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Is She a Bad Mother or Just Horribly Cursed?

Four of Sylvia Villarreal Cardenas' nine children have died in her care. Neighbors and officials in a Texas town debate her responsibility.

July 31, 2005|Michael Graczyk | Associated Press Writer

OZONA, Texas — Crockett County sheriff's deputies were accustomed to getting calls about disturbances at the corner of Peach and Willow streets.

Fights. Loud music. Drinking. Shouting.

This time the screams were different. A house trailer was afire, and two children were inside.

By the time firefighters responded to the April 11 blaze and put out the flames, the two-bedroom mobile home was gone. So were 10-year-old Felipe Villarreal and his 5-year-old sister, Belia Cardenas.

The siblings' deaths were the first home fire fatalities in some 60 years in this West Texas town of about 3,400. But they pushed to four the number of children Sylvia Villarreal Cardenas, 37, has lost, renewing questions about whether the mother of nine could be responsible for their deaths or just the unfortunate victim of terrible tragedies.

"All of these children died under suspicious circumstances while in the care of their mother," Lynn McFadden, a Child Protective Services caseworker, wrote in an affidavit submitted in June to State District Judge Brock Jones. "The only children of Ms. Cardenas that are still living are those who are not in her care."

The death of Cardenas' infant son, Raul Palacio, was investigated in 1985 after it appeared that he choked on a pacifier while left unattended in a vehicle. No charges were filed.

In 1989, Cardenas told authorities that her 2-year-old daughter, Juanita Palacio, died when she choked on a glass of water and drowned. CPS officials determined the girl had been physically neglected and placed two other children in the home with relatives of their father.

Cardenas was indicted for murder in her daughter's death. While awaiting trial, she delivered another child. CPS took custody of the little girl, who was later adopted.

Cardenas was acquitted after a weeklong trial in 1992, despite video testimony from her then 7-year-old son hinting that his mother might have drowned his sister in a bathtub. Cardenas' attorney argued the case was based on speculation.

She gave birth again the following year and, again, child welfare officials took the child away because of neglect. The infant boy was later adopted.

Cardenas was pregnant at the time of the trailer fire. She delivered her ninth child on June 28; CPS placed the girl in foster care before Cardenas left the hospital.

Cardenas, described as a divorced waitress with a history of prescription drug use, told a physician at the hospital: "I am going to keep having children until CPS lets me keep one to raise."

On a recent July day, no one answered the door at Cardenas' mother's house, where Cardenas now lives. A car covered with tarps was parked in an unkempt front yard that was littered with old car batteries, an old barbecue grill and an infant swing. In the concrete walk leading to the padlocked front door appeared to be the handprints of children, along with names and dates scratched in when the cement was wet.

The house is next to where Cardenas' trailer once stood. An extension cord was strung from the house to provide electricity, but authorities aren't sure if that's what caused the fire, said Steve Kenley, the county fire marshal.

"As far as the fire is concerned and what started it, we're pretty well stymied," Kenley said.

Cardenas told authorities she burned candles occasionally to provide light and, although she asked Felipe to not use them, she had found candles in the children's bedroom.

State arson investigators used a dog trained to find accelerants to sniff through the charred trailer, but results were negative. Kenley ruled, at least for now, that the cause of the fire was unknown.

Authorities are awaiting autopsy results on the children. District Attorney Laurie English declined to discuss case while the investigation was pending.

The woman's past, however, "makes you nervous about the whole thing," Kenley said.

Cardenas' behavior, both before and after the fire, has left many puzzled in her predominantly Latino neighborhood south of Interstate 10, which divides Ozona, about 200 miles west of San Antonio.

"Her demeanor was not like I would be," said Gracie Delgado, 36, who lived at the other end of Peach Street at the time of the fire. "She was just sitting, staring, not hysterically crying. But maybe that's her way."

Others in the neighborhood said much the same.

"The only thing I saw that was strange was she didn't cry," said Joanna Dominguez, 23, a mother of four who lives in a mobile home directly behind Cardenas' property.

The day after the fire, Cardenas surprised the people at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church by demanding an immediate funeral. The bodies of the children hadn't been released yet to a funeral home.

The church's pastor, the Rev. Serafin Avenido, was out of town and wouldn't return until the following day. Cardenas wanted the service immediately upon his return, he said.

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