What happened?

The Baltimore Sun

He was shy, slender and serious-looking. He liked to work on his cars and adored his children. He walked the eldest two to school in the morning and came home directly after work to watch his kids. His wife didn't speak much to the neighbors but was a problem-solver at home. She was pretty; she had long, dark hair and a soft smile. She missed her family back in El Salvador. Together, they were raising sweet kids: a 3-year-old boy, who was sometimes a rascal, and three girls, ages 9, 4 and 1.

To those in Frederick who knew them, Deysi Benitez, 25, and Pedro Rodriguez, 28, and their children seemed, in many ways, like an average immigrant family, struggling and striving like so many others. They wanted a home, decent jobs, cars, a good set of pots. They worked hard, blended in, had typical dreams. Hints of trouble had seeped out over the years: a minor criminal charge, suggestions of domestic unrest, financial strains. But those signs hardly added up to the carnage discovered last week: The four children were found dead in their beds - three had been suffocated; the boy died of skull fractures. Rodriguez had hanged himself. Benitez is missing.

What happened, acquaintances and neighbors ask, as they piece together details, memories, strands of conversations. How could all those lives have ended so violently? What went wrong? Who were Benitez and Rodriguez, really?

The couple grew up together in Sensuntepeque, a small town in the mountains of north-central El Salvador. Sensuntepeque is so rural that until recently, when a dirt road was built, the only way to get in or out was by foot or horse, said Rosalinda Delgado, who initially met the family while working as a translator for several Frederick-area government agencies and later became a friend.

She does not know exactly what led the couple to emigrate, but in 1998 Rodriguez moved to Los Angeles, where his brother lives, and a couple of years later he sent for his future wife and their young child. The pair - legal residents who had "temporary protective status" granted to people from nations undergoing conflict - settled about five years ago near Benitez's sister in Frederick, a city of about 57,000. (Largely because of the job market, the Washington D.C. metropolitan area has the second-largest Salvadoran population - 550,000 people - in the country, said Ana Margarita Chavez, El Salvador's consul general in Washington.)

With a third- and fifth-grade education, respectively, Benitez and Rodriguez had limited reading skills and knew little English, Delgado said. Simple tasks, such as buying new car tires or opening a tamper-proof bottle cap, could be confusing. Sometimes they depended on their 9-year-old, Elsa, to translate, a neighbor said.

Though they sometimes foundered, the family seemed to be finding its way. She worked at several different restaurants, most recently Outback Steakhouse. He found a steady job with Masonite International Corp., a residential door manufacturing plant in Frederick. The couple married in 2002, court records show. A friend, Esmeralda Bonilla, 37, said the family attended St. John the Evangelist Church, a few blocks from their home. The church attracts a sizable Hispanic population because it offers mass in Spanish three times a week, according to the church's weekly bulletin.

The family was considered a success story at a local organization that helped them secure and pay for a home for the better part of two years, said Elizabeth Galaida, the executive director of Advocates for Homeless Families. As participants in a housing program, they received weekly visits from a case worker and went to English classes, an education goal they established for themselves.

"They were a happy family. They loved their children," Galaida said. "They were struggling in the beginning with English, but they improved greatly while they were with us." The couple even made it into the organization's 2004 annual report. "D.B. and P.R. learned English, paid off their debt, became a two-income household and graduated from the program early. They are now working on purchasing a home," the brochure reads.

Eventually, they did purchase that home. Delgado advised them against it; she thought it was too great a financial burden. But they were determined, and in 2005 they paid $195,900 and moved into a two-story beige condominium in a quiet neighborhood where the kids would ride bikes and run on the lawn. Some stray toys - a lavender scooter, a tiny jeep - still sit, deserted, on the family's patio.

Benitez spoke frequently to her mother and sister in El Salvador, reporting on her life and her kids' progress. Angel was jealous of his new baby sister. The 1-year-old was just starting to walk.

At one point, Benitez's mother suggested sending some of the children to live with her, but there was no way. Rodriguez, who was one of 11 and always wanted a large family, was far too attached to them, Delgado said.

