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Stonington Woman Struggled With Mental Health Issues Before Killing Grandsons, Herself

Debra Denison and her grandsons Alton, 2, and Ashton, 6 months, are gone, and a family — and a community — tries to pick up the pieces.

 

At the Sherwood Drive home of Debra and Jance Denison Wednesday morning, a Little Tikes log cabin playhouse, pelted by icy rain and driving wind, served as a cruel reminder of all that had been taken away the day before.

Just days ago, 2-year-old Alton Perry might have clambered into the cabin, wrapped snugly in a winter jacket, dreaming of the day he could play in there with his 6-month-old brother, Ashton, while Debra, his maternal grandmother, looked on.

But on Wednesday, all three were gone, the cabin standing in stark relief with other children’s playthings — a faded jungle gym, a mud-filled sandbox, a BMX bike — hard against the weathered house and an angry steel-gray sky.

Debra Denison and Alton and Ashton Perry were gone because on Tuesday, police said, the 47-year-old grandmother picked up her infant and toddler grandsons at day care, drove several miles to a boat launch on Lake of Isles in Preston and fatally shot the children — and then herself.

The boys’ parents, Jeremy and Brenda Perry of North Stonington, notified state police Tuesday afternoon that Denison was late in returning the boys home, prompting an Amber Alert to be sent out statewide. She was supposed to bring the boys back to the Perry house, where the family planned to celebrate Alton’s second birthday.

A man who answered the door at the Perry residence on Wednesday afternoon declined to speak with a Patch editor. Jeremy and Brenda are both from the area; he graduated from Wheeler High School in North Stonington in 2004, and she attended Ledyard High for two years and got her degree from the Teamwork Allied Health Academy in 2008.

Back at the Denison home, Jance Denison opened the door to the cluttered raised ranch, but didn’t want to talk.

“I can’t help you,” he said while letting a golden retriever out of the house and into the rain. “I don’t want to say anything. But have a good day.”

Only one of the Denisons’ neighbors answered their door for Patch, but the woman would only offer, “I don’t really know them.” Earlier in the day, one neighbor told The Day that her son played with Debra and Jance’s 13-year-old son, and she thought it was odd that the boy’s mother didn’t pick him up at the bus stop Tuesday.

It was not clear on Wednesday whether Debra Denison had a permit for the .38-caliber handgun police said she used. Connecticut State Police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance said the “weapon history and permit details” for the gun, as well as any previous history of police calls to the house, are being investigated. Vance also said a suicide note was recovered by police, but it was not in the vehicle.

The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said late Wednesday that autopsies on Debra Denison and her grandsons had not yet been completed.

Battling Demons

What was clear Wednesday was that Debra Denison battled with mental-health issues. Brenda and Jeremy Perry told WVIT-30 Tuesday that Denison “suffered from split personalities." Coming just more than two months after the shooting deaths of 20 young children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School, this case has restoked the debate over mental-health care.

“It underscores that we need to do more to provide mental health access to people and families struggling," state Sen. Andrew Maynard, whose district includes Stonington and North Stonington, said. “If there is anything we can do, it is to provide mental health access.”

Julie Russell, a clinical social worker in Stonington, agreed.

“Individuals and communities must work through the pain and outrage of the loss,” she said, “but part of the journey is to incorporate measures that will have a lasting, positive impact.”

Recently elected U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, who has championed gun-violence prevention since being sworn in, offered his condolences to the family.

"This is absolutely heartbreaking," Murphy said. "Our thoughts are with the family and their loved ones as they deal with this awful tragedy.”

A Quiet Life

Debra Denison was brought up in Waterford, a member of a large family. Her father, Louis Perrino, died in 2005. His obituary in The Day includes the names of many siblings, most of whom were still living in the area at that time. Attempts on Wednesday to reach them were unsuccessful.

She had been married multiple times, and her name was added to the deed on Jance Denison’s five-room ranch on the quiet cul-de-sac near Route 184 two years after he bought it in 1995.

Debra didn’t have a criminal history of any note — state and local court records show only one conviction on a reckless driving charge in 2003.

Debra Denison has a son, Christopher Allen, who is serving a 32-year prison sentence after being convicted on felony murder charges in the 2008 stabbing death of Kyle Sheets on a boat in Mystic. As he was led out of court that day, according to The Day's report, Debra was crying and told her son, "I love you."

Urging Restraint

Despite the tragedy that unfolded Tuesday, Brenda Perry took to her Facebook page Wednesday to remind people that her mother wasn’t well. She wrote:

“Thank you for the prayers. I ask for you to also pray for my brother and sister. They lost three people last night its bitter sweet to say but my mom was sick and we need to pray for jay an my sis please be cautious of what is said as they both are on my Page. love you all bless my boys. Kiss and high them every minute you have them. My boys are in an amazing place we got a few great angels watching over us.love you Ashton and alton”

Stonington-Mystic Patch user PJO, too, called for overzealous commenters to think before posting, writing:

“My heart is breaking for the Perrys and the Denisons. They lost their beautiful boys... and Mrs. Perry lost her mother. What Mrs. Denison did was senseless and horrible. But, before the last hours of her life, it sounds like she was a very attentive grandmother, mother & wife...she loved them and they loved her. Which makes the grief so much sharper and more confusing. So please think of the grief-filled eyes reading these before you post.”

How to Help

Regardless of the circumstances, Thursday’s reality is the same as Wednesday’s: a local family has lost three of its beloved members, and there will never be a good enough answer to the question of why Debra Denison did what she did. If you want to help the healing process, here’s three ways you can give:

  • CANDLELIGHT VIGIL: A candlelight vigil for Alton and Ashton Perry is planned for Friday, March 1, 2013, at 7 p.m. at the North Stonington Recreation Park behind the firehouse. Candles are being donated but people are also encouraged to bring their own. 
  • FUNERAL-EXPENSE FUND: A fund to help pay the funeral expenses for 6-month-old Ashton Perry and 2-year-old Alton Perry has been set up at Chelsea Groton Bank. Donations can be made at any Chelsea Groton Bank location or by mail to Chelsea Groton, care of The Perry Family Fund, PO Box 11, North Stonington, CT 06359.
  • GALLUP HILL SCHOOL FUND: Brenda Perry’s co-workers at the Gallup Hill School in Ledyard, where she was hired as a paraprofessional in January, began collecting funds Wednesday for her. “She was a proud momma,” said one of her coworkers. “It is very, very sad for her.” The school will be collecting funds for one month in an effort to help the Perrys pay for expenses. Contact the school for more information at (860) 536-9477.

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