By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2007
A bright-blue rubber band encircles her right wrist. Snap it, the therapist told her, and it will help jar the grisly images from her mind.
But they keep coming at Carol Danforth, sometimes 30 times a day: Hearing her estranged boyfriend crying over her cellphone: "Down here, by the river, near the goats. You'll find three dead bodies." Running frantically to her truck, talking to the 911 operator as she drove to the creek on an adjacent farm. Finding her baby boy, dressed in a new romper and socks, and her young daughter, in a pink outfit and favorite sandals, hanging side by side from a tree, dangling over the creek. Seeing Gerardo Roque, the children's father, hanging from another tree nearby. Wading into the creek and screaming as she pulled her children down from the ropes and into her arms.
These are the images she cannot escape.
"What I don't understand is why did he have to hurt them? If he was so miserable, why didn't he just do it to himself?" Danforth, 42, said tearfully yesterday as she sat on a large rock overlooking the rolling green hills of the upper Montgomery County horse farm where she lives.
Two weeks have passed since 13-month-old Carlos Diego and 2-year-old Maria Socorro were killed by their father in what Montgomery police called a murder-suicide. It's almost too painful to talk about, their mother said.
"All I think about is what if they felt pain and they saw each other struggling when they loved each other so much? I just can't believe he was capable of putting a rope around their necks."
She said she has been helped by an outpouring of support -- meals and dozens of cards -- from friends and strangers. Danforth, her brown hair tied back, said she is still struggling to understand how a man, although domineering and sometimes violent as a boyfriend, could kill two children he seemed to adore.
She last saw Diego and Socorro at 8 a.m. April 3, when she dropped them off at the babysitter's house. The babysitter lived a few minutes up Barnesville Road from Good News Farm in Boyds, where Danforth has worked for 18 years, managing the horse boarding stables.
She had moved to a small white house on the 200-acre farm in 2001 when her marriage dissolved. Her two older children, Allison, 15, and Michael, 7, grew up playing around the stables and riding on her back as she cleaned the stalls and fed the horses, as Socorro and Diego would later, she said.
"My kids were -- well, I thought they were -- safe here," she said, pulling her red fleece top over her knees as she hugged them to her chest.
By that time, she had met Roque, 35, who had recently come to Montgomery from Mexico in search of work. He cleaned stalls and did maintenance work at Good News. His brothers and sister also worked on Montgomery horse farms, including two brothers who worked with him at Good News, Danforth said. She said she recalls being struck by how well he played with her young son.
But after six months of dating, she said, problems surfaced. "I'm the boss," she recalled him saying. "You have to do what I say." He could be violent, she said; she declined to elaborate. "It's a relationship that just shouldn't have been," she said.
He moved in and out of her home several times but stayed after she discovered she was pregnant with Socorro. Diego followed 14 months after Socorro was born. Although Roque was a devoted father, playing with the children and giving them baths, she said she asked him to move out in mid-March. She said she promised she would never take the children from him.
"I always thought he'd do something to me" for ending the relationship, she said, breaking into tears. "I never thought he'd do anything to those kids."
He asked her repeatedly to take him back, she said. When he talked about wanting to kill himself, she said, she asked him not to.
On April 2, Danforth said, Roque asked to have the children for the afternoon. She said no. She and the kids were going out to dinner that night, she told him, and Socorro and Diego needed to get good afternoon naps.
That must have set him off, she said, reflecting on it.
The next morning, Danforth dropped the children off at the babysitter's. It was the start of an unusually warm spring day. Socorro's curly hair was swept into a ponytail. Lately, she'd been excited about learning to ride horses. She doted on her baby brother. At just over 1 year, Diego wanted to do everything Socorro did, his mother said. He'd started taking a few steps and saying "Mama." He'd just gotten his first haircut.
Roque called later, asking whether he could pick the children up from the babysitter's at 2:30 p.m., something he often did, even after moving out. Only in hindsight, she said, did she take note of his unusually sarcastic tone when he asked, "Did you have a nice dinner?" He also asked whether she had a new boyfriend. She assured him that she didn't.
She was taking the horses into the barn when he called again about 3 p.m. He was talking in "gibberish," she said. He started crying and told her that she would find three dead bodies by the creek. When she found them hanging in the woods about five minutes later, she said, she remembers only throwing her cellphone in the midst of her 911 call and screaming.
Her son's body was already cold, but Socorro was warmer and still sweaty, giving Danforth a fleeting hope that she might still be alive. An autopsy determined that both children had been strangled during the hanging, police said.
Danforth buried her children together in a small, white coffin with their favorite Barney video, Socorro's pink blanket, two stuffed Easter toys and a letter from Allison and Michael. She asked her family to clear her home of Diego's and Socorro's toys, something too painful to see again.
She said she hasn't been back to work beyond riding into the woods to exercise the horses and try to calm her mind. The therapist told her that the images will eventually go away, or at least come less frequently. She hopes it's true.
"It has to be possible," she said, looking up after crying into her hands. "I can't live like this the rest of my life."
Danforth's family is collecting donations through the Danforth Children Memorial Fund through any Bank of America.