In what could be some of her last words, Yafit Butwin wished her husband a happy birthday and said how proud she was of her three children.
Now police in Tempe believe that Butwin, her husband Jim, and their children are all dead in a murder-suicide, and have matched their SUV to one found burning in the Pinal County desert, some 35 miles south of the Valley.
On Thursday afternoon, Dr. Gregory Hess, chief medical examiner in Pima County, confirmed that two of the bodies found were in fact Jim and Yafit Butwin; Hess’s office was awaiting further medical records to determine if the other three bodies were the Butwin children.
Court records show that Yafit Butwin filed for a divorce from James Butwin in September and was seeking half of his liquid assets, spousal support and exclusive access to their upper-middle-class home in Tempe during the divorce proceedings.
“The parties’ marriage is irretrievably broken and there is no reasonable prospect of reconciliation,” according to Yafit’s petition to dissolve the marriage.
But James Butwin, 47, continued living in the home with Yafit and the kids, 16-year-old Malissa, 14-year-old Daniel and 7-year-old Matthew.
“Husband’s insistence on continuing to reside in the residence and refusing to respect wife’s privacy is causing considerable tension between the parties and potential emotional harm for the parties’ children,” Yafit’s attorney wrote in one filing in Maricopa County Superior Court.
James Butwin, who was from New Jersey, also was fighting his wife’s request for the money, pointing to a prenuptial agreement she signed shortly before they married in her home country of Israel in June 1994; she was 22.
Yafit Butwin’s attorney argued that when she signed the agreement, she was under duress and coercion by her husband.
Court records say that Yafit was born on a chicken farm in an Israeli village, didn’t speak fluent English and didn’t understand the American legal system when she signed the lengthy agreement.
Yafit Butwin also argued that her husband had plenty of money, estimating his total assets at around $1 million.
No orders of protection were filed as the divorce proceeded.
A court document filed in October as part of the divorce proceedings said Yafit was pregnant. There was no indication Wednesday that she ever had the baby, but it’s unclear what happened.
Neighbors of the Butwins told The Associated Press that on top of the divorce — set to go to trial next month — James Butwin was battling a brain tumor and that he was frustrated that treatment wasn’t helping him.
The neighbors also described the Butwins as a well-liked and well-respected family in the neighborhood, and that there were no indications of any type of violence.
“From what we know them to be, this is totally unexpected to the point of almost being unbelievable,” neighbor Robert Kempton said Tuesday. “We’ll choose to remember them in the wonderful, positive light that we knew them.”
Yafit Butwin’s Facebook page shows her last post came on Friday — a picture of James, with the three smiling kids and a caption that reads: “Happy birthday, Jim. I am so proud of my three children:) and they know why.”
James Butwin turned 47 on Friday. All three children had birthdays coming up in June and July.
Tempe police Sgt. Jeff Glover said that a partner in James Butwin’s real estate business first contacted them on Monday, saying that he was worried about the family after Butwin wrote him a note explaining how to run the business without him.
Glover said investigators found “suspicious and concerning” evidence inside the home but declined to specify what that was. The evidence was strong enough for police to immediately begin investigating the case as a murder-suicide.
Glover said Wednesday that he was unable to say who among the family police believe is responsible for carrying out the crime.
If confirmed as a murder-suicide, the Butwins would be the second high-profile murder-suicide in Arizona since May.
On May 2, police believe former neo-Nazi gunman Jason Todd “JT” Ready shot and killed his girlfriend and three members of her family, including a toddler, before turning the gun on himself. Ready was the leader of a civilian border patrol group known as the U.S. Border Guard.