An SUV found burning in the desert with five bodies inside was registered to the home of a missing family of five, including three children, police in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe said Tuesday.
Authorities initially suspected that a Mexican drug cartel was behind the act, but on Tuesday police said they were treating the case as a murder-suicide carried out by the father.
An acquaintance of the Butwin family told police on Monday that he was concerned 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 said.
Investigators went to the Butwin home 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.
Glover declined to specify what the evidence was but said no murder weapon was found in the home.
Meanwhile, 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.
Glover said that the sheriff's office has since notified them that the SUV in the desert was registered to the Butwin family's home.
Butwin's burned SUV (Photo: Reuters)
He said that although they can't be entirely certain that the Butwins are the same five people found in the burning SUV, investigators are so sure that they're dead that they aren't looking for them and believe there are no outstanding suspects.
Glover said there was an impending divorce between James and his wife Yafit Butwin, 40, an Israeli immigrant whose website advertises her interior-design business. He said the couple was experiencing difficulties, although he didn't know which of them was seeking the divorce.
According to Glover, two of their children were teenagers and one was a pre-teen, but did not have their exact ages.
Yafit wrote in her Facebook page that she and James were separated. Police said the couple was also experiencing financial difficulties.
Bill Bishop, Jim Butwin's divorce lawyer, was quoted by The Arizona Republic as saying that the marriage breakup had proceeded with relatively little rancor. The couple agreed to share the house during litigation and had already negotiated joint legal custody. While there were financial issues, Bishop said, they were being handled professionally.
Steven Wolfson, Yafit's divorce attorney, said the couple continued living together during divorce proceedings under a temporary agreement to share the residence.
"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."
Kempton told The Associated Press that the couple had confided in him about the divorce and James Butwin's brain tumor.
Kempton said that after chemotherapy, the tumor returned and that James was discouraged that treatment wasn't helping him.
Acquaintances said there was no history of domestic violence in the family.
The five bodies found in the desert have not been positively identified because they were burned so badly beyond recognition, said Gregory Hess, chief medical examiner for Pima County.
He said the office will have to use dental records to try to confirm the identities of the bodies.
On Friday Yafit posted a photo of her husband and their children on Facebook with the message: "Happy Birthday Jim, I am so proud of my three children :) and they know why."