Upset over impending divorce, man kills 2 children, then self 'All-American dream family' destroyed


ANTIOCH, Calif. -- A despairing man, so distraught about his impending divorce that he threatened six weeks ago to kill his two children, shot them to death yesterday and then turned the gun on himself, destroying, with three bullets, the "all-American dream family."

After hearing those shots shortly after 1 p.m., police broke into the master bedroom of the house at 4745 Hunter Peak Court and found the body of Joel Dennis Souza, 35, of Antioch.

They also found fatally wounded 8-year-old Nicholas and 5-year-old Cherie. The children were taken to a hospital; they were pronounced dead when they arrived.

Only hours before, the children had appeared briefly at a window in the front of the house and had shouted down at the sea of police and neighbors below, "Mom! Mom!"

The only family member left alive was Jennifer Souza, 29. She had been kidnapped by her husband early yesterday morning, according to her close friend and business colleague, Terry Lyons, but managed to escape.

It was the end of a nine-hour standoff on a bright and otherwise calm morning in the new housing developments that stud the hot, dry hills south of Antioch's downtown.

And to many of the professionals and managers who live in this area of $300,000 houses, it was the tragic end of something that almost nobody had seen coming until a couple of months ago.

"Until this divorce business came up, they were a caring, loving family, the all-American dream family," next-door neighbor Cleo Geremia said, as she walked her poodle past the police cars outside her house and talked about the children who frolicked in the next-door pool. "That boy, he was so precocious. What went wrong?"

What went wrong was that on May 24, Jennifer Souza told her husband that she wanted a divorce. A day later, apparently in horrible despair, Joel Souza took the children on a trip and left a note that his wife discovered the next day.

"Divorce equals death," Mr. Joel Souza had written. "So I'll take care of it now for all of us." Mrs. Souza discovered that her husband had taken his .32-caliber pistol and $7,000 in cash.

A statewide alert was put out, and Mr. Souza called his wife.

That time, Antioch police officer Bill McCoy, who is a family friend, managed to persuade his friend to surrender the gun and the children.

This time, police tried to find Mr. McCoy again, but he was out of town and could not be reached. Instead, the situation on Hunter Peak Court deteriorated slowly over a period of about 12 hours, ending in the double murder and suicide.

Mr. Lyons said he had spoken to Mr. Souza on Saturday.

"I asked him how things were going," Mr. Lyons said. "He said he knew he was wrong last May and he was just trying to hurt her, and that was the only way he could get back at her.

"After last May, I thought he had a handle on it. But I guess he didn't. I guess he thought this was the ultimate way to hurt her."

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