Kent homicide suspect’s parents try to make sense of his final days
KENT — The two state troopers who had just delivered the horrific news trailed behind Sue Ellen Bohning as she walked into her living room, her eyes wet and red.
“He’s dead,” she announced to the Hearst Connecticut Media reporter who moments before had been listening to Bohning describe her son’s struggles and try to make sense of how the 34-year-old became a murder suspect.
Her husband, Daryl, stood nearby, scrunching up his face to try to prevent tears from falling.
Their son, Peter Alexander Bohning, was fatally shot around 7:20 a.m. Monday after he stabbed a Gaines County deputy, according to Texas Highway Patrol. He was wanted in Nashville, Tenn., on homicide and attempted homicide charges.
The Connecticut State Police troopers arrived around 11:20 a.m. at the Bohning’s Kent home.
Peter Bohning, his parents said, had battled mental health problems, spent months in Rikers Island prison after a robbery arrest in New York City and was hoping to piece his life back together. He had graduated Bard College at 18 and had previously worked on Wall Street, his parents said.
“He’s in peace,” Daryl Bohning, 77, said after learning of his son’s death.
“He’s never had any peace,” Sue Ellen Bohning, 75, said.
“He’s never had any luck in his life,” her husband replied.
Police had been looking for Peter Bohning since Friday, when he was accused of stabbing Donald Zirkle, 59, and Leigh Ann Zirkle, 58, on their back porch in Nashville. Leigh Ann Zirkle was seriously injured, while her husband died in the hospital.
Bohning ditched his car at the Zirkles and fled in the couple’s car to Gaines County, which is over 1,000 miles southwest from Nashville and on the Texas-New Mexico border.
His parents suspect their son was trying to flee the country.
The deputy who fatally shot him in Seminole, Texas, on Monday had pulled Bohning over on a report of a suspicious car and person, Texas Highway Patrol said.
When the deputy asked Bohning for identification, the Kent man stabbed the officer, who then shot Bohning with his sidearm, according to the highway patrol.
Bohning was pronounced dead in the emergency room of Seminole Memorial Hospital. The deputy was in stable condition Monday afternoon at a hospital in Lubbock, Texas, police said.
Sue Ellen Bohning said her son had never been there and she said she did not know why he was in that city. She said she never thought he was capable of murder.
Peter Bohning left his parents’ home in Kent on June 15 or 16. They thought it was for a short trip to sell his old computer equipment in Danbury, but they never heard from him again, his parents said.
He had been upset about being sentenced in April to three years probation on charges related to his June 2015 robbery arrest. His plea agreement had indicated his charges would be dismissed and his record would be sealed if he completed a jail diversion program, his mother said.
After receiving probation, he wanted to go to China to teach English because he thought he would have no opportunities in the U.S., his parents said.
“He finally came home one day and said ‘There is no fairness in America. I’m going to China,’” Sue Ellen Bohning said. “I said, ‘You can’t do that.’”
Peter Bohning was always very smart, his parents said. He was fluent in Chinese and Japanese.
As a child, he loved playing with Legos and was great with codes and hieroglyphics. In fourth grade, he drew intricate shapes called fractals — a word his mother did not know before he started drawing them.
“He liked tinkering around, building computers,” Daryl Bohning said.
He was wonderful with animals through his adulthood. His dog, Lulu, has been sleeping on his bed ever since he left.
“Well, Lulu, your best friend is gone,” Sue Ellen Bohning said to the dog on Monday afternoon, stroking its head. “The one who hugged you...the one who loved you the most.”
Because of complications during childbirth, doctors told Sue Ellen Bohning to monitor her son for psychiatric problems, she said. She had him evaluated a few times during his elementary school years, but they did not diagnose him with any mental health issues at that time.
“He was happy,” said his mother, a former New York social worker. “He was fun.”
Although Peter had two half-brothers, they were adults by the time he was born. When he entered school, he was bullied relentlessly, his mother said.
“He’s been bullied and abused his whole life,” she said.
He attended elementary school in Warren, where he grew up, until the bullying got so bad his parents transferred him to a local Catholic school, but the staff there suggested he go to a more challenging school.
“We’re trying to teach kids how to hold scissors and your son is doing math,” his father said they told them.
His parents put him in a Montessori school, then moved to South Carolina, where he attended the Charleston Day School. But he was bullied there as well.
They moved back to Connecticut and he changed schools several times again before attending Bard College at Simon’s Rock, a program for high-school age students. He graduated from Bard College at 18, his parents said.
He worked in Holland, where his family had lived when he was a toddler, for some time and then got a job on Wall Street.
He detested the corruption on Wall Street and, after being robbed in Brooklyn, moved home with his parents in Warren in April 2007, Sue Ellen Bohning said. She noticed his depression at the time.
That June, she came home to find he had broken glass, punched walls and thrown chairs and dishes, so she called police, who took him to a local hospital.
She claims in a July 2007 letter to the hospital, which she shared with Hearst Connecticut Media, that doctors released her son that night without a ride home, leaving him to walk from Torrington to Warren in the dark.
By 2015, Peter Bohning was living in Great Barrington, Mass., until the house he was renting was sold. He went to New York City for a job opportunity, but that fell through.
His mother said he lived on a park bench and had not eaten for a week when he had a ‘breakdown.’ Armed with a dart, he tried to rob $20 from someone, Sue Ellen said.
He was arrested and spent several months in Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center and then eight months in Rikers Island prison, she said.
His parents did not know where he was until a family member found a complaint he had filed on behalf of other prisoners over the injustices they suffered in Rikers, his mom said.
“He did try to help people,” Sue Ellen Bohning said, showing pictures of injuries her son said he suffered while at Rikers, which has made headlines over the years over complaints of staff brutality.
He got post-traumatic stress disorder from his time at Rikers, his mother said.
His parents bailed him out of jail around 2016 and he moved to their home in Kent and entered a program where he completed community service and attended group and individual therapy. He took the LSAT in 2017 and applied to law schools.
He continued to write to the courts about civil rights violations he and others had faced.
Daryl Bohning said he would hear his son typing in “anguish.”
“I think that’s been the hardest thing, watching him suffer,” Daryl said, his face screwed up in pain.
Peter Bohning struggled after a medication change in October and, desperate for a girlfriend, emailed women he met for dates, said his mother, adding she was ashamed of how he had treated these women.
Their hope was that he could find success once his charges were dismissed, but then he was put on probation.
His mother blames the probation for the events that led to his death. “He would still be alive,” she said.
His time in prison is also to blame, she said. Putting people with mental health issues in cages only makes them worse, Sue Ellen Bohning said.
“He was fragile,” she said. “You don’t take someone who is fragile and put him in Rikers Island.”
She hopes to raise awareness for the injustices of the criminal justice and prison system. “I am going to try to help other people,” she said.
Staff writers Kendra Baker and Lisa Backus contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: This story was corrected to reflect that Great Barrington is in Massachusetts, not New York. An earlier version of this story stated Sue Ellen Bohning used to have family in Nashville. This is not correct. The article was updated on July 1 to reflect this.