Could Cops Have Saved Her Kids?
Jessica Gonzales received a dozen red roses, and she was frightened. A month before, she had gotten a restraining order to keep her estranged husband, Simon, a former Marine, away from her and their three daughters. The flowers were just one more sign that Simon wasn't getting—or at least accepting—the message.
Gonzales was tragically, horrifyingly right. A day later, on June 22, 1999, while Jessica was sunbathing with a girlfriend behind the house, Simon snatched the three girls—Rebecca, 10, Katheryn, 8, and Leslie, 7—from the front yard of her Castle Rock, Colo., home. She called local police—repeatedly—over the next few hours and asked them to arrest Simon and enforce the court order. Yet the police did not put out an APB for Simon's truck. The next time Jessica Gonzales saw her daughters, they were lying dead in their caskets, shot by their father.
Although her ex pulled the trigger, Gonzales blames Castle Rock police for not protecting her children. In an effort to hold them accountable, she filed a $30 million lawsuit against the department a year after the tragedy. "The complaint alleges we were unresponsive—that's totally incorrect," says Castle Rock Police Chief Tony Lane, who points out that Jessica was asked if she felt her girls were in any danger and she said "no." Further, he says, of the four officers on patrol that night, "we sent two officers to her residence."
Nonetheless, on March 21 her suit made its way to the Supreme Court, in what experts on both sides of the issue are calling a landmark case. Groups including the National Sheriffs' Association argue that many cash-strapped municipalities would go bankrupt if they were sued every time they failed to respond to domestic abuse cases quickly. On the other hand, "A protective order doesn't mean very much if police don't make mandatory arrests," says Margaret Moore, executive director of Women in Law Enforcement.
As for Gonzales, now 39, she says that for nine years she endured a loveless marriage to her former high school boyfriend, who was prone to verbally abusive outbursts and controlling behavior. If Simon, 30, a computer technician, didn't like the way she had washed or folded the laundry, he would make her redo entire loads. Gonzales suffered in silence. "I thought all marriages had problems," she says.
Then came a wake-up call. On Father's Day 1996, Simon tried to hang himself in the garage in front of his wife and daughters in their Denver home. When he returned from a brief hospitalization, she wanted to flee the marriage, but her daughters pleaded with her to take him back. Gonzales says she tried to save the marriage for three more years, but the couple agreed to separate in January 1999.
For a few months Gonzales, working as a cleaning woman, says she and the girls enjoyed some lighthearted freedom. No longer bound by her husband's rigid rules, Gonzales says she indulged her daughters with occasional junk food dinners. (Katheryn liked "pistachios and pickles and beef jerky.") They would also enjoy watching such previously forbidden favorite TV shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson's Creek. But Simon soon returned to their lives with a fury, changing the locks to her house and stalking Gonzales. In May 1999 she obtained a restraining order that required her husband to remain 100 yards away from her and the girls. In June, hoping to keep Simon calm, Gonzales agreed to a modified order allowing him a Wednesday dinner with the girls.
On June 22 Gonzales exchanged an exhausting series of phone calls with Simon. Around noon Jessica told Simon that the girls didn't want to see him for dinner that night, Tuesday. His response: "I know what I have to do."
After searching for her daughters around the neighborhood, at 7:45 p.m. Gonzales phoned Castle Rock police to report them missing. "I am kind of in a weird situation. I just kind of need a little bit of advice," she said in the first of five calls. Officers took a report, visited her home and Simon's but did not issue an alert for his truck.
Instead of police tracking down Simon Gonzales, he came to them. Just after 3:20 a.m., he pulled up to the Castle Rock Police Department, got out and opened fire on the station. Officers shot back, killing him. In the truck's cab they found the girls, dead, all shot by their father. "We did everything under the circumstances that we could have," says Chief Lane. In addition to Gonzales's telling police she thought the girls would be safe with their father, Lane says Simon was technically not in violation of his restraining order, which did allow him a midweek dinner with his daughters—though Gonzales says it was not Simon's designated night with the girls.
Gonzales—recently remarried and living in Southern California—was in Washington, D.C., as her case was argued before the Supreme Court on March 21. The Justices sharply questioned her attorneys but also showed sympathy for her plight. Said Justice Stephen Breyer: "It's outrageous and a terrible tragedy." Whether it's also a violation of the law is another question—to be answered when the Supreme Court makes its decision, probably in June.
Pam Lambert. Sandra Marquez in Los Angeles and Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C.
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