The discovery of the body of a Cheektowaga woman who had been dead at least six months left seasoned police investigators Wednesday shaking their heads and referring to a classic movie plot.
The incident also left area residents wondering about Cheektowaga, where several strange or violent deaths have occurred in recent months.
Since November 1988, six of the past seven homicides in Cheektowaga have been committed by family members. The five separate incidents left nine people dead:
JUNE 8, 1990. Lorraine Napieralski, 42, shot her husband, Anthony, 43, and mother-in-law, Theresa, 63, before killing herself.
MARCH 24, 1990. Benjamin Passon, 70, stabbed his wife, Tessie, 69, before turning the knife on himself.
JULY 20, 1989. Kenneth Prell, 69, strangled his wife, Dorothy, 67.
MARCH 18, 1989. Robert S. Jacobs, 39, shot his wife, Mary, 40, to death before killing himself.
NOV. 17, 1988. Timothy Weibel, 30, strangled his wife, Elizia, 26.
In just the past three months, Cheektowaga detectives have been called to three unusual crime scenes where they found:
Florence V. Kowalewski's body sitting in a chair, perhaps for as long as six months.
A double murder-suicide on June 8, when a woman killed her husband and her mother-in-law.
A murder-suicide in March, which police at first thought was a double homicide. The the killer had stabbed himself 17 times.
"I don't think there's anything in the air," said Police Chief Bruce D. Chamberlin. "But I've given this a lot of thought, and I don't have an answer."
The most recent incident probably was the most bizarre.
When police checked on Mrs. Kowalewski's welfare, her 47-year-old son told them his mother was in the living room of their Rossler Avenue home. Detectives found the woman's body, seated in a living-room chair.
The scene could have been scripted by Alfred Hitchcock, with Anthony Perkins starring as the Norman Bates character.
Viewers of the Hitchcock movie classic "Psycho" know that Norman Bates was mentally ill. Cheektowaga police have sent Louis Kowalewski, the son, for psychiatric evaluation.
"You're talking about massive denial," said Charles P. Ewing, a University at Buffalo law and psychology professor.
"He became totally dependent on (his mother) for sustenance and information," added Cheektowaga Capt. John A. Howlett, a former psychiatric social worker. "She became his window to the world. He couldn't cope (with her death), so he kept his window to the world alive."
When out-of-town relatives called the Kowalewski home last Thanksgiving, Louis Kowalewski told them that his mother couldn't come to the phone. Police believe she may have been dead already.
Ewing explained that the family is the most emotionally charged component of human life. Family matters can make it easier for people to delude themselves, he said.
It's that emotionally charged family issue that also explains why women sometimes deny to themselves that they're pregnant or deny that they're being abused physically over a long period of time, Ewing suggested.
That same family electricity may help explain the set of domestic-violence cases that have hit this suburban town of about 110,000 people in the past 19 months.
Six of the town's past seven homicide victims have been killed by close relatives.
"That's pretty startling," said Ewing, a nationally recognized expert on intra-familial homicides. "Nationwide, 15 percent of all criminal homicide victims are killed by family members. This is six out of seven. It turns the statistic on its head."
It's reasonably easy to pinpoint motives in most crimes, Chamberlin added.
"But you look at these crimes and ask, 'Why?' I don't know why. That's what's so frustrating about these cases. There isn't anything we could do that would make a difference."
While Cheektowaga police have no strong clues why their town has been hit so hard, there are theories about why Western New York may be ripe for such domestic violence.
"In Western New York, you have a strong ethnic heritage where people are taught to honor their families and to stand by their husbands and wives," Howlett said.
Ewing agreed: "Where you have strong religious ties, especially to the Catholic Church, and strong ethnic ties, there's a great deal of pressure on people to remain in a marriage."
So when people find they can't cope with a great deal of domestic stress, they may remember their parents' advice to keep the family intact at all costs.
"You're dealing with that kind of conflict and all of a sudden your options are limited," Howlett added. "The (killing) becomes the ultimate desperate act, because you don't see any other options."
In three of Cheektowaga's five domestic homicide cases in the past two years (one was a double homicide), the killer also took his or her own life. In effect, several sources said, the homicide-suicide becomes the ultimate way to keep the family intact.
Why Cheektowaga? When the media report these crimes, they invariably refer to this "quiet suburban town."
"People think this is suburbia, so nothing ever happens here," Chamberlin said. "I think we've got a bigger shock factor. If these . . . homicides were in the city, they wouldn't have the same emotional effect."
Howlett added that Cheektowaga is a pretty large town.
"It's a myth that this is a small community."
Chamberlin, Howlett, Ewing and other sources have pointed out several unusual aspects to the five recent domestic homicide cases:
While Ewing said that a husband's killing of a wife almost invariably is preceded by a long period of domestic violence, Cheektowaga police were unfamiliar with any of the five families. Police had investigated previous calls of any kind at only one of the five homes.
The motives varied greatly, with several being linked to mental instability or financial problems. But in one case, police learned that the husband apparently killed his wife to protect her from a disease he believed he had.
Including a sixth near-fatal domestic violence case that left a woman seriously injured last November, the assailants used guns, knives and strangulation in two cases each.
"In domestic homicides, guns are by far the weapon of choice," Ewing said. "It's very difficult to stab or strangle a loved one, because it is such a personal, intimate act."
While Cheektowaga police feel powerless to prevent domestic violence, they are looking into "taking a little more aggressive stance" of referrals and arrests when they see signs of trouble, Chamberlin said.
He also had a piece of advice for neighbors who spot similar warning signs and wonder whether they should get involved: "Friends have to take care of friends. When you see signs like that, don't take it lightly."