Death and the Matrons

With her trial soon to begin, everyone wants to know how Rowlett’s Darlie Routier could have brutally stabbed her kids. As the case of another accused murderess suggests, the answer lies in the suburbs.

October 1996By Comments

THE MOST INFAMOUS RESIDENCE IN ALL of Texas suburbia sits in a small development of two-story tract homes just off Texas Highway 66 in the sleepy east Dallas County town of Rowlett. The front yard is small—a strip of grass, really, no more than half the size of a typical suburban yard. The red-brick home that lords over it brings to mind the main office-restaurant of someplace called the Colonial Motor Court on some lonely highway in West Texas. For years the only notable thing about it was the small stone fountain that stands just to the right of the front door, the sort of anomalous—if not vulgar—touch that turns heads in the ’burbs. But on June 6, the house became notorious for what allegedly happened inside.

Sometime after midnight, the Rowlett police assert, 26-year-old Darlie Routier viciously stabbed to death her two eldest sons, 6-year-old Devon and 5-year-old Damon, while they lay asleep in front of the television set, then turned the knife on herself and inflicted several “alibi wounds” to her neck, arms, and hands. Then, according to her arrest warrant, Darlie told both her husband (who’d been asleep upstairs with their third child, eight-month-old Drake) and the police an extravagant lie about awakening on the couch in the family room to find her two sons stabbed to death and an intruder standing over her, bloody knife in hand. She struggled with the intruder, she said, and eventually chased him off through a window in the garage. Then she dialed 911.

When news of the child murders in the suburbs hit the front pages, most people thought of South Carolina housewife Susan Smith and her much publicized 1994 drowning of her two children. But when I saw the first photos of Darlie Routier, my mind turned almost immediately to another Texas housewife, Candy Montgomery, who sixteen years before—almost to the day—had shocked the serene Collin County suburb of Wylie by mutilating her friend Betty Gore with an ax in the utility room of Gore’s home. There was something in Darlie’s and Candy’s eyes that was eerily similar: the vaguely haunted look of women who had always longed to be more beautiful; in fact, had always longed, period.

Perhaps I made the connection so quickly because I had spent two years researching and co-authoring with writer John Bloom a book on the Montgomery case, Evidence of Love: A True Story of Passion and Death in the Suburbs. But the more I stared at Darlie’s pictures, watched her during her appearances in court, and read of her life, the more the comparison seemed chillingly apt. Darlie Routier remains innocent until proven guilty; indeed, her husband and family have vociferously insisted she didn’t do it. But as the Montgomery case taught me, the heinous crime she is accused of is not nearly as unthinkable as we’d like to believe. And the suburban setting in which the violence erupted is not nearly as serene as it may appear.

The two crimes differ, of course, in that Candy Montgomery’s attack on Betty Gore was prompted by an argument between the two women over an affair Candy had carried on with Betty’s husband, Allan—a far cry from the filicide Darlie Routier stands accused of. But if the Rowlett police are right, the two aberrant acts will share the distinction of having been committed by the most “normal” of women in the unlikeliest of settings.

Neither woman had what is known as a psychiatric past, and so the crimes defy any explanation other than a time-honored cliché: “I guess I just snapped.” Candy admitted as much during her trial by successfully pleading self-defense—she contended that Betty came at her with the ax first—and explaining away the forty-blow overkill as something called a “dissociative reaction,” which is shrinkspeak for “just snapping.” The jury bought it and acquitted her of murder charges.

Moreover, the women seem to have followed similar paths to their unseemly notoriety. Candy was thirty—not much older than Darlie—when she suddenly found herself in the Collin County jail on murder charges and the object of public curiosity and ridicule. Both were from the particular sort of itinerant middle-class background that became common after World War II: Candy was a military brat; Darlie was the daughter of an Altoona, Pennsylvania, railroad worker and the stepdaughter of a truck driver, who moved the family to Lubbock when she was in high school. Both were somewhat plain but worked hard at adding pizzazz to their appearances: Candy with her ever-changing hair, Darlie with her flashy apparel and baubles.

Beyond the superficial, the two women shared a kind of retro version of womanhood that ran counter to their times. Like Candy, Darlie has been described as exceedingly bright, quick-witted, and charming; but also like Candy, she never attended college. Both were courted by ambitious young men pursuing careers in the computer-electronics industry in North Texas. Both married soon after high school and got pregnant almost immediately, leaving time for only the slightest flirtation with a career. They seemed preoccupied with being known as supermoms of the sort adored by all the neighborhood kids. (Indeed, Candy always seemed much more concerned with being a great mother than with being a good wife.) And both were obsessed with perfecting every detail in their first suburban homes. When Candy’s husband, Pat, finally hit it big as a computer engineer with Texas Instruments, she threw herself into designing, building, and decorating a new house in the Collin County community of Fairview. Likewise, when Darlie and her husband, Darin, succeeded at building their computer-services firm in the early nineties, they purchased the red-brick, three-thousand- square-foot colonial for $128,000—a lot of house, as they say, for a couple in their twenties. And both women couldn’t wait to personalize their dream homes: Candy with ultramodern styling inside and out, Darlie with her fountain.

