Veralicia Figueroa was close to reaching her ultimate goal. After years working as a housekeeper in the Washington area to support her children back home in El Salvador, she was preparing to return to her native country.
Figueroa, 57, talked frequently about her plans in recent months, proudly telling friends that her two children had made it through college and were building careers. Her son works as a maintenance engineer at an international products company in San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital, and her daughter helps oversee supplies at a private hospital there.
Within the next few years, Figueroa said, she would move to El Salvador with the man she married in the United States, and the family would finally be together.
“I already have my proper house over there,” she excitedly told one friend.
Before that day could arrive, D.C. police said, Figueroa was killed in a quadruple homicide in Northwest Washington. The deaths last week have devastated two families and, on Monday, the investigation was still laden with more questions than answers.
Police are searching for a person of interest they believe was driving a Porsche sports car that belonged to Figueroa’s bosses, Savvas and Amy Savopoulos. The couple and their 10-year-old son were found dead along with Figueroa after the family’s Woodland Drive house was set on fire.
As funeral arrangements are being made for the victims, the people who love them struggle to comprehend their brutal deaths.
“All I can say is I’m very sad,” Bernardo Alfaro, Figueroa’s husband, said Monday. “I don’t want to do anything.”
Family members in El Salvador said Figueroa left for the United States in 2002 after a broken first marriage forced her and her children into extreme poverty.
“There was no money coming in,” her son, Néstor Ulises Rivas, 30, said, speaking in Spanish by telephone from El Salvador. “There was nothing for food.”
Figueroa — a sweet-tempered but strong mother who had suffered through the ravages of El Salvador’s 12-year civil war — assured her then-teenage children that their lives would be better than hers.
With a tourist visa, she flew to Houston. She worked odd jobs there for two years before making contact with friends in the Washington area.
She quickly found work as a housekeeper. She also found something unexpected: Alfaro, a childhood friend from her home village of Suchitoto.
Before the country’s civil war ended in 1992, hundreds of villagers — including Figueroa and Alfaro — were forced to flee the violence that tore through that hilly portion of their country.
After meeting by chance in Washington and falling in love, they began building a new life together, her son said. They married in 2008.
From the couple’s home in Silver Spring, Figueroa dutifully sent $100 a week, sometimes more, to her children, who used the money for food and expenses while attending their respective universities.
All the while, she worried about the increasing gang violence in San Salvador that has made El Salvador one of the most dangerous countries in Latin America. She prayed for her children at Washington National Cathedral, near the Savopouloses’ home.
After gaining legal U.S. residency through Alfaro, Figueroa flew home every year to visit her son and daughter, spending Christmas and her birthdays in January in her homeland.
Frequently, she would mail a box of children’s clothes given to her by the Savopoulos family or that she had bought on her own to be passed out to kids who needed them, Rivas said. When visiting, she would donate clothes and money to local churches.
“My mother left a great mark on many people’s lives,” Rivas said. “Many times, she’d see people in the street and give them money for food.”
After her children finished college, Figueroa began longing to return, said Nelitza Gutierrez, who also worked as a housekeeper for the Savopoulos family and was close friends with Figueroa.
The physical stress of housekeeping was starting to take its toll, and she complained that she missed her children, Gutierrez said.
“She was feeling a lot of stress” from her job, Gutierrez said. “She said, ‘I’m not going to spend the rest of my life in this country.’ ”
By then, Rivas and his sister had earned enough money to afford a house outside San Salvador, in a neighborhood away from the city’s violence.
“The housing is more expensive, but it’s a lot safer,” Rivas said. “The tranquility it gave her to know that we were in a zone that is safer was worth it. That’s what she had in mind when she persevered with working.”
Rivas and his family thought they had no reason to worry about Figueroa’s safety.
The neighborhood where the Savopouloses’ home sits is among the District’s safest, located near Vice President Biden’s house and other million-dollar mansions.
That’s partly why the family was so shocked when Alfaro phoned to tell them about the fire.
He hadn’t heard from their mother in two days, Alfaro said, and news reports said four people were dead inside the burned house. “It’s very probable that she was inside during the moment of the fire,” Alfaro told the family in El Salvador.
Later that day, police showed him a picture of Figueroa’s body, and he called again to confirm that she was dead.
The family is now waiting for the Salvadoran Consulate in Washington to arrange for Figueroa’s body to be flown back to her country, a process that could take up to 15 days.
When she arrives, Rivas said, they’ll be awaiting her.