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.
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 GouldIn 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."
Guest's testimony was so critical—and so inflammatory —that it made that night's television news broadcasts on the Los Angeles affiliates of CBS, ABC and NBC. The Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times reported on the front page of its Jan. 30, 1999, Metro section that Armani had died from a gunshot contact wound.
But the assertion appears to be as wrong as it was sensational. Three days after the Oct. 16 shooting, forensics experts in Guest's own Sheriff's Department tested the gun that killed Armani. Oddly, they would keep the result secret for more than half a year. The department's gun experts determined that if Molina had placed the Beretta's barrel within six inches of the baby's head, the fatal shot should have produced "heavily apparent" powder burns around the wound.
The first medical experts at the scene of the shooting reported nothing of the sort. On Oct. 21, 1998, five days after the shooting, veteran Orange County Fire Authority paramedic Rick Bergstrom told the Sheriff's Department that he did not see any obvious signs of powder burns. That same day, Bergstrom's partner Scott Ashbach told detectives the same thing: he saw no powder burns around the wound.
A third expert contradicted Guest's claim of a muzzle-to-flesh wound. Dr. Michael G. Muhonen, the neurosurgeon who operated on Armani at Children's Hospital, told Sheriff's investigators that the baby's head wound was "stellate," or star-shaped. The investigators asked the doctor to show them what the wound look like. Taking a notebook from a deputy, the doctor drew a picture of the jagged-shaped wound. Ballistics experts say a point-blank shot would have likely produced a circular hole from the barrel, not a jagged, star-shaped wound. Asked by Lampel's expert if he saw circular entry point. Muhonen said, "No, for sure there was not that. . . . It had a starburst appearance."
The Sheriff's Department reports ignored Muhonen's critical observation about the appearance of the wound. Of their Oct. 23, 1998, interview with him, the detectives noted merely that the doctor observed the wound was "complicated." Even more noticeably missing from the investigators' account was Bergstrom's climactic statement that "instead of a direct shot" the wound appeared to be the result of a "ricochet."
Guest's last hope for a determination supporting a contact wound was Dr. Joseph J. Halka, the Sheriff's Department forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy on Armani one day after the shooting—and well after six-plus hours of emergency surgery dramatically altered the wound. In his Oct. 17, 1998, autopsy report, Halka reported nothing about a muzzle-to-flesh wound. In fact, according to Guest's handwritten notes of the autopsy, Halka was not able to say he'd seen a contact wound. The detective—who had observed the procedure—scribbled in his notebook, "No estimate of distance."
Despite evidence that tended to confirm Molina's version of events, Guest seemed determined to prove she had murdered her child. On Nov. 2, Lampel's legal assistant says he made a courtesy call to the Sheriff's Department to notify them that the attorney would be out of town for the weekend beginning the morning of Friday, Nov. 5. What happened next was curious: one day after the phone call from Lampel's office, a Sheriff's Department employee sent a memo to Halka. "The homicide guys would like to file [an arrest warrant for Molina] with the D.A. on Nov. 5. They are waiting to hear your official opinion." On Nov. 4, records show that Halka—without any additional physical evidence than he had 19 days earlier at the autopsy —then concluded that the wound to Armani was "contact, if not close."
Though puzzlingly worded, the ruling likely was music to Guest's ears. On the basis of Halka's finding, he immediately obtained an arrest warrant. On Nov. 5, Lampel boarded a plane at LAX for an East Coast business trip. Meanwhile, Guest ordered Molina taken into custody and further interrogated. She was handcuffed and arrested as she worked in her aunt's Mexican restaurant in San Diego County.
At about the same time, Guest made two additional shows of intimidating force. According to Molina's parents, the detective sent at least six Sheriff's Department cars—possibly 12 officers in all—to tail the family. The officers claimed they only wanted to know if the family would give new statements about the shooting. Skeptical of the officers' intentions, they declined.
Records obtained by the Weekly show that the Sheriff's Department used another government agency to pressure the family. Guest's notes show that it was his department that prompted social workers to "be looking at family for general neglect of" Desiree. According to the family, the bureaucrats unnecessarily caused the teenager to live apart from her sister. Welch, Molina's stepfather, wept when he described the "antics" employed against his family.
For five days, deputies kept Molina in the mental-health ward of the jail, where she was subject to the around-the-clock company of various deranged inmates. Authorities forced her to wear an uncomfortable plastic poncho that made sleep near-impossible. They also refused to allow her family visitation rights.
