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Custody battle may have spurred girls' deaths

Mother, grandmother and two children are shot to death after a judge indicates he will give custody to the girls' aunt.

December 18, 2009|By My-Thuan Tran
  • Elizabeth Fontaine was shot in the torso.
Elizabeth Fontaine was shot in the torso. (Department of Motor Vehicles )

When Elizabeth Fontaine appeared in an Orange County courthouse Monday morning, she broke out in tears and pleaded with the commissioner to grant her custody of her two little girls, the latest chapter in an increasingly bitter custody battle with her estranged husband.

It was a harbinger. The woman, her daughters and their grandmother died later that day.

After listening to Fontaine, the commissioner indicated he was inclined to give temporary custody to her husband's sister. He ordered Fontaine to bring Catherine, 4, and Julia, 2, to the courthouse at 1:30 p.m., according to court records. The court broke for lunch and Fontaine left the courthouse.

But when the court reconvened, Fontaine and the girls were nowhere to be seen. A frenzied search was launched.

Jason Fontaine and his lawyer, John York, were worried that Fontaine had grabbed the children and planned to flee to Houston, where Fontaine had recently moved. They asked Jason's sister, Stephanie Laren, to head to John Wayne Airport to see if they were there and to try to stop them, custody order in hand, York said.

The sister could not find Fontaine or the girls at the airport, and no one in the courthouse knew where the distraught mother had gone.

But Kevin Herbert, her former neighbor, knew. Fontaine had been staying at his upscale San Clemente home, with her mother and daughters, while attending the custody hearing.

Early Monday afternoon, not long after the court commissioner had indicated how he planned to settle the custody dispute, Fontaine went to the San Clemente home. Herbert later told a neighbor, Rebecca Vandehei, that he had heard something in his house, became worried and suggested his wife get out of the residence.

Herbert called 911 around 1:30 p.m. and told the Orange County Sheriff's Department that he was concerned about a family dispute, said Jim Amormino, a spokesman for the department. Herbert told authorities that he feared that there was a gun at the house.

A deputy responding to the 911 call pulled up to the house on Calle Sonador. Amormino said the deputy reported seeing Fontaine's mother, Bonnie Hoult, standing on the curb, holding hands with Catherine, the 4-year-old.

When Hoult saw the deputy, she walked briskly toward the open garage, and the deputy followed, Amormino said. Hoult walked into the house and tried to slam the door shut, but the deputy was able to shove her foot through the crack. Hoult pushed the deputy's foot out of the way and locked the door.

Seconds later, Amormino said, the deputy heard gunshots.

When they got inside, investigators found the bodies of Hoult, 67; Fontaine, 38; and her daughters in a hallway on the second floor. All had been shot in the upper body. Investigators said the deaths appeared to be homicides and a suicide.

As the violence played out in San Clemente, Jason Fontaine and his lawyer waited in Commissioner Thomas H. Schulte's courtroom for Fontaine to appear with the children.

A court official took York into the court's chambers and told him that four bodies had been found in the San Clemente home. Jason Fontaine broke down when the attorney informed him, York said.

In the house, a .357-caliber revolver was recovered. Investigators later discovered that it was registered to Hoult, the grandmother, but said it hasn't been determined who fired the shots.

Gunpowder was found on both women's hands, Amormino said. When the women fell to the floor, their hands were touching, transferring the residue, he said.

Sheriff's officials are conducting forensic tests, including fingerprints and DNA.

"We have no definitive answer to who fired the gun," Amormino said. "Anything is pure speculation because we do not have any of the scientific evidence back yet."

Hoult purchased the gun a year ago when the family was living in Orange County, Amormino said. She and her daughter later moved to Houston. Fontaine's car was kept in Orange County, and the gun may have been stored in the car, Amormino said.

Jason Fontaine, who lives in Irvine, is trying to comprehend what happened to his daughters, York said. "He's angry. He's upset," York said. "He's sorrowful and distraught, all of those things."

In the gated San Clemente neighborhood, residents took stuffed animals and candles to the house in memory of the two girls.

my-thuan.tran@latimes.com

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