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Children casualties in divorce warfare

The Baltimore Sun

Lynn Shiner heard the news as she drifted off to sleep Sunday night, and when she awoke yesterday morning, she thought maybe she had dreamed it. A few taps on the keyboard, though, confirmed that the crime, however nightmarish, was no dream.

Three children killed in a Baltimore hotel room, allegedly by their father, who had been engaged in a pitched custody battle with his estranged wife.

"I see a judge denied her request," Shiner said, referring to a petition for a protective order that the children's mother, Amy Castillo, had filed against their father a couple of years ago after this threat: "He ... did tell me that the worst thing he could do to me would be to kill the children and not me so I could live without them."

The judge rejected the request, saying there was no evidence of abuse.

No, sometimes the first sign of abuse is the dead body. Or in this case, three little dead bodies, of Anthony, 6, Austin, 4, and Athena, 2, drowned one by one in the bathtub of a 10th-floor room at the Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor on Saturday evening. Their father, Mark Castillo, 41, called the front desk the next afternoon, police said, and told the clerk he had killed them and was going to do himself in as well. After treatment for minor knife wounds to his neck, he was charged yesterday afternoon with killing them.

For Shiner, who lives in Harrisburg, Pa., the killings are no less shocking for the familiarity of their circumstances.

"I had a judge who said to my face, 'Just because he hurt you doesn't mean he'll hurt the kids,'" Shiner said.

But Shiner - and now Amy Castillo - knows all too well that the kids can become collateral damage in their parents' war.

"If you really want to hurt someone, you hurt someone they care about," Shiner said. "There isn't anything worse."

On Christmas Day 1994, Shiner went to pick up her kids, Jennifer, 10, and David, 8, from their father's house, where they had spent the previous night.

"He didn't see them that often, but he was allowed to see them at Christmas, and keep them overnight," she said of her former husband, Tom Snead, whom she had divorced two years earlier.

There was no answer when she knocked on the door of his house, and she eventually called the police. They found the children tucked in their beds, stabbed to death. Snead was dead on a sofa, a knife in his hand.

Shiner went on to channel her grief into action - she managed to get the "Jen and Dave Law" enacted in Pennsylvania to address the particular circumstances of her tragedy. She discovered that Snead had been arrested shortly before the killings for stalking another woman, but Shiner was never told about the crime - and had she known, she says, she never would have left the children with him. The law named after her children now gives parents involved in custody cases access to such information, and it can be used in decisions about visitation rights.

The Castillo case is obviously different, but Shiner said that many crimes of this nature share a similarity: Authorities often don't see the seriousness of threats made during divorce or custody proceedings. "They think people are just trying to hurt each other in a divorce," she said.

They often are - but then sometimes the children become the ultimate weapon.

This time, their names are Anthony, Austin and Athena Castillo. Last Thanksgiving, they were David, 12, Meagan, 10, and Brandon, 6 - the Brockdorff children who were killed by their father in a Montgomery County park as their mother was handing them over for a holiday visit required by the terms of their divorce. David Brockdorff also killed his former wife, Gail Pumphrey, as well.

In 1999, they were Destiny, 3, and Richie, 2 - the Spicknall siblings whose father, Richard, shot them in the back seat of his Jeep on the Eastern Shore after picking them up from the home of his former wife's parents and telling them he was taking them on a trip to Ocean City.

This clash of domesticity and violence, of family holidays and sudden, intimate murder is what makes these crimes so crushing, so stomach-turning, so horrifying.

And so it was with the Castillo children's murders, the details of which began to emerge yesterday - how their father had picked them up Saturday morning at their mother's home in Silver Spring, how they'd driven in a Toyota van up to Baltimore, how they walked around the Inner Harbor and then checked into the Marriott Hotel.

Did they go to the aquarium? Did one of the boys ask, "Daddy, can we get a paddle boat?" Did they stop for ice cream at Lee's? Did they buy Orioles T-shirts? Did the little one get fussy walking on the brick promenades? Were they all tired, but happy, when they got to the room at the Marriott? It's painful to imagine the answers.

But the real questions lie in Montgomery County, where Mark and Amy Castillo live, separately, and where thick court files document their bitter divorce proceedings. First and foremost: Why did this man, with his history of psychiatric problems and previous violations of the custody agreement, still have visitation rights?

Police are also reviewing the case, said Lt. Paul Starks, spokesman for Montgomery County police, to see if there was anything more they could or should have done after Amy Castillo called them, three times over the weekend, after her husband failed to return with the children.

Starks said police had no indication the children were in imminent danger and advised her that, because the custody dispute was a civil matter, she should "take her inquiries and questions to the court."

Given that it was the weekend, though, what could Amy Castillo have done as Saturday night turned into Sunday morning and, still, her children were missing?

"Not a lot," Starks said, "under the circumstances."

Not a lot at all. By 8:30 p.m. Saturday, the time Mark Castillo was supposed to return the children to her, they were already dead.

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