ANAHEIM — By all accounts, Rosie Hooper was a model mother.
She adored her son, Daniel, a bony 11-year-old who loved animals, threw a "wicked" curve ball and played video games.
Almost every day the two were seen bouncing along in Hooper's white Ford van, a clunking older model that stalled regularly at the end of their cul-de-sac on North Merrimac Road. Daniel would give an exasperated sigh and cross his fingers for the van to recover.
But recently, Rosie Hooper became distraught over mounting financial woes, more upset about not being able to provide for her son than the $50,000 in credit card debt that loomed over her. With piles of unpaid bills closing in, the office clerk tried to dodge collection agencies by screening her telephone calls.
"She cried all the time," George Hooper said of his wife of 25 years. "When her hours were cut back at work she started keeping Daniel home from school with her. She slept more and talked less. She was so far down."
Sometime on Friday afternoon, police and Hooper believe, that depression apparently turned a patient, doting 48-year-old mother into a desperate killer who strangled her dark-haired son with a pair of pantyhose. The woman then drove her familiar white van to nearby Eisenhower Park--where she often went with Daniel to feed the ducks--and hiked a quarter-mile down the hill toward the railroad tracks.
Police said she crouched behind some bushes and then stepped in front of a Metrolink train about 6 p.m., ending her life instantly. Orange Police Lt. Art Romo said a knife with some dried blood on it was found near the body, but would not say whether it was connected to the apparent murder-suicide. Anaheim police questioned George Hooper for three hours Friday night because he found his son's body, but authorities say he is not a suspect.
"She finally snapped, is what I think," George Hooper said Saturday at the one-bedroom apartment he shared with his wife and son in Anaheim. "Daniel was her life. She would never be happy, never be able to live with herself, if she couldn't give him everything he wanted."
Neighbors, however, said Rosie Hooper seemed friendly enough when they saw her the day before the slaying. "She was always one for a wave or a hello," said Marylyn Harris, who lives in a unit across from the Hoopers.
Valerie Cos, who didn't know the family but said she often saw the mother-son team coming and going, put a small vase of three roses outside Hooper's door Saturday.
"It's so awful," she said. "I had to do something."
Anaheim police detectives descended on Hooper's home about 6 p.m. Friday, after the 46-year-old electronics salesman returned from work to find his son on the bed. Hooper said at first he thought Daniel was asleep, and as he approached the boy, he saw a ring of blood around Daniel's mouth and fell to his knees beside the bed.
"I grabbed him, I shook him. I yelled for Rosie," Hooper said, squeezing out tears. "I saw the pantyhose around his neck and I put my ear to his chest but the only sound I could hear was my own heart beating."
In the minutes that followed, Hooper said he dialed 911, moved Daniel's stiff limbs to get him on the floor and started CPR. While crouched over the child on his knees, Hooper said he was distracted by a knife he saw on the carpet a few feet away.
"I thought, 'Dear God, did she stab him too?' " he said. "But when I looked him over I couldn't find any wounds."
Search warrant documents list a kitchen carving knife among several items seized by police from the bedroom. Also taken were a piece of blood-stained carpet, a purse, an assortment of bills and other documents and a stack of credit cards issued to Rosanna Hooper. Police would not release any details on the case Saturday.
Hooper, however, said detectives were particularly interested in his wife's financial picture. The couple had for years lived together in Fountain Valley, where Daniel played Little League and attended Gisler Elementary School, but separated two years ago. Their problems were a mix of Hooper voicing concern that Rosie "didn't give Daniel much space to grow on his own," and a failed business venture that quickly launched the family into debt, he said.
"She lived through Daniel," Hooper said. "He got all of her love."
After he moved to the Anaheim apartment, Rosie Hooper lost a data-entry clerk job and started using credit cards to pay rent at the Fountain Valley townhouse. Soon one card was maxed out at $20,000 and another was not far behind, Hooper said. Always generous when it came to her son, she rang up bills for baseball uniforms and toys, food and computer games.
Finally, in September, she left the townhouse and moved in with her estranged husband, who said they discussed getting back together "for Daniel's sake."
"We'd been down and out financially before," Hooper said. "I figured we'd get through it."