I . . . Shot My Son

Everyone Agrees that Shantae Molina killed her baby. The only question is: Was it murder?

Although they declined comment for this story, the investigators' official files offer a more sinister version of Armani's death. Minutes before the shots were fired, police records show, Molina had a telephone conversation with the baby's father, Armando Mendoza. Detectives have suggested that the conversation turned ugly when Mendoza would not guarantee to take Molina and Armani out to dinner that night. In retaliation, detectives surmise, Molina shot the estranged couple's baby and then concocted the prowler scenario. (Despite intensive efforts by police to get him to change his story during four separate interviews, Mendoza has consistently maintained that Molina was "cheerful" and "everything was fine, normal" when they ended their telephone conversation. He would later complain that detectives had tried to "put words in my mouth," erroneous words that would have backed their theory about the case.)

Another factor that likely contributed to the cop's suspicions about Molina was the arrival on the scene of Laguna Beach-based defense attorney Eric Lampel. The family maintains that they contacted Lampel only after it became obvious that police were treating them as criminals. They say that after taking statements, officers became antagonistic, even ordering Molina's younger sister to shut up or be arrested. The family members were not allowed to comfort one another. Deputies kept Lampel outside behind yellow crime-scene tape for more than an hour as officers grilled the family.

Audiotapes of police interviews conducted hours after the shooting demonstrate the officer's exasperation that their suspect had obtained legal counsel. Peeved Sheriff's Deputy David Guest—the lead homicide detective on the case—expressed indignation that Molina had "grabbed a lawyer right away." Guest—then-34 years old—complained to Molina's father, Carlos, at the hospital later that night that, "I don't think it was right."

"My gosh," said Welch, Molina's stepfather. "We were having the worst day of our lives, and the officers were yelling at us, harassing us. We were trying to console one another, and they wouldn't let us. I grew up respecting the police and believing in them, but their actions were so hostile and disturbing. I just don't know what to think anymore. They have shaken my faith in the system. We are not criminals."

But Molina was treated almost immediately as a murder suspect. Rather than agree to Molina's plea that she be with her baby as he barely clung to life at the hospital, Guest diverted her to Sheriff's Department headquarters in downtown Santa Ana. (Lampel was forced to follow in a trailing car.) During the long drive from Laguna Niguel, the detective—who was honored in 1990 by his colleagues for heroics—tried to befriend Molina. At one point, he acted uncomfortable about his tactics, promising her that he was only following "usual"procedures in keeping her from her baby. All the while, Molina says, he surreptitiously held a tape recorder between his thighs. She only expressed worry for her baby's survival.

Once at headquarters, Guest asked Molina to sign a "voluntary" consent form permitting a body search. She asked to consult Lampel—who was kept away from his client in a hallway—but the detective responded by saying that the attorney would not care if she signed it. Molina was then given a blood test to determine the presence of drugs or alcohol (negative), had her fingernails scraped for evidence of a struggle (negative), and was reinterrogated. Her story remained consistent with what she told the first officers at the scene.

Audiotapes from this period are eerie. Molina can be heard weeping and repeatedly begging to see her dying son. Instead, she was stripped naked and photographed in a room equipped with a one-way mirror. During the last four and a half hours of Armani's brief life, Guest kept Molina in an interrogation room in Santa Ana. His objective apparently was to rattle the mother so that she would break down. But a confession never materialized because, as Molina later told the Weekly, "I'm not going to tell them I did something that I didn't."

Fifteen minutes after Armani had died, Guest finally allowed Molina to leave for the hospital. He didn't tell her what she would find.

"It's outrageous that his grieving mother, who was already suffering through obviously the most miserable day of her life, was subject to this unnecessarily hostile treatment," said Lampel. "The baby's death was a tragic accident, but the detective made up his mind from the outset that he wanted a murder case."

From left: Retired LAPD Homicide Detective Jack Holder; Orange County
Deputy District Attorney Robin Park; Defense Attorney Eric Lampel
Photos by Jack Gould
In the early stages of the government's case, one dark question loomed over all others: Did Shantae Molina put the barrel of the Beretta against her baby's head before pulling the trigger?

For both the defense and the prosecution, the answer is pivotal: if she had, her story of a gun accidentally discharging in the course of defending herself would have begun to look like a piece of fiction designed to cover up an impulsive and particularly horrific killing.

And that is precisely what Guest asserted. In a January 1999 preliminary hearing, he testified under oath that Armani died from a contact wound, with the "[gun's] muzzle pressed up against the victim's head."

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