone who wasn't afraid to approach him with constructive suggestions.

Co-workers have contributed generously to a collection for the family. A few have said, "I don't want to give any money to that monster."

Shields tells them, "You didn't know her. She wasn't a monster. She absolutely loved those boys."

Meyer and her co-author, Michelle Oberman, estimate one child dies at the hands of the mother every three to four days in the United States. They didn't study fathers who kill their children.

The mothers usually fall into one of five categories: those who kill their babies within the first 24 hours of birth; those who kill through neglect; those who kill through the assistance or coercion of a partner; those who kill through abuse; and those, like Hawks, who deliberately kill their children.

Meyer, who is working on another book on the topic, said the mere thought of killing one's children, at least for a fleeting moment, is not unusual. Several mothers have told her so.

"I think it's something in a lot of people's dark recesses," she said