FRESNO — Lance Cpl. Robert Quiroz was in Kuwait about to deploy to Iraq last August when his wife and high school sweetheart, Candice, suffered a brain aneurism following the birth of their son, Roman.
He scrambled back to Fresno to find his wife being kept alive on life support so he could say goodbye.
"On August 21, 2006, my whole world ended," Quiroz, 20, wrote on his MySpace Web page. "Just because you see me smile and you see me laugh doesn't come close to the way I feel inside. I will never be as happy as I was until I'm with my wife again."
His site was a shrine to Candice. But nowhere in that final posting did Quiroz appear to take any comfort in his two young children, 14-month-old Kylie and the infant Roman, whose birth was Candice's final legacy. There's only grief, anger and a sense of increasing isolation.
Last Saturday, police found Roman Quiroz dead and arrested his father on suspicion of killing the baby.
As the case unfolded this holiday week, it left family, friends and Fresno-area authorities stunned and wondering what they missed, how they failed and whether the baby's death could have been prevented.
"This is just devastating," said Catherine Huerta, acting director of the Fresno County Department of Child Protective Services.
Her department is now under scrutiny for returning Roman to his father's custody in October after the infant suffered a broken arm that doctors and police investigators suspected was the result of physical abuse.
"You make the decision with the information you have, but this makes you question everything," Huerta said.
Quiroz was charged Wednesday with murder. His daughter, Kylie, remains in the care of the county; Quiroz's sister-in-law has petitioned to assume custody of the girl.
The case has resonated both in Fresno and the nearby farming town of Caruthers, where Robert and Candice grew up and fell in love.
"I really don't think he had a strong support system," said Olivia Vallejo, 17, a longtime family friend of Quiroz's from Caruthers. "I think maybe everyone was expecting too much of Bobby."
Quiroz's grief was evident in early September when he gave an interview to KPMH-TV about his wife's death three weeks earlier.
The baby-faced young Marine seemed shell-shocked, overwhelmed by grief and his new life as a widower with two young children.
"I never expected her to go this early. And now it's just me with these two kids -- they're a handful, especially Roman over there," he said. "It's really hard right now."
In one shot, Quiroz awkwardly cradled baby Roman. Nicole Garcia, the reporter who conducted the interview, said this week that he had to be urged to hold his own son.
"I don't know how to feel around him," Quiroz said in the interview. "There are feelings inside of me that I kind of want to push him away. But he's my son, and my wife gave him to me."
The only time Quiroz seemed to brighten up and crack a smile was when discussing his late wife -- recalling how he and Candice met one day on the school bus.
He was a football player and Candice a cheerleader; the day they met, he was so smitten that he skipped football practice to spend more time with her.
When Quiroz transferred to another high school in nearby Fresno after his sophomore year, the pair kept in touch -- finally becoming a formal couple the next year. From that point on, friends said, they were inseparable.
After graduation Quiroz joined the Marines, mainly to earn a steady income to support his young family, said Olivia Vallejo's older brother L.J. Vallejo, who was a friend of Quiroz.
Candice gave birth to Kylie last year and the couple were married in January in a simple ceremony. Quiroz was saving his money to give his wife a more lavish wedding, L.J. Vallejo said.
Quiroz was in Kuwait with his Marine unit when he received word that Candice had suffered a brain aneurism shortly after giving birth. In his MySpace blog, Quiroz details a frantic two-day return to Fresno to find Candice being kept alive by machines.
"I laid next to her on the same bed, holding her hand and talking to her all night," he wrote. "The hardest thing I ever had to do in my whole life was saying goodbye to my wife and closing the casket."
Olivia Vallejo recalled seeing Quiroz at the hospital after Candice died.
"He really had no emotion on his face. He looked like he was holding it all in," she said. "You couldn't tell what he was thinking.
"When he lost Candice, he lost everything," she added. "The way I see it, they were meant for each other. They were soul mates."
After his wife's death, Quiroz, a communications specialist, transferred to a Marine reserve squadron in Fresno in order to be close to his family and care for his children. His first and only week of work at the squadron was the week of Nov. 13 -- days before Roman died.