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Mother's Murder Case May Reveal a Family's Dark Side

Crime: Physician's wife is to be tried in shooting deaths of three sons. Her insanity defense is viewed as uphill struggle in conservative Ventura County.

August 20, 2001|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was a physician, an eminent specialist.

She was the model suburban mother, pitching in at her children's Camarillo school and pouring herself into activities at church.

To most who knew them, Xavier and Socorro Caro were a couple enjoying the fruits of hard work, faith and family in a million-dollar hilltop home.

But if their story illustrates anything, it is that even the iron gates of the most lavish estate can open wide for sadness, betrayal and deadly rage.

Demure, dark-haired Socorro Caro--known as Cora to friends--will stand trial on three counts of first-degree murder starting Wednesday in Ventura County Superior Court. Prosecutors contend that she fatally shot three of her four young sons as they slept. The youngest child, who was 1 at the time, was unharmed.

Her attorneys argue that it wasn't Socorro Caro who killed the boys and then turned the Smith & Wesson revolver on herself. In pretrial hearings, they have suggested that the person responsible for the slayings was Dr. Xavier Caro, 54, who has been cast in defense motions as "a chronic liar in all things regarding this case."

Socorro Caro, 44, has pleaded not guilty, later amending her plea to not guilty by reason of insanity. If convicted, she will be sentenced either to death or life in prison without parole.

The nature of the crime could make Caro's defense an uphill struggle, particularly in a conservative county where juries have not been inclined to embrace the insanity defense, experts said.

"People will feel for the kids, not for her," said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at Loyola University's law school. "When you're betrayed by the one person in the world who is supposed to be your protector, that is seen as the cardinal sin."

On the other hand, jurors also will weigh a number of factors that could sway them toward the defense. Allegations of abusive behavior and infidelity by Xavier Caro might evoke sympathy for a woman forced beyond the brink of rationality, Levenson said.

Suicide Attempt Could Help or Hurt Case

According to police, Socorro Caro shot herself in the head after killing her sons on the night of Nov. 22, 1999. If jurors accept the investigators' account, they might view an attempted suicide as evidence of insanity, Levenson said. Then again, prosecutors could persuade them that the attempt only proves how profoundly she knew the difference between right and wrong--a legal standard for sanity.

Socorro Caro underwent two brain surgeries after the shooting. She has told investigators she has no memory of the night that so dramatically changed her life.

Prosecutors, though, have compiled a grim chronology--a narrative hotly disputed by the defense.

They have painted a picture of a woman in severe emotional pain, distraught over her husband's brief affair with an employee and his plans to file for divorce. After an argument about disciplining one of their children, Xavier Caro left their home in the Santa Rosa Valley for a few hours of evening work at his medical office in Northridge, police said.

When he returned about 11 p.m., he discovered his bleeding wife on the floor of the master bedroom, the gun at her side. As he called 911 from a portable telephone, he found the bodies of his sons--Joey, 11; Michael, 8; and Christopher, 5--in their beds.

"I just went in the house," he told investigators. "It was really quiet. I was gonna go upstairs and make up."

Defense attorneys have suggested a far different explanation for the Caros' domestic tragedy.

Citing telephone records and the account of witnesses at Northridge Medical Plaza, they have tried to show that Xavier Caro returned to his home more than 45 minutes before dialing 911.

"He was in the house before the boys were killed and Mrs. Caro was shot in the head, and he exploded in a horrific rage," Socorro Caro's attorneys said in a court document. "That is what happened and the prosecutors could themselves prove it if they would even bother to look."

They also have pointed to lab reports showing that Xavier Caro had gunpowder on his hands and one of his son's bloodstains on his pants. Prosecutors contend he picked up the bloodstains while futilely trying to revive the boy. They say the powder residue came from his handling of the gun not long after it was fired.

Xavier Caro has denied any involvement in the shootings.

"It's very painful for him," said a friend, who asked to not be identified. "First, he lost his children--and now he gets accused of doing the crime."

Husband Lives With Surviving Son in Valley

Xavier Caro lives in the San Fernando Valley with his 3-year-old son, Gabriel. He still works each day at his medical office, where he specializes in rheumatology--the treatment of arthritis and related diseases.

The impending trial "does nothing but weigh on him," the friend said. "As a practicing Catholic and a physician, the death penalty is a challenging concept for him to face. Fortunately, it's one decision he'll be spared."

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