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Family Tries to Figure Out a Tragedy : Grief: Police call the hanging deaths of a mother and two children a murder-suicide. The woman's husband and a surviving son are in seclusion.

December 08, 1991|MARK STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YUCAIPA, Calif. — One by one Saturday, the cars inched past the yellow stucco house on 1st Street--a blue Hyundai, a white Ford pickup, a brown Chevy El Camino--their drivers and passengers craning their necks as they slowed.

But there was nothing to see. Robert Williams' family was working behind closed drapes, stripping the modest two-bedroom house of baby furniture, clothing and anything else that might remind him on his return of the horror that had taken place there.

Sometime on Friday, Williams' wife, Katerina had hanged her two youngest children--Nadja, 4 and Kevin, 2--from the rafters of their two-car garage. Then she took her own life in the same fashion.

The bodies were discovered by her eldest child, Robert Jr., when the handsome 11-year-old boy returned home from Yucaipa Middle School early Friday afternoon.

The boy and his father were in seclusion Saturday--family members said they didn't know where the pair were--as friends and relatives tried to piece together what had happened and why.

The father's brother, Curtis Williams of Torrance, told neighbors Saturday that the father had taken the deaths extremely hard. "He really went crazy," Curtis Williams said.

The boy, he said, "is doing OK, really OK. He has his head on straight. He talked to us and he talked to the detectives and he really did fine. But it (grief) has got to come out at some point."

A spokeswoman for the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department, however, said young Robert was taking the tragedy hard.

"He is quite upset," said Deputy Debbie Dorrough. She said the boy was counseled by grief experts who were called in Friday night to talk with distraught firefighters and sheriff's deputies who had been sent to the death scene.

"A note was found. A very short note," Dorrough said. "The only thing I can tell you is the person who wrote it made reference to being despondent. It's uncertain at this time who wrote it. We're going to talk to the father further."

Detectives have classified the case as murder-suicide, she said, and the elder Robert Williams is not a suspect.

Neighbors said Katerina, 36, had been unhappy, even despondent, for several months. But as was her way, she declined to talk about it.

"I talked to her the night before she took her life," said neighbor Ruth McIntyre. "I went over there to have her sign a petition and I noticed that she was terribly despondent. She wasn't fixed up, even though she was normally very fastidious."

Neighbors said there was no sign of drug or alcohol problems, no apparent marital or family problems and no financial or health problems, as far as they knew.

"She was very close to her children," McIntyre said. "She loved them very much. I remember telling my sister once that it was too bad not all parents are like her--and not all kids are like hers. They were so friendly and well-behaved."

San Bernardino County Fire Department officials, meanwhile, said three firefighters who were the first to arrive at the scene about 2:45 p.m. Friday remained off duty Saturday. They were too shaken by what they had seen to work.

"It was really a bad scene. Really a shock," said Fire Capt. Jerry Hendershot. "Not just for them, but for the whole town" of about 35,000, which is about 15 miles east of San Bernardino.

On most emergency calls, rescuers are so busy that they do not have time to contemplate what they are seeing, Hendershot said. This time, there was nothing they could do but "just stand there and think, 'Oh my god,' " Hendershot said.

Autopsies on the three victims will not be performed for another few days, said Tom Dewhirst, deputy San Bernardino coroner. He said the time of death will not be established until then.

At the Williams' home, family members with minivans hauled away furniture and clothing belonging to the mother and two younger children. Larger pieces of furniture--including the dead toddler's crib--were stored in neighbors' garages.

"I doubt if he's even going to live there again," Curtis Williams said of his brother.

He said the boy was clinging very close to his father Friday night. "He feels he may lose his father, so he doesn't want to part with him," Curtis Williams said.

"They were the kind of people who said they'd do anything for you and they would," McIntyre said. In July, the Williamses helped her paint her living room, she said.

They said Katerina was an ethnic German, although she immigrated to the United States from either Hungary or Romania as a girl. They said her father and stepmother live in the Torrance area.

Katerina used to work as a bank teller in nearby Redlands but quit when she had her second child, Nadja. After leaving the bank, she worked at several part-time jobs to supplement her husband's income as an insurance broker, they said. Most recently, she worked as a cook for a local retired woman.

The family's home was well-tended, its lush green lawn trimmed by colorful flowers inside a short chain-link fence. In the middle of the yard is a concrete fountain ringed by flowers. A basketball backboard and hoop is hung over the garage door. Neighbors recall the father teaching his son how to make hook shots.

Times staff writer Bob Pool in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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