TRURO — Whatever Susan Howe touched in Truro, friends said she made it better.
She helped to renovate a playground and make it accessible to people of all abilities. She pushed for repairs at a museum honoring Truro’s history. She encouraged residents and businesses to display blue lights to raise awareness about autism. And her to-do list seemed to have no limits.
But on Saturday, the Outer Cape Cod town that Howe, 69, energized with her exuberance and vitality was overcome with shock and grief by the violent attack that ended her life, allegedly at the hands of her adult son, who struggled with mental illness.
“She’s an amazing soul,” said Amy Rogers, who served on the Truro Commission on Disabilities with Howe, who led the town board. “I’m heartbroken over it.”
On Friday night, authorities allege Howe’s son, Adam T. Howe, 34, killed her at her Truro residence and then set fire to her body on the front lawn. Emergency personnel discovered the killing after being summoned to the home to perform a well-being check and investigate a report of a fire, Cape & Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe and Truro Police Chief Jamie Calise said Saturday in a statement.
When rescuers arrived, they spotted an outdoor fire and a man later identified as Howe, who then ran into the home and locked the door, the statement said. A SWAT team was summoned, entered the home, and took the younger Howe into custody.
After he surrendered to officers, police took Howe to Cape Cod Hospital to be treated for a medical issue, O’Keefe said Saturday in a phone interview. He was discharged from the hospital at 6 a.m. and remains in police custody.
O’Keefe said he is charged with murder and his office is trying to commit him to a facility like Bridgewater State Hospital or the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Boston for a mental health evaluation.
“We have to prove, affirmatively, at any subsequent legal proceedings that this guy was sane at the time of the crime,” he said. “We want the evaluation done closest in time to the actions that resulted in someone’s death.”
O’Keefe declined to say whether Howe spoke with police after he was taken into custody or provided any information about what happened to his mother.
But O’Keefe, who is stepping down after nearly 20 years as the Cape’s elected prosecutor, said the incident underscores the need for more resources to treat mental illness.
“The mental health system — I’ve seen it fail so many times in these kinds of tragedies,” O’Keefe said. “It’s really a broken system and I hope we fix it one of these days.”
The timing of Adam Howe’s arraignment, he said, will depend on his mental health status.
Hannah King, a special education teacher who also serves on the Truro Commission on Disabilities with Susan Howe, said she texted her after hearing about the massive police response on Howe’s street.
“Are you OK? What the hell happened,” King said she texted to Susan Howe. “Obviously, there was no response.”
King and Rogers said they were aware that their friend’s son struggled with mental illness. King recalled a dinner last year when Susan Howe took a call from him.
“He was yelling at her over the speaker phone,” she said.
Fred Gaechter, another local official who knew Susan Howe, said she was outwardly upbeat.
“If she had a personal issue going on, she’d pretty much hide it. She wouldn’t tell you much about it. She was always cheerful, no matter what was going on,” he said.
Police records show Adam Howe was arrested on Aug. 11 in Tewksbury, and charged with breaking into a building during the nighttime and illegal drug possession. He had Suboxone, a drug for treating opioid addiction, with him, but didn’t have a prescription, Tewksbury police said in a news release.
Officers also discovered a warrant had been issued for his arrest by police in Salem, N.H., on a charge of receiving stolen property, the release said. A pre-trial hearing was held in the case on Sept. 22, court records show. Adam Howe has pleaded not guilty.
His attorney in that case didn’t return messages Saturday. Relatives of Susan and Adam Howe declined to comment.
Truro’s Select Board and the Truro Historical Society issued statements about Susan Howe’s death. She was the president of the board of directors for the historical society.
“Susan brought immense creativity, energy, time and passion to our organization. She loved Truro, and was totally committed to preserving our history and culture and the well-being of her beloved town,” the directors said in a statement. “Susan was a bright light in our organization and in our town. She was loved by so many of us, and we will miss her forever.”
Rogers said she last saw Susan Howe a few weeks ago at a meeting of the Truro Commission on Disabilities. The gathering was held at one of the historical society’s properties, she said, to accommodate Susan Howe’s busy schedule.
“I was trying to convince her she should run for Select Board,” said Rogers. “She just laughed.”
Susan Howe recently helped the commission install exercise equipment at Puma Park Playground and was working on getting a communication board installed there to help nonverbal people enjoy the park, she said.
“She’s touched so many people,” Rogers said.
Susan Howe was petite, and wore dark clogs and wool sweaters in the winter to keep warm.
Her friends estimated she was less than 5 feet tall, but her stature belied her influence and vivacity. King said she embodied the Theodore Roosevelt quote, “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”
She was just so giving and so loving,” she said.
Gaechter said he last saw her Thursday night during a ceremony where he received an award. She seemed cheerful and they exchanged hellos, he said.
“The last thing I remember is hugging her on Thursday night, and then the next night she’s gone,” he said. “It’s a horrible thing to think how it ended for her. You know, it’s just not right, it’s just not fair.”
Laura Crimaldi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @lauracrimaldi. John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com. John R. Ellement can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @JREbosglobe.