MOTHER LIVING OUT A NIGHTMARE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Just a few months after her husband drowned their three children, Amy Castillo found herself standing on top of a mountain during a Christian missionary trip to China, winds whipping, rain pouring down.

She asked herself a question: "Can I live with this?"

A long time passed before she could honestly answer.

The man she once playfully called "sexy thing," who swept her off her feet and quickly became her best friend, had gradually vanished over the past five years. In his place was a manic, suicidal stranger who spent entire nights at Baltimore strip clubs, blew thousands of dollars in wild shopping sprees and accused her of being self-righteous and manipulative.

A "wolf in sheep's clothing" was how he described himself, a longtime family friend said.

On Saturday, March 29, 2008, Mark Castillo showed up at Amy's modest Silver Spring house, which they once shared, to pick up their children for a scheduled visit. The couple had been separated for nearly two years by then and were going through a difficult divorce in Montgomery County Circuit Court.

Mark was clean-shaven and wearing a nice shirt, looking better than he had in months, Amy thought. He loaded the two boys - Anthony, 6, and Austin, 4 - along with 2-year-old Athena into the family minivan and drove north, to Baltimore.

The dark-haired quartet spent the day at the Maryland Science Center before checking into the Camden Yards Marriott. They ate dinner - room service - then Mark set the boys up with a computer game and took Athena into the bathroom to draw a bath.

He held her tiny frame under the water for a full 10 minutes, timed with a stopwatch, until he was sure she was dead. He repeated the act with each of the boys, then tried to kill himself that night with an over-the-counter pain reliever and, on Sunday, with a knife.

When Mark and the children failed to return Saturday night by the court-required time, Amy called the police twice and once again Sunday morning. But she was told there was nothing they could do. Call back if the family didn't show up by Monday.

Then, sometime Sunday afternoon, an officer came to her door. "Come with us, we found everyone," he said.

Amy felt relief first, then a sliver of "gotcha" as the officer drove her and her friend, Cheryl Wharton, to the Baltimore police station. She might be able to use this out-all-night stunt against Mark in custody proceedings, she thought.

It wasn't until hours later that she learned her children were dead.

Standing on that mountain in China, beneath a callous monsoon sky, Amy didn't know if she had the strength or will to survive her grief. If she died, she would be reunited with her children in heaven. If she lived, there would be more pain: Mark's trial, the empty house, an unknown future.

She thought hard and opened her mind to God.

Good, bad dogs

In a two-hour interview six days after her former husband pleaded guilty in Baltimore Circuit Court to three counts of first-degree murder, Amy Castillo, a 44-year-old pediatrician, recounted the details of their lives together. It was Oct. 20, which would have been Austin's sixth birthday.

Mark used to say that there was a good dog and a bad dog "fighting" inside him, and he had to remember to feed the good dog, Amy said. But often, he forgot.

Even after he confessed to the killings, he led the courts in circles, claiming insanity, then clear-headed health. He fought the divorce he asked for, and argued with judges and his attorneys. His plea itself was a surprise, willingly accepted by the judge, who also recommended that Mark be allowed to serve his time - three life sentences - at a mental health correctional facility.

Amy's friends say she still has trouble focusing. She's on disability and sees counselors three times per week. And her nightmares are still strong, worse now after fresh details about the deaths appeared in the newspapers.

But she's learning to cope and even forgive, she said, as God has forgiven her.

"I could always have one foot in the grave, and I sometimes want to," she said. But her faith, her friends and her family won't let her. "I have a good base."

'I flip 4 doc'

Amy grew up in Alexandria, Va., with good, solid parents. Her mother died a few years ago, but she still leans heavily on her dad, who gives her faith in men even now, she said.

At 15, she made up her mind to follow Jesus.

She graduated from the Medical College of Virginia in 1991 and went on to a pediatrics residency at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, where she would soon meet her future husband, a traveling gymnast passing through town.

