GRAND FORKS -- Police confirmed Monday what many had felt, and feared, to be true of a grim discovery last Thursday, May 3 -- that three children found dead in their home were killed by their mother, who then committed suicide.
That conclusion had been assumed the night before by Beth Richards, the mother of Astra Volk, 35, who flew from her home in Florida the day after she was told by authorities that her daughter and grandchildren -- Arianna Talmage, 6, Aidan Talmage, 10, and Tyler Talmage, 14 -- were dead. Richards spoke at a Sunday night, May 6, vigil outside the rented home the family had lived in for about the last two months of their lives.
“This is the worst thing a mother can do, I agree with everyone on that,” Richards said.
She still loved her daughter and always would. But, as she stood in the growing dusk and the candlelight of the mourners, she was angry, both at Volk for what she’d done and with what she saw as a lack of resources available to help the mentally ill.
Well before her death, Volk had publicly discussed her struggles with mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder. She had posted a plea just a week before the deaths to the fundraising site GoFundme, seeking financial aid to cover living expenses while paying off medical expenses.
Richards said her daughter had attempted suicide in February, for what she believed was the first time. In the time since, she thought her daughter had been “feeling good,” on top of her symptoms and starting fresh in a newly-rented house.
Richards didn’t try to guess exactly what had happened in the hours before a school resource officer found the bodies of Volk and her children in that house, dead of gunshot wounds.
“We can’t walk into her mind, as she was then,” Richards said.
She said her daughter had always wanted what was best for her children. In a dark twist, Richards guessed that, in the state her daughter was in at the time of the killings, shooting the children must have felt like that.
“Things might have been spiraling out of control over the past few days, before it happened,” she said.
Volk was born in Pottstown, Penn., to Richards and her late husband, a Vietnam war veteran. According to Richards, who said she also has bipolar disorder, Volk had struggled with her own mental illness since adolescence.
Trained as a certified nursing assistant, Volk had managed her condition over the years with varied success. Richards is now waiting for an autopsy report to see if her daughter had been taking all of her medications at the time of her death.
As Volk lived with her issues, so did her four children. Her oldest son was not living with the family at the time of their deaths and is still alive. Richards didn’t say where he is now, but said he wants to be a nurse like his grandmothers, a goal they fully support.
His younger siblings were raised in large part by Volk’s husband, Heath Volk.
The surviving Volk stood vigil as the crowd dissipated, pausing for a long time by the front door of the home. He wasn’t ready to speak to a reporter about his family but showed a small jacket he held throughout, a child’s sweatshirt embroidered with Arianna Talmage’s initials.
He had met Astra Volk when Arianna was 6 months old, he said, and had raised the girl.
Richards described Arianna as the “princess” of the family, a little girl who loved to dance and wanted to be a cheerleader. Heath Volk had been the only father she’d ever known.
Both Arianna and Aiden, the middle of the three, were students at Lewis and Clark Elementary School, located just blocks from their new home. Aiden loved animals -- especially chickens. Richards showed off pictures of her grandchildren to those at the vigil, laughing at an image of Aiden holding a chicken owned by a neighbor in Florida.
Tyler, a freshman at Central High School, had autism and a bright smile. In Astra Volk’s social media profiles, the teenager can be seen grinning with his siblings, an arm slung over their shoulders. All three children were close to mind Sunday night.
The vigil began in silence. Volk had been active in social media communities, and many of those who gathered with candles along the edge of the family lawn now covered in a makeshift memorial of pinwheels, stuffed animals and bouquets had first met her online.
A child’s bicycle, lying on its side in the grass, had been covered in a mound of these offerings.
Neighbors walked over during the evening to stand with the mourners. Some watched from their front stoops.
Richards spoke briefly at the start of the vigil, telling the group that she had no answers for them, though she wished she did.
The family members were found dead Thursday morning by a school resource officer dispatched on a welfare check when the children didn’t arrive at school in the morning. Police said the family members appeared to have died from gunshot wounds.
Though investigators didn’t initially call the incident a murder-suicide, they announced early on that they’d found a handgun in the home, weren’t looking for any suspects and didn’t believe there was any ongoing threat to public safety.
A Monday, May 7, news release from Grand Forks Police made that implicit statement much more clear.
“Preliminary investigative results have determined that Astra Volk took the lives of her
three children and then took her own life,” the release said. “All evidence gathered up to this point, as well as the preliminary autopsy findings, support this determination.”
Grand Forks Police Lt. Brett Johnson said that evidence includes physical findings in the family’s home. It also includes Volk’s digital communications, including her texts messages and social media presence, and interviews with those who knew the family. Local agencies have been assisted in the investigation by the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
Even with an apparent conclusion, police said the investigation of the deaths “remains open and active” and encouraged the public to come forward with any available information.
“We’re still analyzing some of the electronic evidence that we picked up and we want to make sure we’ve exhausted all potential interviews with friends, family and witnesses,” Johnson said.
“We have a pretty good idea how it happened, just now we want to figure out why it happened.”
Johnson said the investigation will likely remain active until an autopsy of the bodies closes out, a process that takes about 6-8 weeks and includes a full toxicology report.
Anyone with information about this case can call (701) 787-8004 or contact police on the department website or Facebook page.