Phoenix-area Jews shocked, grieving over apparent murder-suicide

The Butwin family of Tempe, Ariz., shown in a photo from May 2009, is believed to have been killed in a murder-suicide.

By Ben Sales, JTA

The Phoenix-area Jewish community is grieving after hearing of the suspected murder-suicide of a local Jewish family that was active in Jewish life.

Evidence suggests that James Butwin, a resident of the Phoenix suburb of Tempe, Ariz., burned himself and his family to death in the family’s SUV on Saturday — though according to The Associated Press, police have not confirmed Butwin as a suspect. Police found a charred SUV in the desert 35 miles south of Phoenix still smoking from the fire but still have not confirmed the bodies as those of the Butwins. They say, however, that the family’s SUV matches the burned one.

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.

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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.”

Emanuel held a memorial service for the family on Wednesday night. The local Jewish Family & 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.”

The AP reported that early last week, James Butwin sent his business partner detailed instructions on how to run the business without him. AP also reported that the James and Yafit Butwin were fighting in court over their assets, which caused tension. Neighbors of the Butwins also said that James had a brain tumor, according to reports.

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.”