Mark Anthony Castillo was born the third of five children and raised in East Los Angeles by his mother, who disciplined him more than her other children, he once told a psychologist. That evaluation report is filed in a Montgomery County court. In it, he claims to have an IQ of 140.

After high school, Mark enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in Missouri. He said he was discharged honorably in the third year of a four-year tour because of problems dealing with authority. He was diagnosed by a military counselor as having "narcissistic personality disorder."

Mark's first marriage, which occurred while he was in the Air Force, lasted two years before his wife filed for divorce. (Their daughter, now 21, lives in Kansas City, Mo. Over the next decade, he would hold a series of jobs, according to the medical report, "working as a mailman, owning a flower shop, and dealing cards on a riverboat."

He dated a lot but had no substantive relationships until he met Amy in the summer of 1997 at a recreational volleyball game in Charleston. His smile got her.

He was doing trampoline shows around the country at the time, stopping in South Carolina on his way to a job in Minnesota, which he gave up to stay and woo Amy. "Iflip4doc@..." would become his e-mail address.

They were engaged within six months and married within eight, on Feb. 7, 1998.

'He disconnected'

Amy got a job as a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente and, in 1999, returned with Mark to the Washington suburbs. Mark supplemented gymnastics teaching with computer jobs.

They joined the Forcey Memorial Church in Silver Spring and made friends in the Bible study group, particularly the Rev. Zeke Wharton and his wife, Cheryl Wharton.

The athletic couple also kept up with volleyball until Amy became pregnant with Anthony in 2001 - a welcome surprise.

She was 36 and they'd always wanted three children, so it was time to get started, she said. They found out about the pregnancy as they were planning a scuba-diving trip to Papua, New Guinea, as a sort of belated honeymoon.

After Anthony, Amy had two other children, each two years apart in age, though she had miscarriages in between. She was on bed rest for five months at a time when she was pregnant - and working 11-hour days when she wasn't - leaving Mark to take on more responsibility within the home.

"It was a big stressor for him," Amy said.

Mark would later say that he thought Amy was not supportive of his efforts.

His personality began to change when she was pregnant with Austin in 2003, Amy said. He started blowing money, quit going to church and talked about dying.

"He disconnected," Zeke Wharton said.

Amy thought maybe he was bipolar, shifting between manic highs and depressed lows. She remembers printing out an article on the disorder and giving it to Mark, who rejected the idea.

The Whartons and other friends tried to intervene, holding a formal meeting with Mark, a sort of living-room intervention, to help him see that his behavior was abnormal. It was a polite gathering that went nowhere.

"He had great respect for what we had to say," Zeke Wharton said, but Mark didn't believe he had mental health problems. "There was no way he would go" to a counselor.

Disdain for sleep

Mark claimed he no longer needed sleep, and he would stay out all night at Baltimore strip clubs, coming home at 5 a.m. on days when he was supposed to watch the kids, Amy said. She began to fear he would harm the children through negligence - or purposely, when he wasn't thinking right.

By mid-2006, when Athena was 8 months old, Amy said she asked Mark to leave, thinking that might be the wake-up call he needed to snap out of it, or at least get help.

He drove around the eastern half of the country for weeks, staying with various people, and then returned to Virginia, where they reunited briefly.

On June 23, Amy wrote him an e-mail saying she missed her best friend: "I wish that you would make Mr. Hyde give him back!"

Eventually, she took the kids to her brother's house in North Carolina so that she could think and they would be safe. Then Mark called on June 29, 2006.

He said he was in Room 208 at the Days Inn in Ruther Glen, Va., and that he was going to kill himself with supplies, including ant poison, bought from a local Home Depot. Amy called police and the hotel front desk, put the baby in the car and headed north, toward home.

Mark was taken into custody and committed to a mental health center in Fredericksburg, Va. The Whartons and Amy testified before the doctors at the commitment hearing about Mark's behavior, thinking this was their one shot to get him help. But he was released after six days.

'He disowned us'

"They just put him out on the street," Amy said.

"And that's when he disowned us," Cheryl Wharton added.

