Something awful happened inside the yellow house on Washington Street, as the creaky wooden porch made clear all weekend.
It was wrapped with tarps while police worked inside Saturday, sifting through a crime scene more horrid than anything they could recall. Two little boys in pajamas were dead in one bedroom, while their mother and 2-year-old sister lay dead in another. All had apparently been killed by the children's father, 34-year-old Christopher A. Wood, who had been killed by a shotgun blast, apparently self-inflicted.
By Sunday, the police and the tarps were gone, but a growing collection of flowers, balloons, stuffed animals and cards filled the space. Cars inched by with a frequency the neighbors called unprecedented. A newspaper tossed near the milk box by the door announced the quintuple killing that took place inside.
Investigators were in Baltimore, observing the autopsies of Wood; his children, Chandler, 5, Gavin, 4, and Fiona, 2; and his 33-year-old wife, Francis Billotti-Wood, who was known as Francie.
Police have offered no formal findings in the case, but Frederick County prosecutors are calling it a murder-suicide. Police had also not released details of five handwritten notes found at the scene, which they said seemed to indicate Wood suffered from psychological problems.
With no new answers Sunday, friends and neighbors picked the now-empty two-story house edged with red and yellow tulips as a focal point of the community's grief.
"It's too close to home to just ignore it," said neighbor Karie Summers, who arrived Sunday morning with flowers and her 8-year-old son, who didn't know quite why they were there because Summers hadn't decided how to tell him.
"I don't even know what to say," said Sophia Yancey, who walked up the steps about noon, with her daughter, to add a white teddy bear to the memorial. "I felt like I had to do something."
Billotti-Wood grew up in Middletown and graduated from Middletown High School in 1994 before attending Hood College. She and her family lived for a time in Jacksonville, Fla., where Christopher Wood worked for CSX Corp., but they recently returned to the historic village west of Frederick.
On a blog she kept, Billotti-Wood described moving to the home a block off Main Street last summer, to be near family while her husband lived and worked in New Jersey during the week. She said they would miss her husband's "help and silliness" while he was gone, but in Middletown they could all be "surrounded by friends and family in a place we are comfortable and happy."
Up the hill at Holy Family Catholic Community church, the Rev. J. Kevin Farmer said he didn't know Christopher Wood; the family had joined the church only in January and he didn't know any of them well. But during Mass on Sunday, he pulled a note from his pocket and read a list of church activities for which Billotti-Wood had volunteered, including teaching religious education, planning this summer's vacation bible school and agreeing to staff the parish nursery that morning.
"I have to say, even as a man of faith and someone who has been confronted with tragedy in the past, this one requires a whole different way of thinking," said Farmer, who planned a private mass with Billotti-Wood's family Sunday afternoon.
At the family house, a modest display of flowers wedged between white porch rails evolved into a makeshift memorial as the day progressed. At 11 a.m. someone clipped a Mylar balloon with the message "miss you" onto the railing. Someone else added a bouquet of flowers with a note that read "God has a new T-ball player, and the community is sad."
Yancey had been Gavin's preschool teacher at nearby Middletown United Methodist Church. The bear that she brought to his house also contained a copy of their classroom photo, with a note that read, "Gavin, we love you and we miss you."
She described the help Billotti-Wood provided, like bringing beach buckets, shovels and Hawaiian leis to the class beach party. Billotti-Wood's brother, a former Frederick County sheriff's deputy, once juggled for the class so Gavin would have a cool show-and-tell to represent the letter J, she said.
"That's just the kind of mother she was," Yancey said.
Asked about Christopher Wood, Yancey said she saw him infrequently.
"I never saw anything wrong, or I would have said something," she said through tears.
Perhaps because work made him more of an outsider, or because of the allegations against him, none of the notes or prayers deposited at the family home mentioned Wood, and some excluded him. A poem left on the porch offered prayers to "the four of you."
As has become habitual in the Internet age, the killings also prompted hundreds of people to post messages of condolence on the Internet, particularly on Facebook, where Billotti-Wood had a personal page connected to 550 listed friends. One of them created a second page in Billotti-Wood's memory, and by late afternoon Sunday, 354 people had posted messages.
"It seems like only yesterday you were the little girl in the Girl Scout uniform with the big smile," Madeline Dolores Degen wrote. "May God keep you in his loving arms, and your little angels too. To Francie's family, words just don't seem adequate."
Billotti-Wood's sense of humor shined through her frequent Internet postings. She labeled her political stance as liberal and her religious views as "still deciding." Asked to list her employer, she wrote the names of her three children and described her job title as "Mom."
She quoted the Dalai Lama: "Just be a nice warm person, that is enough." She frequented the Web sites of Amnesty International and Green for All and said she wanted to save sea turtles and the Tibetan people.
Closer to home, according to her Facebook page, Billotti-Wood participated in The Big Sweep, a volunteer program to pick up trash from Frederick County roads, streams and parks. During the past five years, Big Sweep volunteers cleaned up 160,000 pounds of trash and recyclables, almost 2,500 tires and truckloads of bulk items, and raised almost $190,000 for various charities, according to Big Sweep's Web page.
On Sunday, the page received a flood of donations in Billotti-Wood's memory. "Francie, may you and your babies be together forever in heaven, at peace," wrote one donor, Jillian Hanson. Another, Jodie Cook, addressed her message to Billotti-Wood: "You are such a good person. We were all lucky to know you."