CHULA VISTA, Calif. – Detective Jeff Hobson stared at the suburban townhome's front door for a moment and breathed in to steel his mind for the kind of horror he'd never seen in 11 years on the job — an entire family slain by one of its own.
A 41-year-old mother, her daughter and son had been strangled by her former live-in boyfriend who then jumped to his death from a freeway overpass.
Less than three weeks later, Hobson would witness his second such case — an attorney who fatally shot his two teenage boys, then killed himself.
Three such tragedies have occurred within about a month in a roughly 10-mile radius in San Diego County, leaving a mark on the communities and the officers who investigated.
Among the few common threads in such case, familicide experts say, is that they often happen in clusters of two or three within a short span of time and in close proximity to each other, possibly because people predisposed to such violence may act on impulses when they hear others have.
The men in San Diego County chose equally horrific suicides after killing their families. Alfredo Pimienta, a-44-year-old San Diego towing company owner whose business license was due to expire was found in a pool next to the drowned bodies of his daughters, Priscilla, 17, and Emily, 9. His 38-year-old wife, Georgina Pimienta, was found in a bathtub, and is believed to have planned the May 24 killings with her husband, police say.
Hobson said when he read about the San Diego case he wondered how he would handle such a horrific tragedy in his city.
Then the morning of June 1, he got the call about the Alvarez family.
When Hobson looked at the front door of their townhome in a newly developed suburban neighborhood, he wondered whether the gruesome scene would somehow taint memories of his own family. Would any of the children bare a resemblance to his loved ones, and trigger the horror in his mind long after he left the scene?
"A lot of us have our own families, our own personal values and it's very hard not to relate that. Nobody wants to see a child deceased," he said.
The father of two said he quickly shut out those thoughts, composed himself as a professional investigator and started the hard work of a long, sad day.
Inside Hobson found the bodies of Mary Alvarez, and her two children, Angelica and Hamid, who had been strangled by 37-year-old Alfredo Almonte before he drove a car to a highway bridge and jumped to his death. The handy man who worked odd jobs had lived with the children for years.
Hobson struggled to find words to comfort Alvarez's distraught mother after she ran up to the yellow police tape cordoning off the home. He took her away from the scene, sat her in a police car and carefully chose his words while resigning himself to the fact that no words can take away the pain.
After 10 hours of investigating, he went and picked up his children from school, went home to his wife, and then took a long shower to wash away his thoughts. Afterward, he said he cherished playing T-ball and watching cartoons with his two kids.
"That was my release," he said. "I was able to hold my children. I felt blessed that I was able to do that."
Those feelings would come flooding back again after he was called to the second case on June 21 when Tom Fuchs, a 49-year-old self-employed attorney, fatally shot his two sons, Sean, 15, and Kyle, 13, and then himself after setting fires inside his Chula Vista home, which faced being foreclosed by the bank, police said.
Chula Vista, a predominantly Latino suburb of about 240,000 people sandwiched between San Diego and the Mexican border, has one of the highest foreclosure rates in California, with nearly 7 percent of residences receiving such notices compared to 4 percent for the state and 2 percent nationally.
All the men had financial troubles, police say, as in many of these cases nationwide, but police say they do not believe that is the sole motivation. Familicide expert Richard Gelles of the University of Pennsylvania said the number of U.S. family slayings has remained steady at between six and 10 a year amid the recession, and they have popped up randomly across the country, not just in hard-hit areas like Chula Vista.
As in most of these kinds of cases, there were no obvious warning signs detected by any of the victims' family and friends that things were spinning out of control, police say. None of the men had a prior criminal record.
Days before the slayings, the Pimienta family held a pre-Prom pool party for their oldest daughter who attended one of the country's top high schools, High Tech High in San Diego. Fuchs was seen playing basketball with his Kyle and Sean outside their home the day before he killed them; Kyle was a straight-A student at Bonita Vista Middle School and Sean went to the Chula Vista campus of High Tech High.
The police department has called in counselors to help officers cope. Hobson said he took the contact information but so far has not felt the need to call for therapy, even though a heavy feeling hangs over the department.
"There's been a rollercoaster of emotions," Hobson said. "There is a sense of sadness, loss and helplessness."
Investigators are awaiting autopsy and toxicology reports on the three cases, but they concede they may never find the answers to explain what drove the men to kill their families.
For Hobson, who investigates domestic violence and child abuse, that is what makes these cases so devastating and frustrating at the same time. There is no one to prosecute. No one directly involved who can be interrogated.
Still, Hobson said he investigates thoroughly to find out what he can, as with any case.
"We may not be able to put handcuffs on anyone but we may be able to help families move on," he said
Alvarez did not leave behind any note. The Pimientas did. San Diego police have not revealed its contents, other than to say it showed the parents planned the children's deaths. From the note Fuchs left, Hobson said it was clear he did not want to burden anyone.
He said Fuchs thanked his parents for raising him and wrote that no one is really ever going to understand why he did this.
"People who commit suicide feel lost, like they have no direction in life and cannot face death alone so they selfishly take the lives of their children in the process," Hobson said. "And that's what breaks our hearts."
Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report
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