"They knew I was out of town, and they were going to do anything to break her," said Lampel. "Their [the deputies'] conduct was disgraceful."
On Molina's sixth day in jail, her family mortgaged its Laguna Niguel home to pay the $25,000 nonrefundable fee on the $250,000 bail.
Not much has changed in the case during the past 20 months—except that the prosecution now allegedly admits that there was never any definitive evidence of a contact wound.
On May 28, 1999, Lampel says Orange County Deputy District Attorney Robin Park, the prosecutor in the Molina case, made what he characterized as a "bombshell" of an admission. According to Lampel, Park told him, "It turns out there wasn't exactly a contact wound. The shot was from two to three feet away."
If Lampel's account is accurate, both the defense and, apparently, now the prosecution agree on the location of the gun when it was fired—a distance that mirrors Molina's story. Park declined to answer any questions about the case, saying only that she wants to "make sure that the defendant has a completely fair trial."
Though a key piece of evidence prompting the arrest and murder charge has been thoroughly debunked, the prosecution of Molina nevertheless continues. On July 17, she will stand trial at the main courthouse in Santa Ana on first-degree murder charges. If convicted, she could spend 35 years to life in prison.
Although he wore shorts, sneakers and an old white T-shirt when he entered a Laguna Beach coffeehouse on a recent afternoon, Jack Holder was obviously no sightseeing tourist. He carried himself in a way that screamed cop. Dark sunglasses rested on his bright-red forehead. His first name is tattooed in script on his meaty left forearm. Several nearby coffee sippers glanced at him but quickly looked away, seemingly intimidated.
Holder is a retired Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective. During his 27 years of service, he reluctantly guessed, he worked on "500, 700, maybe more" homicides. He was instrumental in solving the infamous Hillside Strangler case that dominated national headlines in the late 1970s. He left the force a decade ago and now spends his free time working as a private detective. In January 1999, Holder reviewed the case against the woman and joined the defense team.
"I bleed blue," he said of his allegiance to law enforcement. "But I just don't understand how this murder case got filed. I would have thought that somebody along the line would have said, 'Wow, wait a minute. We have no case here.'"
Holder's stubby, battle-scarred fingers tore off the plastic lid to his blended-mocha drink. He tossed aside the straw, took a final swig and shook his head.
"This was an accidental death. It was a horrible thing, but it was an accident. [Molina] never even let her boy miss an appointment with his pediatrician. She had no record of ever abusing the boy, and every part of her story checked out," he said. "I don't necessarily want this known, but I believe her so much that I would have taken this case for free."
If Holder is right, petty ego is a significant factor in the prosecution of Shantae Molina. He believes Guest became annoyed when Lampel was hired and then "set out to show everyone who was boss." Tapes of the detective's interviews in the case suggest Holder has a point. A clearly angered Guest drilled several witnesses for information not merely on Molina but also on her attorney, insinuating that Lampel had coached witnesses to alter their stories about Molina's post-shooting statements. (In those tapes, everyone associated with the case—more than a dozen people—adamantly denies the accusation.)
Ironically, the tapes reveal that it was the police who almost desperately tried to get Molina's friends and family members to change their stories. At one point, just after the baby had died, Guest and a partner lied to Molina's father, claiming falsely that his daughter had refused to give a statement to police and that they had information that he was hiding the truth about what had happened. A police videotape also shows Guest badgering Molina after reading her the Miranda warning that specifically states suspects have a constitutional right to have an attorney present during questioning. When she asked for a lawyer, he chided her, "You're an adult; you're 20 years old." She repeated her request four consecutive times before the detective backed off.
Even more alarming to Holder, the sheriff's investigation was in his view shoddy—if not downright incompetent. Guest dismissed the mysterious footprints found near Molina's bedroom wall on the afternoon of the shooting, saying oddly that he did not believe it to be a "criminally placed footprint." The term caused Holder to chuckle. "I'd love to know how to tell the difference between a criminally placed footprint and one that is not," he said.
Holder pointed to other holes in the prosecution's case: on the day of the shooting, less than 10 minutes before Molina heard what she thought was a prowler, a burglar alarm was triggered at a residence not more than 20 homes away. Detectives—perhaps locked into their view that Molina had fabricated a story about hearing noises—apparently failed to explore the possibility of a connection. Then, in filing for a warrant to arrest Molina, Guest attached as evidence the initial Sheriff's Department report of the shooting. There's just one problem: Holder said the report supports Molina's version of events. "Guest never really spelled out his case for murder to get the warrant," he said.
