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Mother Faces Murder Charge in Baby's Shooting

November 07, 1998|JANET WILSON and RICHARD MAROSI and DANIEL YI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A young Laguna Niguel mother who shot and killed her baby last month in what she said was a tragic accident has been arrested on charges of first-degree murder, authorities said Friday. Sheriff's investigators took Shantae Molina, 20, into custody Thursday night while she was visiting with relatives at a restaurant in San Diego County. She is being held in Orange County Jail with no bail, and prosecutors plan to arraign her Monday.

The arrest marks a dramatic turn in a case that began three weeks ago, when a hysterical Molina called 911 from her home to report that her 8-month-old son, Armani Shyloh Contreras, had been shot in the head.

He was pronounced dead seven hours later after doctors twice tried to perform lifesaving surgery. Molina told police the gun had accidentally discharged several times when she grabbed it after she thought she heard a prowler outside her window.

"We realize she indicated that the shooting had been an accident, but based on a culmination of evidence that investigators collected in a painstaking process, murder charges have been filed," said Lt. Hector Rivera, who declined to reveal further details about the case.

But a spokesman from the law firm representing Molina immediately criticized the Orange County Sheriff's Department for the way it handled the arrest.

Vincent K. Rubalcava, a paralegal for the Lampel Law Corp. in Laguna Beach, said deputies swooped into the restaurant in Ramona, arresting Molina in a public setting while her attorney, Eric Lampel, was out of town.

Rubalcava said investigators took Molina to a sheriff's station in San Clemente Thursday night, turned on tape recorders and told her repeatedly, "You need to talk to us now. You're a big girl, now talk to us."

Deputies "were trying to shake something loose because there is no case," said Rubalcava, who visited Molina in jail Friday.

As word of the young woman's arrest spread to friends and neighbors, a portrait emerged of a single mother struggling to care for her baby son amid intense family, work and school pressures.

They described Molina as a quiet, often lonely but sweet woman. She had been taking night classes at Saddleback College and had recently quit her job at a local Mervyn's department store to spend more time with her son.

"Quite honestly, she wasn't smart enough to be that Machiavellian," said Julie Liles, a Dana Hills High School special education teacher who taught Molina social studies and math for two years.

Liles said she had taken a frightened Molina into her home a year ago when she showed up on Liles' doorstep, 4 1/2 months pregnant. Molina often talked about family discord over her pregnancy, she said.

At the wake and funeral for Armani, Liles said, Molina sobbed uncontrollably.

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