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Defendant's Teenage Son Recalls Saugus Fire That Killed His 4 Sisters

Court: Boy, 15, testifies that his mother, charged in the deaths, told him to remain in the kitchen after blaze began.

May 18, 2000|CAITLIN LIU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When David Nieves woke in the middle of the night, eyes burning and throat aching from the smoke, he asked his mother if he and his four younger sisters could leave the house.

But Sandi Nieves, on trial for capital murder, told him to remain in the kitchen, the 15-year-old boy testified Wednesday.

The smoke came from a fire Nieves had intentionally set and that killed all four of her daughters, authorities say.

"Why didn't you get out of the house?" Deputy Dist. Atty. Beth Silverman asked.

The teenager replied he had "believed" in the woman now sitting diagonally across from him in court.

"I did what my mother did, did what she told me to do," he said.

As the boy testified, he occasionally glanced toward his mother, then quickly averted his eyes from her. Wednesday marked the first time the mother and son have seen each other since the July 1998 fire at their Saugus home.

In the case before San Fernando Superior Court Judge L. Jeffrey Wiatt, Sandi Nieves is charged with four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Kristl and Jaqlene Folden, 5 and 7, respectively, and 11-year-old Rashel and 12-year-old Nikolet Folden-Nieves, who died from smoke inhalation. She also faces charges of attempted murder of David, and arson causing great bodily injuries.

The 36-year-old woman faces a possible death penalty if convicted.

The boy, who was 14 at the time of the fire, also said Wednesday he heard his sisters cough from the smoke, and one girl ask if she could go to the bathroom to throw up.

Their mother said no, to stay where she was and to throw up on the floor, the boy testified.

As the only survivor of the house fire other than the defendant, the boy's testimony is pivotal for prosecutors as well as the defense.

Prosecutors allege Nieves gathered her children in the kitchen and then started a fire in an effort to kill them and commit suicide. Nieves was desperate, angry and vengeful, they argued, toward the men in her life--including an ex-boyfriend who had dumped her and an ex-husband with whom she was engaged in a custody battle.

Deputy Public Defender Howard Waco contends that Nieves lacked criminal intent and has suggested that David--who cooperated with prosecutors before the trial but not his mother's defense--might have been the one who spilled gasoline onto the hallway carpet and started the fire.

When questioned by Waco, the boy said his mother told him and his sisters they were having a slumber party in the kitchen, a room containing a television, VCR, and several pets in a room the family also used as a den. It was something she had never done before, he said. The children watched movies and then fell asleep.

He was suddenly shaken awake in the middle of the night by his mother, he said, who told him there was smoke in the house.

"She told us to put our faces into the blankets, so we wouldn't breathe in smoke," said the teenager, as his mother sniffled audibly. "She told me to stay inside because the smoke could be coming from the outside."

He then passed out, he said. When he awoke later in the night he went to the refrigerator to drink some grape juice, he testified.

The open refrigerator door cast light into the dark room, and he saw his sisters lying on the floor with bubbles coming out of their mouths and their mother lying next to them, he said.

When he went to the bathroom, he noticed the door and the hall carpet were burned, he said, and realized there had been a fire inside the house.

The teenager said he did not try to wake his mother and sisters or call 911, explaining: "I normally don't do things without asking her."

Waco tried to portray Nieves as a doting and caring mother who regularly drove her children to piano lessons, athletic events and church activities but that her oldest child might have resented her because she was a strict parent.

Nieves made her children do chores, restricted their phone use and made the family move from Perris to Saugus, the boy said, adding that he had missed his old friends.

A week or two before the fire, the boy testified, his mother exhibited some unusual behavior. She allowed her children to dye or bleach their hair, he said, and she also got a tattoo of a cat on her chest.

On Wednesday, the families and friends of Fernando Nieves, the father of David and two older girls, and David Folden, father of the two younger girls who at one time had adopted the Nieves children before a bitter divorce from Sandi, packed the courtroom.

They declined to answer questions and issued a written statement urging that David's privacy be respected: "Remember that he is now a young man who has been through a tragedy, the magnitude of which no one, especially a child, should be forced to deal with in their lifetime."

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