Reminded of Guest's damning early assertion that Molina had placed the muzzle against her baby's head, the former homicide detective recoiled. "What a mistake that was," said Holder. "It was definitely not a contact wound. It happened just like Shantae said it did."
The act of a mother purposely killing her offspring seems so unnatural that some experts have dubbed it the Medea syndrome, after the ancient Greek legend of a wife who killed her sons to spite their unfaithful father. The issue gained more recent attention in 1994 when Susan Smith, a South Carolina housewife, drowned her two young boys in a lake and then told police that a black man had kidnapped her children. Two years later, a nationwide University of South Carolina study found that 80 percent of killer moms had suffered serious mental illness such as depression or schizophrenia when they committed their crimes. Experts in the field suggest there are generally four motives for this type of killing: pathological (the mother is mentally ill), retaliation (a child is killed to punish someone else, often the father), neonaticide (a child is killed upon birth by a reluctant mother) and accidental (physical abuse that unexpectedly results in death).
State of mind is a key element to any murder prosecution. So you might think that in more than 20 months of investigation and two major court hearings, detectives and prosecutors would have clearly spelled out a solid theory about Molina's motive for murdering her son. Noticeably, they have not. Dr. Martha Rogers, a clinical and forensic psychologist frequently used as an expert by the Orange County DA, is testifying for the defense. All of the people who spoke or visited with Molina in the hours before the shooting emphatically say she was upbeat and, as normal, doting on Armani.
To address the issue of motive, Sheriff's deputies have engaged in what appears to be a sleight-of-hand. With all the Sherlock Holmes suspicion he could muster, Guest noted in the preliminary hearing that Molina had kept under her bed a newspaper clipping of a "woman who had been found guilty of murdering her baby." If presented at trial, that "evidence" will likely fail, too. The clipping wasn't a clipping but the entire Metro section of a then-year-and-a-half old LA Times. The paper was buried in a plastic purple binder that contained old school assignments. Lampel laughs at the detective's implication. "They are really stretching with that one," he said. "She had that paper because it was part of a homework assignment."
Those who have known Molina for years are incredulous that detectives have, in their view, demonized their friend.
"Shantae is a dear, dear person. Everybody who knows Shantae said that she was a great mother who loved her son," said Vince Rubalcava, a onetime neighbor who took camping trips with the family. "You should have seen Shantae with the baby. It was just beautiful."
Rubalcava believes that the prosecution's unconvincing motive theory painfully underscores what he sees as shoddy police work.
He said, "There is no motive because there was no murder."
That point was not lost on former San Bernardino County homicide prosecutor Scott Ghormley. Now in private practice in Newport Beach, Ghormley was awarded a lapel pin for obtaining high murder-conviction rates while a prosecutor. But he's so incensed by the prosecution of Molina that he recently volunteered to assist Lampel without compensation.
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"A cold chill sweeps over me when Ithink of this case,"said Ghormley. "The prosecution has abused its discretion and lost any touch of humanity. It is in my estimation—and Ifirmly believe in law enforcement—an arrogance of power."
On a late June afternoon, Molina rocked herself gently back and forth at the colonial-style wooden table in her parents' spacious kitchen. Her face, though unsmiling, looked as fresh as a newborn's. Her deep brown eyes, however, could have been mistaken for those of a woman twice her age. Family and friends moved around her, but she stared into middle ground without blinking. A noisy floor fan in another room slapped unsuccessfully at the muggy air while the diminutive woman—she's 5 feet tall and just 90 pounds—held her tiny arms tightly across her stomach as if chilled. When she finally spoke, she talked optimistically of plans to become an ultrasound technician in a hospital. A warm, excited smile appeared on her face as she said, "I have always wanted to get into the medical field."
She says she had hoped that by her mid-20s she would own a house for herself and Armani. "I wanted to be a successful single parent, able to buy my son all the things he wanted in the world," she said. "I couldn't wait for him to be able to walk, to go to school and to eat his first cheeseburger."
Asked if Armani spoke during his short life, Molina—who was just feet away from a candle-lit hallway shrine erected in her son's memory—smiled as if remembering happier days. "He said 'mum' to me several times," recalled Molina. "He was a perfect baby. He was always happy and laughing, a great baby. I would never purposely hurt him. He was the best thing that ever happened in my life. . . . Why are they doing this to me?"