CAMARILLO — The three dark-haired, bright-eyed brothers played together, laughed over movies together, wrestled together and always looked out for one another.
On Wednesday, Joseph, Michael and Christopher Caro were blessed by their family priest and then laid to rest together, in a funeral attended by about 1,000 family members, friends, schoolmates and parishioners.
The boys' mother has been arrested on suspicion of killing the three in their Santa Rosa Valley home.
"We are here to mourn the tragic loss of three lives," said the Rev. Jarlath Dolan before the audience seated in a circle beneath the expansive wooden dome of Padre Serra Church in Camarillo, the Caro family's parish.
Gazing at the boys' father, who sat ashen-faced in the front row, Dolan said, "You know you are remembered in our prayers." Xavier J. Caro is a prominent Northridge rheumatologist.
The traditional Catholic funeral Mass began with a procession of brown-robed altar girls and boys, followed by priests and three white caskets, with family members walking slowly behind them.
In his arms, Xavier Caro held his remaining son, 13-month-old Gabriel, who, with his dark, bright eyes, resembles his older brothers.
Gabriel was spared in the shootings that ravaged the Caro household the night of Nov. 22, when Joseph, 11, Michael, 8, and Christopher, 5, were found in their beds, each shot once in the head. Their mother, Socorro "Cora" Caro, was found in the master bedroom bleeding from what is believed to have been a self-inflicted gunshot wound to her head.
Cora Caro, arrested Tuesday on suspicion of the boys' murder, was recovering Wednesday at a Ventura hospital.
Between the choirs' soaring notes, the prayers, the Holy Communion and the Scripture readings, small reminders of the boys' lives bore silent witness to the muffled sobbing in the church.
Draped over each boy's coffin was the fancy white gown he had worn as a baby on his baptismal day. Tiny crucifixes and Bibles were placed on top, symbolic of how the brothers had an "appreciation of the Scriptures well beyond their years," Dolan said.
Three wreaths of white roses stood sentry-like at the foot of the altar. Joseph's roses surrounded an image of an open book, representative of his curiosity, thoughtfulness and love of reading. He had been reading a Harry Potter book, which was buried with him.
The wreath for Michael, the popular, gifted athlete, was adorned with a tiny baseball bat, ball and mitt.
Pokemon-loving Christopher had a picture of Pikachu--the cartoon star of the movie he recently saw with his family--peering out from his wreath.
"Pain and suffering overtakes us all in this hour," Dolan said, but he reminded the congregation that the boys are now with God.
"Joseph, Michael and Christopher have changed their addresses," Dolan said. "The sadness of death gives way to the light of immortality." He dipped a sprig of evergreen into a basin of holy water and then shook it over each casket, sprinkling droplets.
Joining the ceremony was Bishop Thomas Curry of the Santa Barbara-Ventura region. "We commend these three boys to the glory of Christ," Curry said. He placed his hand on each coffin and observed moments of silence. "Let us ask God to comfort their family," he said.
Throughout much of the ceremony, Cora Caro's mother, Juanita Leon, wept inconsolably in the front row. She had helped take care of the boys as they were growing up and had been among the last to see her grandsons alive, those close to the family have said. The grandmother sat collapsed in her seat as the rest of her family stood up to recite prayers or to receive Communion.
After Mass, the boys were buried at Conejo Mountain Memorial Park in Camarillo.
Underneath a gloriously blue sky with wispy clouds, Christopher's coffin was stacked on top of Michael's, as if the two brothers were still in their bunk beds. Joseph was buried in the plot next to them.
The funeral "has been a healing process for us," said H.V. Shultz of Brawley, Xavier Caro's best friend from childhood.
Despite the tragedy, the Caros and the Leons have remained close, members of both families said.
A member of the Leon family has been helping care for Gabriel all week, and the Leons helped the Caros make funeral arrangements.
"The grandmother is still a grandmother," said Xavier Caro's brother, Raul. "All of us are going through a lot of pain right now."
"We remain together as a family to cope, and time will tell how things turn out," Raul Caro said.
But the Leons also continue to stand behind Cora, said David Leon, a cousin who grew up with her in Canoga Park.
Many relatives--not just Cora's immediate family, which includes her mother, father and an older brother, but also many uncles, aunts and cousins--have visited her in the hospital, Leon said, adding that he first visited her a week ago.
"She's coherent. Heavily sedated," Leon said of Cora Caro. "Her memories are scattered, but she knows that the boys are gone. Her heart is deeply, deeply hurt."
The family is in the process of helping Cora find an attorney, he added.
"There are a lot of unanswered questions right now," Leon said. "All we know is [Xavier and Cora] were fighting. I think it was a lot of marital stuff." But he added that the family had thought that the couple were on the rebound.
"Our family has surrounded Cora with great love and compassion for her," Leon said. "We will support her as a family."