Father held without bail in 3 killings

The Baltimore Sun

The Montgomery County man charged with drowning his three children in a Baltimore hotel bathtub during a bitter custody battle with his estranged wife was ordered held without bail yesterday as experts on domestic violence cases struggled to determine whether the killings could have been prevented.

Dr. Amy Castillo had fought repeatedly in Montgomery County courtrooms to keep Mark Castillo from his children, citing alleged threats, but judges ruled against petitions for a protective order and to curtail the visitation rights the couple had originally agreed upon.

Even after Mark Castillo was late returning with the children Saturday night, police said there was little they could do until the children had been gone for 48 hours. On Sunday morning, police said, he called the front desk of the Marriott hotel and said his children - Anthony 6, Austin 4, and Athena, 2 - were dead.

"It speaks to a system that failed these kids, and failed this mother and even failed the father," said Carole Alexander, executive director of The House of Ruth. "But it is not clear where it went wrong. ... It is hard to point to who is the bad guy here."

Family law experts said the case raises several areas of concern, including questions about how judges evaluate threats, the role that mental health evaluations play and the state's weak laws on protective orders. But experts said it was not clear what lessons can be drawn from the incident, given that judges had concerns about the credibility of both parents.

Yesterday, the small court chamber in Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center where bail reviews are held was packed with reporters and attorneys, and a special session had been arranged to handle Mark Castillo's case separately.

Mark Castillo waived his right to appear on charges of three counts of first-degree murder and a dozen other counts, including assault. A court official at the hearing noted that Mark Castillo had tried to kill himself once in 2006 and again in 2007 and was "still feeling suicidal" because he failed to kill himself Saturday night by ingesting 100 Motrin pills and cutting himself in the neck. District Judge Nathan Braverman ordered that he undergo a psychiatric review and put him on suicide watch.

Attorneys who represented Amy and Mark Castillo in their bitter divorce case that lasted nearly two years and still has not been finally resolved declined to comment. Judges in Montgomery County who were involved also declined to comment, citing a practice of not talking about ongoing cases.

David Merkin, who was appointed by the Montgomery County Circuit Court briefly to be a best interest attorney for the three children in early 2007 during a dispute over visitation rights, said it was not clear that Mark Castillo would become so abusive.

"I think it shows that nobody knows exactly how a case is going to play out," Merkin said. "While there were troubling signs, the court had to rely on the mental health professionals and they did in this case."

Both parents, he noted, agreed to the visitation agreement that allowed Mark Castillo to have unsupervised visits with the children.

But Amy Castillo, a pediatrician, had repeatedly pleaded for help through the courts, alleging that her husband had threatened to kill their children to punish her by leaving her alone. Hundreds of pages of court documents reveal a troubled end to a 10-year marriage.

Mark Castillo, 41, was twice involuntarily committed for psychiatric help and had tried to commit suicide before. His wife alleged in numerous court documents that she was scared and did "not want to wait until something traumatizing happens to the children in order to prove to the court that I should have taken away visitation rights earlier."

Alexander said judges need to pay closer attention to alleged threats. Rather than erring on the side of safety, she said, judges want to make sure that fathers have access to their children.

Audiotapes of court hearings show that judges struggled with what to do.

In January 2007, Montgomery County Circuit Judge Joseph A. Dugan Jr. denied Amy Castillo's request for a final protective order hearing and dismissed an emergency motion to deny the father access to the children.

At one point, Dugan questioned Amy Castillo's apparent decision to have sex with her husband while she was considering a protective order.

"I do believe that there was some conversation wherein Mr. Castillo said something about doing harm to himself, or to the children, or to the house," the judge said.

He added: "She has now taken the children and moved out of the house, but at the same time, despite this conversation, she allowed him to take the children out of her sight on Dec. 25."

In June, Circuit Judge Michael D. Mason denied a motion to suspend Mark Castillo's visitation rights with his children and also denied a motion by Mark Castillo to hold his wife in contempt of court for failing to abide by the visitation agreement.

"There is no sound reason to deny visitation," Mason said in an audiotape of the June hearing, adding "that while there is reason confirmed by the defendant himself and his therapist to believe that the defendant does have issues that do interfere with his daily activities, that not withstanding, there's no evidence that they pose a threat to the children."

Advocates say Maryland's laws make it difficult for women to get protective orders.

Patrick Dragga, a Montgomery County attorney who has been practicing family law for 27 years, said the current legal standard to get a protective order is too high.

Plaintiff's must show "clear and convincing evidence" that they have been threatened before a judge grants the order.

"Most of the states don't use that standard," Dragga said.

But legal experts said that even if Amy Castillo had gotten a protective order, it would probably have done little to prevent her husband from seeing the children.

Dragga said: "Candidly, I'd wonder how much a piece of paper is going to help if somebody is going to do something like this."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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