Police identified on Wednesday a Jewish family from Tempe, Arizona, the Butwins, as the subjects of a suspected murder-suicide.
The Associated Press reported that an acquaintance concerned about the Phoenix suburban family contacted police, who went to the home of the Butwin family and found “suspicious and concerning” evidence - but not the Butwins - and began treating the case as a murder-suicide.
The family's white Ford Expedition also was gone, the report said, and the Pinal County Sheriff's Office was investigating the discovery of five bodies found burned beyond recognition in a white Ford Expedition in the desert 35 miles south of Phoenix on Saturday morning.
The SUV found burning in the desert was registered to the missing family of five, including three children, police in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe said.
The couple, Israeli-born Yafit Butwin and her husband James, were going through a divorce and he was battling a brain tumor, their neighbors told AP.
“From what we know them to be, this is totally unexpected to the point of almost being unbelievable,” neighbor Robert Kempton said. “We'll choose to remember them in the wonderful, positive light that we knew them.”
The Butwin family acquaintance who first called authorities told police on Monday that he was worried about them after receiving a note from James Butwin with instructions on how to operate his construction business without him, Tempe police Sgt. Jeff Glover was quoted as having said.
Investigators went to the Butwin home, but Glover declined to specify what evidence was found. He did say that no murder weapon was found in the home.
Glover said that the Pinal County Sheriff's Office notified them that the SUV in the desert was registered to the Butwin family's home.
He added that James and his wife Yafit Butwin were experiencing financial difficulties, and court records show that Yafit filed for divorce in September and that the process was ongoing.
The couple’s three children, according to a report on The Arizona Republic, were Malissa, 16, Daniel, 14, and Matthew, 7.
The five bodies found in the desert have not been positively identified because they were burned so badly beyond recognition, Gregory Hess, chief medical examiner for Pima County, told AP.
An attorney for Yafit Butwin, Steven Wolfson, told The Arizona Republic that Yafit Butwin immigrated to the U.S. in the mid-1990s from Israel and married Butwin in New Jersey. He said the couple was still living together during the divorce under a temporary agreement to share the home.
“She was looking forward to starting over, and she loved her children very much,” Wolfson said.
Wolfson said that Yafit Butwin never sought an order of protection and said there was no hint of domestic violence problems. “This is out of the blue as far as we're concerned,” he said.