TRURO — The private suffering of a mother and son ended tragically when Adam Howe, 34, evidently killed his mother, Susan Howe, on Friday evening, Sept. 30. Taken into custody after a three-hour standoff with a police SWAT team at his mother’s home on Houser Way, Howe ended his own life on Sunday at the Ash Street Jail in New Bedford.
Susan Howe, 69, was president of the Truro Historical Society, chair of the town’s commission on disabilities, and a member of the Walsh Property Community Planning Committee.
“She was four foot eight and a dynamo,” said Barbara Wohlgemuth, treasurer of the historical society. “Kind and loving. She gave so much time and energy to this town. I’ve been on the board for a long time, and she was the best president we ever had.”
Wohlgemuth said that Howe secured grants to enable the society’s museum to repair a large loom and put on an ambitious exhibit in 2021 entitled “Wampanoag Nation: People of the First Light.”
Susan and her former husband, Jeffrey, bought their house in Truro in 1984, according to a biography she wrote for the Walsh Committee’s web page. She moved to Truro full-time after the couple divorced in 2014. With degrees from Syracuse and Boston universities, she worked for years as head of the rehabilitation counseling department at Tufts Medical Center, she wrote. This sparked her interest in disability advocacy. She studied piano beginning at age 40 and enjoyed duets with her daughter, who plays the flute, according to the bio. She raised her children in Belmont, said Wohlgemuth.
Wohlgemuth added that Adam had many problems and Susan “kept trying to help him.”
Photos of his 2019 wedding and of him with his wife and baby daughter on social media suggest periods of stability. Both Wohlgemuth and Paul Melanson, his former employer at Tin Pan Alley in Provincetown, said Adam did well when he was on medication and attending AA meetings.
The Boston Globe reported that in May 2021 Howe was charged with attempted sexual assault against his wife, first-degree aggravated domestic assault, and first-degree unlawful restraint in Manchester, N.H. He was released to his mother’s home until he could be admitted for inpatient treatment in Bourne, the Globe reported.
The Tewksbury police arrested him on Aug. 11 for allegedly breaking into a business there. An outstanding warrant from Salem, N.H. charged him with receiving stolen property. Tewksbury police stated he was carrying Suboxone, a medication for opioid addiction, without a prescription.
Katherine Reed, the Howes’ closest neighbor, said her landscaper had seen Adam pacing up and down the driveway in recent days. On the night of Sept. 30, Reed said, she came home from an office party at about 9:20 p.m. and saw a fire at the Howe property.
“It was very, very close to the house,” she said. “I thought it could possibly light the house on fire.”
Reed drove up to the house and talked with Adam, who, she said, seemed “upbeat” and conversational.
Reed saw a single log on fire and, nearby, a large circle of gravel, also on fire. She smelled gasoline. She remembered thinking, “It must take a lot of gasoline to keep rocks burning like that,” she said. She drove back to her house and called the fire department.
Reed said Truro firefighters and police know the address well because they had responded to calls related to Adam’s mental state several times before. Fire and police officials would not comment, deferring to Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe, who has not yet released an official cause of Susan Howe’s death.
Reed, who was watching from a distance, said that when a firefighter realized that a body was burning, Adam Howe’s demeanor changed instantly. The Truro police arrived at about that time, Reed said.
Howe ran into the house. Soon after, Reed said, the Cape Cod Regional SWAT Team arrived with more than 20 officers in full riot gear.
Reed said she could hear the three-hour negotiation that followed. Howe made several demands. He wanted to talk to his sister and his father. The police asked Howe to show them his hands, and he refused.
Finally, officers sent four “flash-bangs” through the front window of the house, Reed said. These are explosive devices that temporarily stun and disorient their target. Reed said the last thing she saw was Adam being taken away on a stretcher.
According to a statement from O’Keefe, Howe “experienced difficulty breathing” and was taken to Cape Cod Hospital, where he was shackled to a gurney and under watch by state police and hospital security. The district attorney himself contacted an on-call judge at 3 a.m., who listened to an emergency room doctor’s diagnosis. Under state law, a doctor must confirm that a person is a danger to himself or others for involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital.
Hospital Rejects Howe
The judge ruled that Howe could be sent to Bridgewater, the state hospital for inmates with severe mental illness. But when he called Bridgewater early that morning, O’Keefe told the Independent, a staff member said Howe must be put into a general population jail before he could be transferred to the state hospital.
“I never heard that one before,” O’Keefe said.
O’Keefe then called the county jail in Bourne, he said. No one answered immediately — and besides, they have had “staffing problems,” O’Keefe told the Independent on Oct. 3.
In fact, the Barnstable County Correctional Facility (BCCF) may not have taken Howe even if they answered their phone. Sheriff James Cummings told the Independent on Oct. 4 that his jail no longer runs a “regional lockup” where suspects arrested after the courts close are held until arraignment. Furthermore, Cummings said, his jail won’t take last-minute lockups if they are suicidal, sick, or detoxing, because it “screws up our staffing.”
So, Adam Howe was sent to New Bedford’s Ash Street Jail, a regional lockup, at 6 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 1.
Howe clearly was thinking of suicide, O’Keefe said, judging from his statements. The Ash Street Jail staff put him on a security watch, checking him every 15 minutes, according to Jonathan Darling, a spokesman for Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson.
Howe found a way, however, to asphyxiate himself, Darling stated. A guard found him unresponsive at about 5 p.m. on Sunday.
State Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro questioned how the Dept. of Correction’s own psychiatric hospital refused to take Howe on a technicality and that the county jail was not available for a Cape Codder.
The Ash Street Jail, one of the oldest in the state, is run by the Bristol County sheriff. The New England Center for Investigative Reporting found in 2018 that at least 16 people had died by suicide between 2006 and 2017 while in the custody of the Bristol County sheriff. More than a quarter of the suicides in the state’s county jails had occurred in Bristol County, though the county accounted for just 13 percent of inmates, the report found.
Cummings said he has been trying to get more funding from the state to provide a regional lockup.
The Barnstable County Correctional Facility has 174 inmates in a facility built for 588, yet Cummings’s budget has not gone down in years. He said that is because he has had to hire clinicians to deal with mentally ill inmates. Yet he said last week that only 1.7 percent of his $32-million budget goes to mental health treatment.