Murder-Suicide in California: A Tragedy of the Financial Crisis?

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Damian Dovarganes / AP

An unemployed accounting-industry worker who was despondent over financial problems shot and killed his wife, his three children, his mother-in-law and himself in an upscale home in the Porter Ranch area of Los Angeles

Sorrento Pointe, Calif., does not look like the setting for the death of the American Dream. From outside the tasteful guardhouse stationed at the entrance of this gated community about 23 miles from downtown Los Angeles, all seems peaceful. The manicured lawns are a verdant oasis within the surrounding sun-scorched mountains. The only sound disturbing the quiet is the gentle swish of luxury cars — Mercedes, BMWs and Porsches — as their drivers turn homeward.

However, that sense of well-being was shattered brutally on Monday, Oct. 6, when police discovered the bodies of the Rajaram family in their home on Como Lane. Karthik Rajaram, 45, had shot his mother-in-law, wife and three children to death before killing himself sometime between Saturday evening and Monday morning.

Rajaram, a former financial analyst at PricewaterhouseCoopers and Sony Pictures, left two suicide notes — one for police and another for family and friends — and a will. "I understand he was unemployed, his dealings in the stock market had taken a disastrous turn for the worse," said Los Angeles deputy police chief Michel R. Moore. "This was a person who had been quite successful in this arena." Amid news of the global financial crisis and the credit crunch, this murder-suicide has become emblematic of the times — in its way parallelling the deathly plunges of Wall Street stockbrokers in 1929.

Rajaram's had been something of an immigrant-American success story. Born in India, he grew up in Bangalore and graduated in 1985 from the now famous Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai (formerly Madras). He went to Los Angeles to earn an M.B.A. from UCLA before working at Sony Pictures from 1989 to 1994, according to a company spokesman. He went on to serve in a small consulting group within PricewaterhouseCoopers dedicated to strategy and operational consulting for motion-picture companies. He left in 1999 to join EHS Partners, a start-up consulting firm. A 2001 story in the Daily Telegraph of London, under the headline "Bust, but big bucks for the big boys," called Rajaram a "winner" in a deal for NanoUniverse, a Los Angeles– and London-based venture fund taken public on the London Stock Exchange, the Los Angeles Times reported. For a 12,500-pound investment, Rajaram, one of the company's founders, received 875,000 pounds — or about $1.2 million in 2001 dollars — after a voluntary liquidation, the Telegraph reported.

Rajaram had even been lucky just before California's housing bubble burst, according to his former Northridge neighbor and real estate agent Sue Karns. He sold his home two years ago for $750,000, making a sizable profit on the property he and his wife had purchased in 1997 for $274,000, according to The Los Angeles Times. He then moved to the Sorrento Pointe house, planning to rent for a few years before buying again.

Despite his record of success at holding executive-level jobs and making highly profitable investments, Rajaram had apparently been unable to find work. Meanwhile, he began to accumulate financial losses which took their toll on his saved-up profits. Suddenly having an M.B.A., working one's way up in finance and using one's business acumen to make solid investments offered little protection and security. "The essence of it was that this was a man's emotional spiral downward due to financial difficulties. He saw it as a tragedy, a disaster that had befallen him. He lost perspective," said the LAPD's Moore. "He thought his life circumstances were because he was a failure. He got caught up in a rabbit hole, apart from reality."

By wiping out his family, Rajaram also wiped out the seemingly bright future of his children. "His family was healthy, his son [Krishna] was on a Fulbright scholarship at UCLA, his 7-year-old was at a magnet elementary school, a high-performing student, as was his 12-year-old," Moore said. He described their home as "organized and nicely adorned" with drawings by the children and photos of a smiling family. In short, there was nothing to suggest the violence that ended the suburban idyll.

Former colleagues and friends also paint a picture of Rajaram as a dedicated family man, a gentle-hearted, friendly and charismatic person unafraid to speak his mind. He was extremely bright, they say, scoring virtually perfect scores on the GMAT and possessing a keen business sense. Yet there was another side to him. Karns, who lived next door to the Rajarams for eight years, says he was a "very high-strung, very intense man, very tightly wound. I would hear things. Our bedrooms were right next to each other." (The master bedrooms of their respective houses are across a fence from each other.) "Through the years, there would be yelling. To my knowledge, that was all there was, but it was intense yelling."

Greg Robinson, who mentored Rajaram at PricewaterhouseCoopers, brought him in as a partner at Azur Partners LLC, in September 2003. Yet he viewed Rajaram as "an emotionally unstable person for as long as I've known him. He's always been a bit flamboyant, reckless." Their partnership didn't last a year. He says Rajaram was fired in June 2004 because of erratic behavior, including joining conference calls while inebriated and missing client meetings. Despite this, Robinson, CEO of Outpost Entertainment Inc., says he remained friends with Rajaram, though the two hadn't spoken since 2005. "He could have called me. I would have been there for him. He had a lot of resources to turn to."

Another former PricewaterhouseCoopers colleague and friend, David Gerken, who last spoke to Rajaram 18 months ago, says Rajaram took his career and family very seriously and wanted to do right by them. Perhaps it was this self-induced pressure that proved to be too much, warping his perspective and making his final violent act seem justifiable. "The last time I spoke with him, he had been out of work for a while. He was concerned about how the situation was impacting his family but seemed to be taking things in stride," says Gerken. "There was no indication of how serious it was or any suggestion of what would happen. It speaks to the desperation he must have felt."