Phoenix-area Jews shocked by murder-suicide of local family

The Phoenix-area Jewish community is grieving after a murder-suicide claimed the lives of a local family active in the Jewish community.

Evidence suggests that James Butwin, a resident of the Phoenix suburb of Tempe, Ariz., shot his wife and three children before setting the family SUV on fire and shooting himself. A Border Patrol agent found the charred bodies in the van on June 2 in Pinal County’s Vekol Valley area, a desert area south of Phoenix.

Butwin, 47, was a board member of Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation in Tempe, and his children — Malissa, 16; Daniel, 14; and Matthew, 7 — had attended the local JCC summer camp. Butwin’s wife, Yafit, 40, also was an active community member.

Butwin and his wife were going through divorce proceedings but still lived together with their children.

The Butwin family of Tempe, Ariz., shown in a photo from May 2009 photo/jta-yafit butwin’s facebook page

Tempe police found two suicide notes that Butwin had written. They also said they found blood and shell casings in several of the family’s bedrooms, and two guns inside the SUV.

The Associated Press reported that Butwin had sent his business partner detailed instructions on how to run the business without him. AP also reported that Butwin and his wife were fighting in court over their assets. Neighbors also said that James Butwin had a brain tumor, according to reports.

Sal Caputo, a board colleague at Temple Emanuel, described Butwin as “mild-mannered, well spoken, pretty focused and funny. He had a dry sense of humor.”

“He seemed like a fine dad,” Caputo added. “He didn’t snap or anything like that. He was just very active in our synagogue and the synagogue board.”

A Pinal County Sheriff’s Office photo shows the vehicle where the five bodies were found. photo/a

Yafit Butwin, who immigrated from Israel in the 1990s, filed for divorce in September and was seeking half of her husband’s liquid assets, spousal support and exclusive access to their upper-middle-class home during the divorce proceedings. The divorce was set for trial in July.

Temple Emanuel held a memorial service for the family on June 6. The local Jewish Family and Children’s Service dispatched a crisis response team to the synagogue and the JCC, providing counseling for the community and children at the camp. Psychologists, therapists and other professionals with counseling experience comprised the volunteer team.

“A lot of questions come up, especially from children,” said Dvora Entin, the crisis response team leader. “Everyone has a different pattern of grief. We will be providing continuous support for the parents, as well as for the staff of the synagogue.”

Susan Gordon, Temple Emanuel’s immediate past president, said that even with its problems, the family was still involved in the synagogue.

“They were very active members of our congregation for many years and loved by all of us,” Gordon said. “For our congregation this is really a tragic loss and we’re going through a lot of grief.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

Ben Sales is news editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.