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Mother in San Clemente murder-suicide had just lost custody of young daughters

December 15, 2009 |  5:13 pm

Authorities on Tuesday identified the four victims of a murder-suicide that took the lives of a mother, her two daughters and their grandmother in San Clemente on Monday.

Elizabeth Fontaine, 38, her daughters Catherine Fontaine, 4, and Julia Fontaine, 2, and their maternal grandmother, Bonnie Hoult, 67, were found dead Monday afternoon in a home where they were staying in a gated community in the upscale Talega community, said Jim Amormino, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

Each was shot and died of a single gunshot wound to the upper torso. A handgun was recovered at the scene, but authorities said it was unclear who fired the shots.

Officials are investigating the slayings as part of a child-custody dispute. The family was visiting Orange County for a hearing Monday during which Superior Court Judge Thomas H. Shulte gave temporary 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 lying together in a hallway on the second floor of the home after deputies arrived shortly before 2 p.m. Monday, Amormino said. 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 victims were in town from Houston for the custody hearing and were staying with friends Kevin and Leslie Herbert, who lived in the rented house on the small cul-de-sac with their young son.

Just 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 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 member of the family 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 on Calle Sonador, 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.”

--Tony Barboza and Robert J. Lopez