MERCED — Wednesday afternoon was the kind of glorious spring day made for baseball practice. The Hoover Middle School seventh-grade team was on the field. The thwack of ball on bat rose in a gentle breeze along with the encouraging words of Coach Les Nordman. "Good drive," he told a player called Boomer.
It has been a week of nightmare and normalcy in Merced County. On Tuesday, a former sheriff's deputy took terrible vengeance on his ex-wife by shooting her four children to death and killing himself.
Nordman said he watched four people cry as they read newspaper accounts of the murders. He choked up when he got to the description of how the man was holding the body of the youngest, 5-year-old Michelle, when he turned the gun on himself.
"I'm at a loss," said Nordman, a fifth-generation farmer in the county. "I don't know if there is an answer. If you're religious or not, educated or not, this happens."
Merced County has in recent years experienced a series of multiple murders that could have been lifted from a Stephen King novel. There were the pitchfork murders, the Delhi decapitation, the Henson killings, and now this.
The string of grisly murders cannot be blamed on gangs or drugs or wanton greed. The carnage has for the most part been wreaked by family member on family member, perhaps once more proving that there can be no greater hatred than that born of love.
John P. Hogan, a private investigator and former Santa Clara County sheriff's deputy, apparently wanted more than anything to hurt his ex-wife, Christine McFadden, a well-known veterinarian who had three teenage children from her first marriage, as well as Michelle from her recent marriage to Hogan.
While McFadden was out on her usual morning walk with a friend before work Tuesday, authorities say, Hogan pulled up to her house in a quiet, well-to-do neighborhood just outside of town. He entered through the garage, and with his .40-caliber Glock pistol, went from bedroom to bedroom, shooting Stanley, 15, and Stuart, 14, as they slept.
He then encountered Melanie, 17, in the hallway, apparently struggling with her briefly before killing her. His last stop was the master bedroom, where he left a letter and some biblical passages in the bathroom, shot his own daughter and then, while clutching her body, himself.
"How else would you be able to forever hurt your ex-wife than by taking away four of her most cherished items, her children?" said Merced County Sheriff's Cmdr. Mark Pazin.
He could barely stand to listen to the 911 tape of McFadden's anguished phone call to police after she discovered her oldest daughter's body. "My ex-husband has killed my children," McFadden screamed to the dispatcher, gasping and sobbing.
The letter Hogan left in the bathroom relates his unhappiness over the divorce and his inability to reconcile with McFadden. Just before the shootings, he called a friend--a deputy in the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department where he worked a decade ago--and said he was spent and "emotionally bankrupt."
Hogan and McFadden, who married in 1995, had been divorced about a year. Although McFadden complained of verbal abuse and obtained a temporary restraining order against Hogan in 1998, Pazin said investigators were not aware of any threats of violence.
"He just snapped," said Pazin, describing Hogan as a loner who was not well known in town.
A local vet for nearly two decades, McFadden is the opposite.
"I feel like it was my family," said Nordman, who has taken dogs and cats to McFadden and likes her sensitive manner with animals. "When she grabs something, the animal just seems to relax."
Merced, he added, "is a very small community" where people seem to know everybody's first name.
Actually it isn't that small. Between Fresno and Modesto on California 99, Merced is a growing Central Valley city of 64,000, soon to be home to a new UC campus. But it still feels like a small town, where murders do not go unnoticed, particularly the sort that have been committed in the last few years.
"We've had a couple of incidents already that shocked us," said Craig Campos, a Pacific Bell technician, as he sipped coffee at a cafe in Merced's waiting-to-be-revived downtown.
In August 2000, an intruder broke into a rural Merced home and attacked three children with a garden pitchfork, killing two and injuring a third. Sheriff's deputies fatally shot him when he went after them. Authorities never discerned a motive.
A month later, a young man decapitated his mother in their family home in Delhi, about 20 miles north of here. Police discovered him naked, sitting in her blood. He was recently found competent to stand trial.
In 1998, a teenage boy killed his father, sister, half-brother and his father's girlfriend in a ranch house east of Merced. He pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 176 years in prison.
"These last 48 hours have been very difficult for the department," Pazin said, sitting in a Sheriff's Department office Thursday morning. "In law enforcement we usually have a reason for despicable acts--gang violence or carjacking. But these murders...."