That's what neighbors and people who saw the family together say over and over. He didn't appear to drink or hang out with buddies, but came home to be with his children. He kept a close eye on them while they played. He wasn't a very good disciplinarian - neither parent was - but he was very devoted. No one saw any violence, any aggression. "Never, ever, ever," said Delgado. "Every morning at 8:30, he was taking those kids to school," said Cecelia Harris, a neighbor, who often had her grandkids hurry and walk along with them to Hillcrest Elementary School. "What father does that?"

The household wasn't always happy. Rodriguez's brother in Los Angeles told the Washington Post that Benitez had been unfaithful. Benitez's sister told Chavez, the consul general, that the missing woman's husband had a history of hitting her.

The police were called to the family's home eight times in 2005 and 2006. Once, the couple was having a dispute; another time, Benitez and another woman were fighting. The fights were never physical, according to police, who made no arrests.

However, Benitez was caught shoplifting twice. "It was a stupid, impulsive thing," said Dino E. Flores Jr., the lawyer who represented her in a case that was resolved last May, when she agreed to do 24 hours of community service.

Police have also revealed that Benitez had an alias - Estela Sedillo - that has been linked to a federal database. They did not offer further details.

Then, in March, Rodriguez learned from his employer, Masonite International Corp., that he was going to lose his job when the plant closed. Some time after that, neighbors noticed that the house was quiet. The cars were in the lot, and no one came or left.

When the children didn't show up at school for several days, school authorities called police. An officer crawled through the window and found the grisly scene: The children were covered from head to toe with blankets. Rodriguez's body was hanging in the foyer, a yellow nylon rope around his neck and tied to a second-floor banister.

Preliminary autopsy results from the state office of the chief medical examiner in Baltimore revealed that all four children died as a result of homicide. Angel died from blunt force trauma to the head - the injuries indicated that the 3-year-old had been battered, shaken or bludgeoned, according to Lt. Thomas Chase, a commander of the criminal investigations division of the Frederick Police Department. Elsa, Vanessa and Carena were suffocated. The house showed no sign of forced entry.

Police say they do not expect to name the children's killer until the final autopsy results are released in eight to 10 weeks and all attempts to locate Benitez have been exhausted. She is being treated as a missing person, Chase said, and is not a suspect in the murders.

The story - which is huge news in El Salvador - will end where it began. Rodriguez is to be buried in his native country with his children. All the funeral costs, including transportation of the bodies, will be covered by donations that have poured in from around the country, Chase said. Yesterday, two of Rodriguez's brothers, a cousin and an aunt were in the Washington area making funeral arrangements, including a viewing scheduled for today at W.H. Bacon Funeral Home in Washington.

"We're very hurt," Rodriguez's aunt, Elba Rodriguez, said in a cell phone conversation. "We're very concerned. We can't believe what happened. It is painful for any family to lose someone who is related."

So what happened? The questions gnaw at people who stop by the makeshift memorial encircling a tree outside the family's home. As the days pass, the pile of teddy bears, wooden crosses, notes and flowers grows. And still people come.

On Wednesday, two men pulled up in a car, kneeled to pray, then drove away. Nearby, Cynthia Jones stared at the colorful pile. Silver balloons were catching the late-day sun. She looked at a photograph of the family from 2004.

Elsa and her mother smiled lightly. Angel was just a plump baby then. Rodriguez stared somberly at the camera.

Elsa was a classmate of her son's, Jones said, closing her eyes and pursing her lips. "I can't comprehend it," she said. "I just can't. I can't."

She pressed her eyes shut again. "It's unacceptable. It's horrendous. ... You're supposed to love and protect your kids. It makes me angry," said Jones.

Delgado is also sad and angry. She stopped talking regularly to the family a couple of years ago, after they bought the house against her advice. "Their questions were getting more difficult," she said. Delgado last spoke to Benitez in September. But only quickly. Delgado was busy that day.

"You can't imagine trying to make a difference in someone's life, and all the sudden everyone's gone," she said. "It's like you failed. You feel like you failed."

rona.marech@baltsun.com

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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