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Custody dispute may have contributed to 4 deaths

After a judge ruled a woman would temporarily lose custody of her two daughters, police find the three dead in an apparent murder-suicide in a San Clemente home, along with the woman's mother.

December 15, 2009|By Tony Barboza
  • Mike Thompson, an Orange County sheriff''s investigator stands in the inner courtyard of the home on Calle Sonador. The family was staying with friends in San Clemente to attend custody hearings.
Mike Thompson, an Orange County sheriff''s investigator stands… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

A woman who died with her two young daughters and her mother in an apparent San Clemente murder-suicide had just learned she'd temporarily lost custody of the girls, according to court records.

Orange County sheriff's investigators said Elizabeth Fontaine, 38; her daughters Catherine, 4, and Julia, 2; and their grandmother Bonnie Hoult, 67, were found dead Monday afternoon in a home in the upscale Talega gated community.

Each had a single gunshot wound to the upper torso.

A handgun was recovered at the scene, but authorities said it's unclear who fired the shots.

The family was visiting Orange County for a hearing Monday during which Superior Court Commissioner Thomas H. Schulte temporarily gave custody of the two daughters to an aunt, and the mother was instructed to return the next day, according to court records.

The family was found in a hallway on the second floor after deputies arrived shortly before 2 p.m. Monday, said Jim Amormino, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Department. Their bodies were situated so close together they were touching.

"There's no question the two children were killed first, and one of the adult females is the killer, which is unusual by itself," Amormino said.

He said the girls' father is not a suspect in the case. "The father was nowhere near the crime scene," Amormino said.

Amormino said the family was in town from Houston for the custody hearing and was staying with friends Kevin and Leslie Herbert, who lived in the rented house on the small cul-de-sac with their young son.

An hour before sheriff's deputies came to the house on Calle Sonador, next-door neighbor Rebecca Vandehei, 43, said she heard a high-pitched cry from what sounded like a young girl and wondered what was going on.

"It was like someone was waking up from a nap or didn't like something," she said.

Vandehei said Kevin Herbert told her that he realized something was wrong, got out of the house and called police.

"He had heard something that bothered him and told his wife to leave," Vandehei said. "He heard them talking about some plans and shortly after that police came."

Investigators are awaiting autopsies, which should determine how each person died. If classified as homicides, they would be the first of the year for the city of 61,000 just north of Camp Pendleton, according to officials at the Sheriff's Department's San Clemente station.

In May of 2008, two young women, their parents and their grandmother killed themselves in their San Clemente home using Vicodin, sleeping pills, antidepressants and a gun. Police closed the case after a six-month investigation.

On Tuesday, investigators made their way in and out of the home and mourners placed flowers at a gate in front of the home, Vandehei said.

"I've been lighting incense since sunrise," she said. "It's the little girls that I think about. I'm a little spooked. It's nothing we would expect out here."

Times staff writer Robert J. Lopez contributed to this report.

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