When police arrived at a home in northern Ohio to perform a welfare check on Thursday evening, they were met with a gruesome sight: five people, including three children, dead in an apparent quadruple murder-suicide.
It was a domestic dispute that turned deadly, officers believe.
The bodies of the Dunham family – Jason, 46; Melissa, 42; and their children Renee, 15; Amber, 12; and Evan, 9 –were discovered in their home in Lake Township, about 15 miles outside Akron. Police were responding to a request for a welfare check at about 7:30 p.m., Uniontown Police said in a statement.
Harry Campbell, chief investigator of the Stark County Coroner's Office confirmed their identities. It wasn't clear who police suspect fired the shots.
Police said no other people are believed to be involved at this time. The Ohio Attorney General's Bureau of Criminal Investigation, called in Thursday night to help collect and document evidence, will be involved in the investigation. Family members couldn't be reached or declined to comment to USA TODAY Friday.
The deaths stunned neighbors, school officials and others who knew the Dunhams, who were involved in activities such as band, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.
All died as the result of multiple gunshot wounds, according to Campbell. He said they were pronounced dead at the home at 9:52 p.m.
Uniontown Police Chief Michael Batchik said Jason Dunham's handgun was used in the shooting, but it was not known as of Friday afternoon who fired the shots. He said Jason and Melissa Dunham both had permits to carry concealed weapons.
Batchik said one of Melissa Dunham's coworkers asked police to check on her because she had not heard from Melissa in two days. A police officer and a sergeant arrived at the home to find packages at the front door and accumulated mail in the box. All the family's vehicles were present. Police entered the home with a neighbor's help. They found family members in their bedrooms.
The chief said the crime was the worst he has seen in his career.
"For me, this is the worst one I've ever been involved with in 23 years in law enforcement, and I've spent all 23 years out here in Uniontown," Batchik said.
Uniontown police had no reports or records of previously responding to the Dunhams' address, according to a dispatcher.
'Very tragic': School community impacted by 3 kids' deaths
Lake Local Schools Superintendent Kevin Tobin said he was notified last night around 9 p.m. by the Uniontown police chief. He said the students who perished included a ninth grader who was in the band and a seventh grader, both girls, and a third-grade boy.
The school district mobilized its crisis response team, Tobin met with administrators and counselors this morning, and administrators alerted parents and staff.
"We have counselors and others meeting (with kids) as we speak," Tobin said. "We are working through this as calm and compassionate as we can."
The ninth grader was heavily involved in the band, which was slated to attend an away football game Friday evening.
"This is going to impact them. They are a family and it is almost two years to the day when we lost another band student after surgery," Tobin said. "It's a very, very tragic incident and we will just rally as a school community and as Lake Local community."
Melissa Dunham remembered as active member of community
Melissa Dunham was a partner atan accounting firm in Fairlawn, Ohio, according to her LinkedIn page. She had just been appointed as a partner in June, the firm, Bober Markey Fedorovich & Co.,announced. Dunham had spent nearly two decades at the company and specialized in corporate tax returns.
Jason Dunham worked in sales and business development at POS Highway in Hartville, Ohio, according to his LinkedIn.
"We are devastated by the shocking and tragic news of the deaths of Melissa Dunham and her family," Bober Markey Fedorovich Chief Operating Officer Sara Martin said in a statement. "Melissa was an esteemed member of the BMF leadership team and a close friend to many of our associates. Melissa's contributions during her 18 years with our firm have been immeasurable."
Dunham was recognized with a Woman of Professional Excellence award presented by the Women’s Network and the 30 For the Future Award from theGreater Akron Chamber in 2019.
Dunham spoke fondly of the Greater Akron community in a video for the local Chamber.
“It’s a wonderful community to raise our children, " she said. "I love being a part of community support services and the Girl Scouts of Northeast Ohio. And the school districts are amazing. They challenge my children. And it’s a great place to live, thrive and there’s many opportunities in this small community.”
She was involved with the Girl Scouts and said her daughters were learning to be risk-takers and leaders while in the organization. "I really enjoy working with young women and little girls to be the best that they can be,” she said.
In the video, Dunham also mentioned that her family loved to go camping and that she was certified to teach archery.
Elizabeth Bartz, CEO of Akron-based State and Federal Communications, knew Dunham for more than a decade and said she is “devastated” by the news.
“She’s a great Girl Scouts mom. She would always have her daughters send me their cookie order forms," said Bartz, whose company was a client of Dunham's firm. "They would deliver them in person and write me thank-you notes."
Neighbors share memories of Dunham family
The next-door neighbors remembered the Dunham family fondly on Friday morning.
Edmond Gazdacko said the couple moved in 18 years ago before they had children. He and his wife always enjoyed having them as neighbors and never had any issues with them.
He said the three children were in the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, and they played with his own grandchildren when they visited. Children from both families gathered for a baseball game in the Gazdackos' front yard when their grandchildren visited from Oklahoma earlier this summer.
His wife Denise Gazdacko said Melissa Dunham was a wonderful mother and her husband Jason helped the Gazdackos put up their basketball hoop. She also said Jason Dunham was a nice man, but controlling.
She said one of the girls often did yardwork and the other was the kind who would make elaborately decorated cupcakes. Their younger brother was eager to play with them and the neighbors' grandchildren, she said.
Another neighbor, Rebecca Gyoker, said she had not met Jason but had met Melissa a couple of times.
“She seemed like a really, really, really sweet person,” she said. “My favorite part of the kids was they were kids. They were always outside playing with the scooters and basketball, and just what kids should do. You don’t see that stuff nowadays. They were always outside and playing and just living life.”
She said she waved at the children every morning while they waited for the bus as she was leaving for work.
Gyoker has offered to keep the family dogs, whom she believes are orphaned now.
“When you saw the dogs, you saw the kids. When you saw the kids, you saw the dogs,” she said.
Family annihilation: Murder-suicides a growing problem in US
There's a name for cases where someone kills at least two kinds of family members, such as a spouse and children: family annihilation. They're often murder-suicides.
There have been at least 227 cases of family annihilation across the country since 2020, according to an analysis of media reports and data from the Gun Violence Archive published last month by the Indianapolis Star and USA TODAY.
That's an average of one family annihilation every five days. The death toll: over 700. Family annihilations happen in Texas more often than any other state.
Just over a week before the Dunhams were found dead, police in Oklahoma City found another family killed in an apparent murder-suicide that included three children, ages 2, 5 and 9, and two adults. Police said 28-year-old Ruben Armendariz shot his wife he was separated from and three kids before turning the gun on himself in what they dubbed a "massacre."