Sunday, April 09, 2006

A Grief Preserved

From: Los Angeles Daily News

Despite its five bedrooms and view of the Pacific, this sprawling hilltop home feels like a prison to Dr. Xavier Caro.

It is here that his then-wife, Cora, lost in their loveless marriage, ended three young lives and shattered his.

Now he's trapped in the Santa Rosa Valley north of Thousand Oaks by pride and a court order.

After Cora was convicted of murdering three of their four sons and sentenced to death, the trial judge ruled that her share of the couple's affluence should be used to pay for the two public defenders who represented her. Ventura County billed her $307,000.

But Dr. Caro, a prominent Northridge rheumatologist, has fought the county, arguing that the woman he divorced forfeited her wealth when she destroyed their family.

And so he stays in his house - their house - to prevent the county from enforcing its lien against the property.

"There are no words," Caro said recently over coffee in his kitchen. "There are no experiences that compare. Only a parent who has lost a child can empathize. To have that act triple is even more painful.

"To have the perpetrator be someone who is so close to you and to have accusations that you were the cause be aired in public is even more painful.

"Having the county ask you to pay the tab for that humiliation is just beyond words."

The house is tastefully furnished with an antique piano and a gorgeous leather chess table. Chess, photography and Caro's medical practice keep his mind busy.

He lives here with Gabriel, the only son who survived the 1999 shootings, and the belle he plans to marry in June.

But now he has to decide if he will subject his fiancee to living in a beautiful home with monstrous memories or if he'll sell the residence and risk losing the money.

The Caros' assets are still tied up in family court. California's community-property laws entitle Socorro "Cora" Caro to half, but her ex-husband won a $45 million wrongful-death suit against her. A judge is deciding who will get what.

Technically, the county is trying to collect from Cora Caro. A judge prevented her from spending $500,000 on a private attorney because Xavier Caro had filed for divorce after the boys' deaths.

The Public Defender's Office spent 3,350 hours defending her. One of their arguments was that Dr. Caro killed his kids and framed his wife.

"I don't mean to be tunnel-visioned," Public Defender Ken Clayman said recently. "But the county spent a fortune on her defense and deserves to be reimbursed for it."

The laws are clear, Clayman said: Half of what was theirs is hers.

"My sense is Cora isn't entitled to anything," counters Xavier Caro. "That is where the moral argument trumps technical argument."

Caro is a small, fit man, with a confident air, gray hair and tanned skin. He was the family breadwinner; she was his office manager.

Cora helped balance his profession, but early on she made his personal life a soap opera, he says.

She was prone to violent eruptions - both at home and at work - and she eventually drove him into the arms of another woman.

On the night of Nov. 22, 1999, they had a typical fight. Cora blew up, Xavier stormed out.

He returned home three hours later, climbed the stairs to the second floor and found his wife face down. She had shot herself in the head.

"Are there children in the house?" the 911 operator asked him.

He hadn't thought about it. The house had been so quiet, Cora so still. He found Joey first, and then ran to the room Michael and Christopher shared. Each had been shot.

"Michael was still alive, but he was in his last moments," Caro recalled. "When I picked him up, his skull came off in my hand."

Only Gabriel, then just 13 months old, was unharmed.

Sheriff's deputies and paramedics arrived and found Caro's wife breathing.

She recovered and stood trial in 2002. She was convicted and sentenced to death, which she is awaiting at the California Correctional Facility for Women in Chowchilla.

Xavier Caro quickly filed for divorce and sued for the wrongful death of Xavier "Joey" Jr., 11; Michael, 8; and Christopher, 5. The suit was stayed, pending the conclusion of the murder trial.

Before Caro won the largest judgment ever issued in Ventura County, the Public Defender's Office filed a motion to be paid for its work.

"What she did, as horrible an act as it was, doesn't affect her property rights," said Matthew Smith, an attorney for Ventura County. "No one is asking him to pay for her lawyers.

"What we are asking is that she pay for her lawyers."

The county won its judgment first and placed a lien on the Santa Rosa Valley home and the couple's vacation cabin in Northern California.

The bill, with interest, has grown to about $410,000.

Dr. Caro and Prisoner No. 13 are legally divorced.

Caro won't sell the house until Judge John R. Smiley divides their assets. If he sold first, the equity from the house would be locked in an escrow account, which is what happened when the city of Waterford enacted eminent domain on his vacation property two years ago.

The Santa Rosa Valley house has been described in news accounts as a mansion.

It was this man's mansion, but by Southern California standards it was simply a beautiful abode - 4,800 square feet that overlook the exclusive and expensive valley, where a street sign greets drivers and cautions "Children and Horses at Play."

The Caros paid $672,500 for it in 1993. It came with privacy, sweeping canyon vistas and a picturesque view of the Channel Islands framed by the valley walls.

"It's a very lovely neighborhood. We don't have any trouble here," Darlene Dickinson, who lived nearby, told the Daily News after the murders.

Not until four years later could Xavier Caro sleep here. He spent six months in a hotel and then rented a house in Westlake Village.

He was trying to escape the horrors, but he couldn't stop the flashbacks - the silence of a still house, Cora's bloody handprint on the wall, the boys' bodies neatly tucked in their beds and resting on bloody pillows.

Caro, 58, and Gabriel, now 7, continue to receive counseling each week. "The Boy," as Caro refers to his surviving son, was diagnosed with anxiety caused by early separation from his family.

His father often shares stories of his brothers but hasn't yet told Gabriel what happened to them.

"He feels his brothers are still around," Caro said. "Sometimes he tells me he talks to them."

Their pictures remain throughout the house, which Caro almost lost in July 2003 when Ventura County scheduled it for auction. But once the county learned Caro and his son had returned earlier that year, it decided not to move for eviction and called off the sale.

They've been stalemated since, with the county offering undisclosed settlements and the doctor holding out on principle.

"It doesn't look like I am going to prevail against the county," Caro said. "But I personally feel this is so morally wrong I have to say something."

Along the road to recovery, Caro met Ruby Monje. She moved in and brought her daughter.

Stephanie, 7, and Gabriel share the bedroom where Michael and Christopher slept. Joey's room has been turned into a study and game room.

Caro wants more children and he believes Monje, who is in her late 20s, will be a good mother. He's at peace with the house and could stay there indefinitely. But she's not.

"It would be healthy for all of us to move to another home and start anew," Monje said.

"We want a stable environment where our children are going to be happy and safe."