The Australian grandfather suspected of fatally shooting six members of his family before killing himself appeared to dote lovingly on his daughter’s four children, who had autism, but never emerged from a depression that followed the suicide of a son 15 years ago, a longtime family friend says.
“He was the most beautiful man,” Janice Morris says of Peter Miles, 61, whom police are investigating for the murder of his wife, daughter and four grandkids before he apparently turned his gun on himself, according to PEOPLE’s sister publication in Australia, WHO magazine.
Morris adds: “It was just that everything had come crashing down and he had gone back into a big, black hole in a dark space.”
Police have not shared details of the killings — Australia’s worst mass shooting since 1996 — or officially named a suspect in the slayings at the family’s small West Australian farm in Osmington, near the popular coastal surfing and tourist destination of Margaret River.
Authorities believe the male killer summoned police to the scene with a brief 5:15 a.m phone call on Friday, then shot himself before they arrived.
Peter Miles and his 58-year-old wife, Cynda, were found dead along with their daughter, 35-year-old Katrina Miles, and Katrina’s children: Taye, 13; Rylan, 12; Ayre, 10; and 8-year-old Kadyn.
Morris, 81, has known the family for more than 30 years after meeting Cynda through a quilting group. While she describes Petter as “a gentle, beautiful, lovely man,” Katrina’s estranged husband had harsher words for him after the killings.
Aaron Cockman publicly blamed Peter in a news conference for the attack, speculating, “Peter didn’t snap.”
He added: “I think he’s thought this through. I think he’s been thinking this through for a long time.”
Peter, a handyman, and Cynda had offered their “hobby farm” as a sanctuary for Katrina and her kids as Katrina left a broken marriage and settled with her children at the place her parents dubbed “Forever Dreaming Farm,” Morris says.
Peter transformed a shed on the property into a refuge for the grandchildren and their mother, who home-schooled the four kids. He gave particular care in his planning to Katrina’s son Ryan, whose autism was accompanied by a disorder that left him at times in crippling pain.
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“Peter built them an area for a school room,” Morris says. “They all had their own bedrooms. He made a bathroom so if Ryan got too bad, it could be used with wheelchair access. He built the most beautiful cubbyhouse for granddaughter Taye. You couldn’t find anyone better than Peter. He built them a little house.”
Peter seemed so devoted to Rylan that he followed a nightly ritual to soothe him, Morris says.
“Who do you know that would get up from his tea every night and go down and cradle his grandson in bed and talk to him until he had gone to sleep, because his grandson was in so much pain?” she says.
Cockman, Katrina’s husband, said that he’d once been so close to his father-in-law that Peter felt like a “best friend,” but that after his marital breakup, that relationship changed.
“I still love who he was, but his mental attitude … there are some people you just don’t get on the wrong side of … and that’s Peter and Cynda,” Cockman said.
But Morris says Peter’s struggles may have been rooted in an earlier family tragedy, when one of his three sons killed himself 15 years ago. At the time, “Peter had a breakdown,” she says. “He was having counseling and treatment for depression. Peter had just come to the thought that he was useless and he was in a bad place.”
Compounding the family’s burdens, another of Peter’s sons, 31-year-old Neil, is awaiting a kidney transplant for a life-threatening illness, which Katrina’s husband addressed with the media.
“I thought, ‘If something happens to Neil, [Katrina] will not be able to lose another brother,’ ” Cockman said. “But I didn’t think about Peter.”
Speaking with WHO, Morris recalled the apparent affection showered by Peter on his wife.
“They loved each other so much, and he wasn’t backward in telling you how much he loved her,” she says. “And they were just beautiful people. That’s why we can’t fathom what happened. I’m devastated.”
“They were all caring, loving people,” Morris says. “Nobody will ever understand it.”