The particular sort of setting Candy and Darlie chose is known to urban topographers as an exurb. Rowlett and Fairview aren’t merely bedroom communities; these havens for the latest wave of white flight are not so much residential extensions of the big city as they are small towns unto themselves. As such, they tend to be geographically and culturally far-flung. “All I ever wanted was a house in the country and lots of kids—kids and animals,” Candy frequently said. And, indeed, it seemed to me that all her aspirations and dreams, disappointments and depressions—and, perhaps, her incomprehensible eruption of violence—could be traced to her carefully chosen lifestyle. The simple, bucolic life that both Candy and Darlie sought could be found here, along with cheaper real estate, lower taxes, safer streets, and better schools. But so could a sense of isolation and boredom that is even more intense than that suffered by residents of the original bedroom communities, let alone denizens of the city.

In Candy’s case, the satisfaction of her life’s longing soon became a source of irritation. She felt “stuck,” she often said, as if she was “missing something.” This sense of disconnection, I always felt, had to be especially profound for a woman of her generation. Having given herself over to this sort of retro-woman role, she found herself a frustrated spectator to the other, more exciting versions of womanhood being lived out around her, lifestyles that included a family, a career, and extramarital sex—or so she fantasized. Not surprisingly, she decided on the latter as an antidote for her malaise. She toyed with the idea of getting her college degree, even took a few courses, but mainly she flirted with her fellow churchgoer Allan Gore. She told me that she was looking for an affair that would provide “fireworks,” but the ensuing tryst turned out to be little more than a few months of moderately passionate nooners followed by a more platonic friendship that eventually fell dormant for mutual lack of interest—another version of being stuck.

Is it possible that the malaise caused by feeling trapped in suburbia is psychologically similar to the criminal pathology found in the urban underclass, where the sense of being stuck has been blamed for everything from juvenile crime to domestic abuse and the drug plague? It is hard to imagine two cultures that are more different, but the pressures of each may be enough to cause an otherwise sane person to snap. The idea of suburban angst may seem absurd given the idyllic facade of suburban life, but maybe that’s the point: For some suburbanites, it is nothing more than a facade beneath which their dark or different selves toss and turn restlessly.

One of Candy’s selves was the happy homemaker living out her Norman Rockwell dream. Another self, one that perpetually longed for something to enliven its existence, dreamed of dabbling in self-destructive adulterous flings. Darlie Routier’s sunny suburban wife and mother self, it turns out, was joined by another self that penned thoughts of suicide in a diary, and yet another that was judged by some to be an overly flamboyant dresser and a spendthrift. As an anonymous acquaintance of Darlie’s said after her arrest: “There were two of her, kinda. She was a real nice mother who was the June Cleaver type, and then there was the part that made her want to be on Knots Landing.

But alienation, ennui, and acting out are only part of the suburban angst. There was also a certain narcissism about these two women, a kind of hubris that seemed to make them feel somehow above the law. If Candy was contemptuous of her chosen lifestyle, for example, she could also be defensively deceptive about it. After the mutilated remains of Betty Gore were found by neighbors, she did not volunteer to her husband, her friends, or the police the fact that she had had an affair with Allan Gore. And even a year after her trial and acquittal, she betrayed little remorse about what had happened. Instead, she whined about how “humiliating” the pre-booking strip search had been and mugged scornfully for the news media’s cameras. The whole business seemed to be out of sight, out of mind, “unthinkable”—precisely the suburban worldview.

Darlie Routier may yet be found a victim rather than the perpetrator in the deaths of her sons. But police officers’ suspicions were aroused by the contradictory series of statements she gave the morning after her breathless 911 call—statements that seemed so arrogantly specious that investigators considered them prima facie evidence of guilt. Among the more dramatic of them, as detailed in her expansively documented arrest warrant, was the fact that though she had said her boys were dying, she apparently did not lift a finger to save them as they bled to death, and she never showed any concern about her husband or infant son. Moreover, though Darlie implied that the assailant had exited through a slashed screen window in the garage, the police found no trail of blood in the area and no disturbance of dust on the windowsill or mulch in the yard immediately outside the window. Initial tests, in fact, revealed traces of the screen on a knife found in the Routier kitchen. Finally, the police doubted Darlie’s own wounds: The neck wound didn’t seem to jibe with her account of a vicious assault—it looked self-inflicted. And the wounds on one of her hands were less consistent with her being stabbed than with her stabbing herself.

When Darlie went to court for pretrial proceedings, she wore an expression of contempt on her face that reminded me of Candy’s. As police officers testified about the gaping inconsistencies in her story, she shook her head defiantly. One may choose to view her behavior as normal for a wrongly accused defendant under considerable duress. On the other hand, it may be seen as a slightly different permutation of Candy Montgomery’s suburban arrogance—as in, How dare you question and judge me?

Suburban culture is, above all else, a matriarchy. Its queens are part of the most sought-after political and socioeconomic class of our age. They’re the voters politicians are trying to demystify, the buyers marketers are trying to lure. If they feel isolated in their fiefdoms, they also feel morally and socially superior. And, if Candy’s attitude was any indication, they don’t appreciate having their ethical purity questioned. But if Candy Montgomery and Darlie Routier were haughty, they were also, deep down, unremittingly sad, and no wonder. The suburban dream they’d invested so heavily in hadn’t paid them back in kind. They had dwindling options; the sheer sanity of their lives had become overbearing.

Any of us who take pride in being “normal” can identify with that predicament, which is why we’re so fascinated by cases like these. Hideous crimes always invite our fascination. But only a few elicit an uncomfortable empathy as well. As unthinkable as the crime may be, the alleged perpetrator is not so easily dismissed. She is, as advertised, a totem of all that’s supposed to be good and righteous about the American middle class; she is one of us. And when one of us does the unthinkable, it becomes just a little too thinkable for comfort.

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