By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Photo by Jack GouldAlone in her parents' Laguna Niguel house with her baby on Oct. 16, 1998, 20-year-old Shantae Marie Molina says she was watching All My Childrenon television and putting away just-washed clothes when she was startled by sounds coming from the other side of her bedroom wall.
"It was like a T-shirt rubbing against the [outside] wall," Molina said. Forensics experts would later make a cast of two otherwise inexplicable 12-inch-long shoe prints in that exact spot.
Seconds passed, and she then heard more strange noises outside. She did not know it then, but her stepfather had returned to the house, opened the garage, grabbed a gas can for a camping trip and departed.
Molina—who had been sick with a cold and taking NyQuil and cough drops—had heard stories of recent burglaries in the neighborhood. Though she had no weapons training, she retrieved a blue-steel semi-automatic .25-caliber Beretta pistol from a headboard compartment in her parents' bedroom. It was a decision she will regret for the rest of her life.
"I thought someone wanted to do something to us," the Dana Hills High School graduate explained.
Frightened and shaking, Molina says she was just trying to figure out how to use the pistol when she clumsily fired it twice into a cabinet next to her parents' bed. She picked up the spent shell casings, went to the kitchen and dumped them in the trash. Still holding the pistol and fearing an intruder more than ever, Molina says, she entered the den where her 8-month-old son, Armani, rested in an infant's bouncer chair and played with a rattle and Tickle Me Ernie doll.
Molina says she leaned over the sofa to nervously peek through the partially closed blinds that blocked her view of the front yard. She says she heard more suspicious noises. "I heard crunch, crunch on the gravel [by the den window]," said Molina. Spooked, she fired the Beretta—a shot that may have lodged in the floor, where police later recovered a bullet. She says the recoil so surprised her that she immediately and unwittingly pulled the trigger once more.
"Boom. Boom. It happened that fast," said a teary-eyed Molina.
One of the shots—no one is sure which—struck diaper-clad Armani in the head. Molina says she screamed her son's name, grabbed him and ran to the telephone in her bedroom. At 12:52 p.m., police recorded the following call:
Dispatcher: 911 emergency. What are you requesting?
Molina: [crying hysterically] Oh, oh, my God. I heard someone, and I shot the gun, and I accidentally shot my son.
Dispatcher: You shot your son?
Molina: My son.
Dispatcher: How old is your son?
Molina: He's 8 months old. Hurry up.
Dispatcher: Okay. All right. We're on our way.
Ten seconds later, Molina's 39-year-old stepfather, Kenny Welch; her 42-year-old mother, Olga; and her 13-year-old sister, Desiree, entered their modest white-stucco 1970s California ranch-style house just off Crown Valley Parkway. They had been leaving town on a weekend trip to Visalia, had already come back once for the gas can, and were now returning for keys to a motorcycle. To their horror, they found a panic-stricken Molina, her white sweat suit and T-shirt drenched in blood. She was cradling her seriously wounded son. Unaware that Molina had already dialed 911, Olga called again.
One minute later, five sheriff's deputies arrived at the scene and found a visibly distraught Welch in the foyer holding a green towel to his grandson's head. The 2-foot-7-inch, 20-pound baby was semiconscious, crying and wiggling except for the limbs on his right side. There was a gaping three-eighths-inch-diameter wound in the left side of his forehead. A Beretta and two shell casings were on the den floor next to the baby's chair, an open box of Huggies Wipes and a half-full baby bottle. Blood splattered a section of the wall. Nearby, Molina, Olga and Desiree sobbed uncontrollably. A deputy at the scene later reported that he overheard Welch ask Molina, "How could you have shot him?" Molina wept and said emphatically, "It was an accident."
Ten minutes after the frantic 911 call, Orange County Fire Authority paramedics carried Armani to the ambulance. On the way to the trauma unit at Children's Hospital in Mission Viejo, veteran paramedic Scott Ashbach monitored the baby's breathing and stroked his feet and belly. Armani "would go from a vigorous cry to a lethargic state back to a vigorous cry" during the three-minute trip to the emergency room, the paramedic reported. Neurosurgeons, who would perform two major brain operations, worked to save the boy's life for more than six hours. The surgeries failed. Armani—who was described as "the happiest baby on Earth" by one neighbor—was pronounced dead at 7:45 p.m. The official cause of death: cerebral laceration and hemorrhage due to a single gunshot wound to the head.
Sheriff's Department detectives were suspicious from the outset. As they would later tell several family members in taped interviews, Molina's story just didn't add up. It was especially troubling to detectives that Molina claimed she accidentally fired four rounds in close proximity to her baby. Why hadn't Molina simply called 911 when she heard the noises outside? They also doubted that a frightened mother would pause to pick up shell casings and put them in the trash when she thought a burglar was trying to break in.