A deputy coroner's suspicions after a baby's death in 1990 spawned an investigation that concluded Wednesday when authorities charged a Colton woman with killing two of her infants and attempting to murder a third.
Tabitha Hoffman, 23, pleaded not guilty to the charges in San Bernardino Municipal Court, and was being held without bail pending a preliminary hearing later this month.
"It feels good to know that although these children are dead, we have at least done something for them," said San Bernardino County Sheriff's Detective Anne Birge, who spent 16 months investigating the deaths. "This is the most emotional case I've ever handled. I'm very relieved we've brought it to this point."
Hoffman is charged in the deaths of Christopher Maddux and Elizabeth Schleiger. Detectives said both were Hoffman's children but would not explain why the infants had different last names nor identify Hoffman's husband.
Christopher died on Jan. 15, 1988, at the age of 8 months, and his death was initially ruled accidental. Five months later, a second child was removed from Hoffman's home amid allegations of child abuse. That girl, now 3 and not identified by authorities, has been in protective custody ever since.
Then, Hoffman's third child, 2-month-old Elizabeth, died on Aug. 2, 1990. Hoffman told investigators it was an inexplicable crib death, but San Bernardino County Coroner's Deputy Monika Padilla became suspicious while questioning the mother, according to Birge.
"She alerted the sheriff's homicide division and the investigation took off from there," said Birge, who is one of six detectives assigned to the San Bernardino sheriff's crimes-against-children detail.
Hoffman was re-interviewed on Jan. 31 and, based on her statements and physical evidence, she was booked on suspicion of murder, Birge said.
Authorities now charge that Elizabeth was suffocated by her mother and Christopher was placed flat on his back after eating, an action that Hoffman allegedly knew would be fatal to the child because of a medical condition.
As for the surviving daughter, Hoffman is charged with attempted murder and abuse for allegedly mixing Lysol disinfectant in her water bottle, Birge said.
Neither Hoffman nor her attorney could be reached for comment.