‘Textbook controlling behavior’: The warning signs experts found in recordings by a father who murdered his family
A rare and painfully clear picture of the many red flags experts say are common in abusive relationships
When you read quotes from Michael Haight, taken from audio recordings just hours before police say he shot and killed seven members of his own family, you might picture him screaming, towering over his family in a threatening manner, blinded by rage.
What’s hard to imagine is a calm, smooth-talking and seemingly remorseful man who at times is so tearful that he has trouble articulating.
“He sounds like and he mimics so many decent men in our lives,” said Kimmi Wolf with the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition. “That image of a domestic violence abuser being explosive, someone foaming at the mouth, someone wearing a literal ‘wife-beater’ T-shirt that’s stained — that image negates so much of what really happens.”
Help for people in abusive relationships can be found by contacting:
- Utah Domestic Violence Coalition: Utah’s confidential statewide, 24-hour domestic violence hotline at 1-800-897-LINK (5465)
- YWCA Women in Jeopardy program: 801-537-8600
- Utah’s statewide child abuse and neglect hotline: 1-855-323-DCFS (3237)
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
Earlier this month, the Deseret News obtained nearly 72 minutes of video taken from Haight’s phone on Jan. 3, much of it conversations between himself and his wife, Tausha Haight, where the couple talks through the specifics of their impending divorce.
The recordings were made just four days after police say Haight Googled things like: “Would a neighbor hear a gunshot in a garage?” and “If you hear a single gunshot in your neighborhood at night would you immediately recognize it as such?”
On Jan. 4, Haight shot and killed his five children — 4-year-old Gavin, 7-year-old twins Sienna and Ammon, 12-year-old Brilee, and 17-year-old Macie — as well as 40-year-old Tausha and her mother, 78-year-old Gail Earl. Haight then turned the gun on himself.
In the final police report a neighbor claimed they heard what sounded like fireworks, but in the cadence of gunshots, at about 3:30 a.m., presumably no more than eight hours after Haight filmed some of the video.
The majority of the recordings appear to be taken from his lap, and don’t show any of the victims, almost as if they were secretly recorded. It’s unclear why Haight filmed the conversations, but one thing is certain — the unsettling audio paints a rare and painfully clear picture of the many red flags experts say are common in abusive relationships.
After conversations with victim advocates and therapists who also reviewed the recordings, the Deseret News decided to publish portions of the audio with the hope that it highlights the warning signs and may serve as a reminder to the public — domestic violence and abuse comes in many shapes and forms, but is often different than what is portrayed in movies and television.
“The value of these recordings is he is going to sound familiar to victims,” Wolf said.
Controlling the narrative
One of the most powerful tools a perpetrator of domestic abuse has is creating a narrative for family and friends that the victim is unreasonable, advocates say.
“He’s recording himself being quite civil, asking all the right questions, accusing her of abuse,” said Wolf. “He’s not recording any of his responses that could be viewed negatively. Everything is reasonable.”
“He may have cherry picked what he was recording to make it sound like he was being picked on by this wife,” said Martha Burkett Fallis, a founding member of the Amethyst Center For Healing, a Salt Lake-based nonprofit that provides counseling for people who have experienced domestic violence.
“He is really trying to control the narrative. And also, embolden his own sense that he’s done everything he can,” said Jana Fulmer, also a founding member of the Amethyst Center For Healing.
“He speaks quite a bit about having changed his job because he was looking forward to having freedom to be with his family. He calls himself an honorable man, he speaks about being a provider, doing everything he can,” Fulmer observed.
Painting himself as the victim
Records from Enoch Police and the Utah Division of Child and Family Services suggest Haight had abused his family, both physically and emotionally, for years — there are allegations that he choked his daughter, threw his son on the ground, berated his wife and controlled her behavior and finances.
Yet in the videos, Haight portrays himself as the victim.
“If you did not know how to recognize what’s going on here, I think we would have people who are very sympathetic to him and thought that she was just being mean,” said Burkett Fallis.
Often, when Tausha Haight confronts Michael over his abuse, he becomes tearful, and changes the topic.
“She would say something specific, and he would go back into that emotional place where he would sound like he was holding back tears,” said Fulmer.
“It seems he is painting himself in his own mind as a victim. He’s not aggressive, she’s the one who’s being aggressive ... it’s like this whole system is against him, and she is the impetus for all of that,” said Wolf.
Jealousy and isolation
A common theme in abusive relationships, advocates say, is jealousy and an attempt by the perpetrator to isolate the victim, both red flags that Michael Haight appeared to display.
In one instance, he blames Tausha Haight for pitting the kids against him, and that everything was fine with the family until she came back from “girls weekend.”
And later in the recordings, she confronts him for falsely accusing her of having “multiple affairs” or a “side hustle.”
“He made reference about whether she had a ‘side hustle’ and whether she was doing this for somebody else ... anything that takes this person outside of the primary relationship feels like a threat,” said Fulmer.
“They can’t successfully gaslight you if you have family and friends saying: ‘This is wrong. You don’t deserve this, you can do better. Let me help you. We can figure this out,’” said Wolf.
“So they isolate you ... saying things like ‘it just seems like you are always unhappy with our marriage when you come back from visiting friends or family. And if you really want to work on this marriage, you’re going to have to choose me over them,’” she said.
This attempt to isolate the victim fits under the general umbrella of controlling behavior that includes limiting access to finances and the ability for the victim to live freely.
Tausha Haight makes several references to her financial constraints, including tight budgets for Christmas presents and how the family continues “to live well below our means.”
In one instance, Michael Haight brings up a time when Tausha took money from the children’s accounts while on a trip — she responds by telling him “That’s all I had access to at the time.”
“This is just textbook controlling behavior,” said Wolf.
When Tausha Haight does directly confront Michael about his past abuse, he mostly responds with deflection.
“In order for people to make behavioral changes, they really have to admit that they’re doing something wrong, or they’re doing something that’s not conducive to a healthy relationship,” said Burkett Fallis “We didn’t hear any part where he was like, ‘Yes, I need to change my behavior.’”
That’s a common trend called “distancing language” where perpetrators in abusive relationships use the passive voice to avoid directly acknowledging harm that has been done.
“I know over the course of the last two to five years there’s been a lot of things we’ve been able to talk about, we’ve been able to make changes with, we’ve gotten better tools on,” Michael Haight tells Tausha in one of the videos. The experts that analyzed the video told the Deseret News using “we” rather than “I” is an example of distancing language.
“And when she does make references to specific behaviors that she’s asked him to change, he goes into that place of ‘what about you?’” said Fulmer.
Believing victims and establishing a safety plan
What can we learn from this audio? Advocates say there are two key takeaways — believe victims, and create a safety plan.
Interviews with the community following the murder-suicide show the level of manipulation Michael Haight was capable of. Neighbors say he was a nice, unassuming father who they never suspected was capable of murdering his family.
“That is the hardest thing, because for the people who knew Michael and his public persona, they might have not believed her ... or maybe they said, let’s talk this through, let’s see what we can do,” said Wolf. “Can we believe a victim, regardless of our experiences and interactions with the perpetrator?”
The videos, and the entire case in general, underscores the importance of bolstering domestic violence resources, especially the ability to safety plan. Records show Tausha Haight did reach out to advocates, and worried over how Michael would respond.
“We start by believing victims, and we safety plan for everything. If somebody says something is happening, you safety plan for it. If the other person in the relationship says the opposite is happening, then you safety plan for that, too. Because what ultimately the safety plan should get to is people need distance to deal with what’s happening,” said Burkett Fallis.