On July 19, Amy filed a complaint and emergency motion for sole custody of the children, but the courts would never see him as a danger. She worried. She would sometimes hide the children with family friends.

Mark became extremely bitter toward her, certain she was running a campaign to make others think he was crazy.

In e-mails, Mark told Amy that his "odd behavior" at the strip clubs was based on a death wish and implored her to stop harping about the money he spent because he "was worth a million dollars to [her] dead" through insurance.

"I will never forgive you for the length you went to, to try to have me committed ... and have no desire to work out our relationship," he wrote.

He filed for divorce from Amy after she filed the custody motions, and their battle heated up. That court file is now six folders thick, full of family e-mails, financial documents, letters from friends and various motions.

They were both run ragged. Amy sometimes slept under her desk at work and worried that she, too, was losing it.

"I could tell he was really falling apart," Amy said. "I felt like we both were."

At Christmastime in 2006, the Castillos filed for protective orders against one another.

"He has never actually hurt [the children]," says Amy's handwritten plea, "but 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."

On that final March weekend in 2008, when Mark didn't bring the kids back, Amy thought maybe he'd taken off with them to frustrate her. Cheryl Wharton came over to keep her company on Sunday, while they waited for word.

Knock on the door

When the officer knocked on the door, they were both thankful. The women got into a police car and were driven to Baltimore, where they were seated in a room that was under renovation. Amy thought to herself: "The boys are going to tear this place up" when they arrive.

She was asked about the van and who had the title. Then the officer told her this: "All of your children are dead, and your husband tried to kill himself; we're not sure of his status."

Silence.

Screaming.

It seemed as if days passed until Amy's cries slowed. She hung her head in her hands and asked aloud: "What am I supposed to do now?"

Cheryl Wharton, in shock, called everyone who needed to be called, and they went home, to a lawn full of reporters and a house full of friends and family, who cared for Amy and each other over the next year and a half.

Much of it was a blur of grief counseling, divorce court (the final decree was not given until late last year) and suicidal thoughts. There were extraordinary conversations with God when she was alone late at night and still the everyday routine of going to the gym, playing the violin, finding small joys.

And there were those drawn-out criminal trial dates, when she had to relive the details of her children's deaths. They came to an abrupt end 11 days ago, when Mark Castillo offered a surprise guilty plea.

Amy talks about taking action against the courts for not listening to her, but she's not certain she will. She wants mental health disorders better recognized and has sorted through her every action she took to make sure she did all she could to save Mark and herself.

"She fought with every fiber of her being," said cousin Holly Rowe.

In Amy's entryway is a panel of cracked glass that's still sealed with duct tape. She broke it by slamming the front door during an argument with Mark. Wooden masks from her belated honeymoon to Papua hang on the wall, alongside souvenirs from other trips abroad, some just for the adventure, some for missionary purposes.

And in Amy's hallway, above the steps leading to the bedrooms, family photographs still hang, even the ones with Mark. Friends removed them after the deaths, but she put them back. He was part of her life.

"We had some great years, some really great years," she said, seated on her living room sofa.

Looking ahead

But she's also looking toward the future. She's taking a trip to Israel next month and trying to rebuild her career as a pediatrician, spending half days with patients when she's able to.

She went to an AC/DC concert days after Mark pleaded guilty, followed by paint ball with a man she's dating. She casually says she could move to a new house, leaving the children's preserved rooms behind, if she were to "get married again."

Her friends see these as signs of hope.

"Her story's not over," said Zeke Wharton. "It can still have a good ending."

Next to Amy on the couch rest two photos of Austin.

She won't go to his grave to honor his birthday; it's "too depressing." But she'll spend time gazing at pictures. In November, she'll do the same for Athena, and in December for Anthony, on their birthdays.

And though she still looks forward to being reunited with them when it's her time, she's no longer in a rush.

She has a commitment to keep, made to herself on a Chinese mountaintop more than a year ago, when she realized a simple thing:

"I don't want to leave this world."

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