RIVERSIDE — Terri Lynn Esterak was supposed to return her three young daughters to her ex-husband at the end of the weekend.
Because she did not have primary custody, she was supposed to return them Sunday night to their father, Michael Esterak. After that, her time with her daughters was to be structured by a calendar: only on alternate weekends, alternate holidays, and Christmas and Easter.
It was a court order she apparently couldn't accept.
On Saturday, Esterak booked herself a swank hotel room in Indian Wells. Then she murdered Erica, Eden and Erin in their pajamas and killed herself, police said, in a scene discovered Monday by a hotel maid and security personnel who broke in through the double-locked door.
Nobody knows what kind of darkness cloaked the 31-year-old woman, what she was thinking.
Her attorney, Sara Wasserstrom, spoke to her client last week as the mother was approaching the end of a court-sanctioned, monthlong vacation with her girls at her Rancho Mirage home.
"Terri said she didn't think the kids would want to go back (to their father)," Wasserstrom said. "And she didn't want them to go back. That often happens in a divorce, at the end of summer vacation."
Attorney Constance Bessada, who represented the husband in the divorce case, was at a loss to explain what happened.
"I've spoken to about everybody I can think of who was close to this case, because we need to do our own soul-searching," Bessada said. "What did we miss? We've known them as persons, not just names on a piece of paper. We've seen their little fingers move. Those children are being grieved by all of us."
Bessada said she could only wonder at why it happened.
"People get obsessed with what they must have," she reflected Tuesday. "I've had a client who was subsequently murdered by an abusive husband, and a client who committed suicide. But never this, when babies pay. Innocent, beautiful children who loved both their parents."
Strictly as a crime, the multiple murder and suicide at the Hyatt Grand Champions Villas was not hard to solve, police said. The girls were found lying on the bed, shot to death. Next to their mother's body was a revolver. Suicide notes were nearby, but the contents have not been revealed.
The attorneys who handled the divorce of Terri Lynn Esterak, a onetime interior designer, and Michael Esterak, a driver for United Parcel Service, said the shootings reflect the darkest side of broken marriages: children as pawns.
"We need to somehow find out why this happened so we can try to stop it from happening again," Bessada said. "How is it that we can get to the point where there's a custody and visitation agreement that satisfies the children's needs, and this still happens?"
The couple were married in 1980. Several years ago, she moved to Rancho Mirage to be closer to her parents. Because of his job, Michael Esterak stayed in the Los Angeles area--in North Hollywood for a time, then Northridge until the earthquake dislocated him. He made the 2 1/2-hour drive to Rancho Mirage on weekends to visit his family.
At some point last year, he learned that his wife had struck up a relationship with a restaurant owner, Bessada said. "I don't know if he walked or she kicked (him out)," Bessada said, but he filed for divorce last year and moved to Long Beach.
There was little dispute over property division: She got the Lexus, he kept his Ford Bronco, a Toyota pickup and Celica and the stocks and bonds, and each kept the furnishings they had when they separated. There would be no spousal support.
But unresolved was the most difficult decision of all: custody of Erica, 9, Eden, 4, and Erin, 2, who attorneys for both sides said received the doting attention and love of both mother and father.
The judge listened to the advice of a family therapist and an evaluator who met with the children, reflected on the children's stability and awarded primary custody to Michael. It didn't help her case, the judge noted, that Terri Lynn Esterak went on vacation with her boyfriend to Europe last fall and allowed her ex-husband to watch the girls.
Terri Lynn Esterak complained in court papers that her ex-husband had physically abused her in front of the girls; Michael Esterak said it was his wife who physically attacked him in front of the girls. He blamed cocaine for her behavior. In court papers, his new girlfriend said Terri Lynn Esterak was verbally abusive to her. Each ex-spouse sought restraining orders to force the other to keep a distance.
Wasserstrom grew anxious when she learned Monday morning that Terri Lynn Esterak had not shown up to deliver the girls to their father. "This is heart-wrenching," Wasserstrom said. "They were adorable little kids."
Bessada said she had considered Terri Lynn Esterak "high-strung" and driven, but never was concerned about the children's safety.
"These beautiful little beings never belonged in a courthouse to begin with, but they kept having to show up," she said. "What the system needs, I don't know, but something's not working."
Times staff writer Vivien Chen contributed to this story.