SAN FRANCISCO — An Iraq veteran who is believed to have killed his 11-year-old sister and himself in a California farming town this week had been upsetting his family with his talk of suicide and brandishing of guns. When they called police to their apartment two weeks ago, they told the officer the war had left their loved one a changed man.
The officer investigating the call on Feb. 29 knew 27-year-old national guardsman Abel Gutierrez had guns in the home, but his family did not feel they were in danger and did not request a psychiatric hold, Sgt. Chad Gallacinao, a police spokesman, said Friday.
"At the end of the contact, the family said they did not fear any physical harm from him, but they wanted him to get help," Gallacinao said. "The officer knew there were firearms present inside the house. However, they were legally possessed and (Gutierrez) did not display signs that he was a danger to himself or others. If he did, we would have seized the firearms."
On Wednesday, police received another call, this time from a roommate at the apartment, and responding officers found the bodies of Gutierrez and his sister, Lucero, dead from gunshot wounds. There was no suicide note, and Gutierrez' mother was missing.
Combat stress or post-traumatic stress disorder is a problem as old as war itself, and Gutierrez' alleged murder-suicide is the just latest in a string of cases involving an Iraq war veteran.
Most recently, a soldier who served three tours of duty in Iraq is suspected of slaying 16 Afghan civilians as they slept.
Earlier this year in Washington state, an Iraq veteran killed a Mount Rainier National Park ranger. The vet had been described as struggling emotionally after returning from the war. He died in an escape attempt.
And in Southern California, a former Marine whose family said his experiences in Iraq had transformed him, is accused of slaying four homeless men in Orange County.
PTSD is a common diagnosis in men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and data show war veterans have no more proclivity to murder than other people, said psychologist Eric Zillmer, a Drexel University professor and co-editor of the book "Military Psychology: Clinical and Operational Applications."
"It's entirely possible that this case will show that PTSD was an aggravating factor, but there are thousands of people who experience PTSD and murder has a low base rate among this population," Zillmer said.
On Friday, officers in Gilroy, a farming community about 80 miles south of San Francisco, were still searching for Gutierrez' mother, 52-year-old Martha Gutierrez. Officers presumed she was dead or gravely injured after finding evidence of violence in the apartment and in Gutierrez' green Ford Mustang.
Family members told the San Jose Mercury News that Gutierrez said that he wanted to kill himself "all the time" and would ask if that would hurt them.
Faustino Gutierrez, 46, Martha Gutierrez's brother, said the young veteran would sit on a sofa twirling a handgun and also brandished a rifle inside the family's apartment. He had recently returned from Iraq.
"He said he killed a lot of people in Iraq," Faustino Gutierrez said. "It was in his conscience, and he didn't want to live anymore."
Zillmer said record keeping on suicides and murders by veterans suffering from PTSD is a modern phenomenon, so it is impossible to know if the problem is any worse now than during previous wars.
Gutierrez served in Iraq in 2009 to 2010 with Washington's Army National Guard. He was in the process of transferring to California's National Guard and had attended his last training weekend in Washington earlier this month.
"We are struggling to come to grips with the tragic events that have unfolded, and we extend our deepest condolences to the friends and family of those who were lost," said Washington National Guard spokesman Keith Kosik.
Gutierrez was active duty in the U.S. Army starting in 2005 and moved to the guard in 2008, said U.S. Army Maj. Jamie Davis.
Gutierrez had been receiving care at a VA facility in Puget Sound, Wash., confirmed Kerrie Childress, a spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs Care System in Palo Alto. She said she could not provide further details.
Jeri Rowe, public affairs director at the Puget Sound facility, said she was unable to confirm or release any information concerning Gutierrez because of privacy regulations.