What happened?

In life and death, questions about a Salvadoran family in Frederick remain unanswered


FREDERICK — He was shy, slender and serious-looking. He liked to work on his cars and adored his children. He walked the eldest two to school in the morning and came home directly after work to watch his kids. His wife didn't speak much to the neighbors but was a problem-solver at home. She was pretty; she had long, dark hair and a soft smile. She missed her family back in El Salvador. Together, they were raising sweet kids: a 3-year-old boy, who was sometimes a rascal, and three girls, ages 9, 4 and 1.

To those in Frederick who knew them, Deysi Benitez, 25, and Pedro Rodriguez, 28, and their children seemed, in many ways, like an average immigrant family, struggling and striving like so many others. They wanted a home, decent jobs, cars, a good set of pots. They worked hard, blended in, had typical dreams. Hints of trouble had seeped out over the years: a minor criminal charge, suggestions of domestic unrest, financial strains. But those signs hardly added up to the carnage discovered last week: The four children were found dead in their beds - three had been suffocated; the boy died of skull fractures. Rodriguez had hanged himself. Benitez is missing.

What happened, acquaintances and neighbors ask, as they piece together details, memories, strands of conversations. How could all those lives have ended so violently? What went wrong? Who were Benitez and Rodriguez, really?

The couple grew up together in Sensuntepeque, a small town in the mountains of north-central El Salvador. Sensuntepeque is so rural that until recently, when a dirt road was built, the only way to get in or out was by foot or horse, said Rosalinda Delgado, who initially met the family while working as a translator for several Frederick-area government agencies and later became a friend.

She does not know exactly what led the couple to emigrate, but in 1998 Rodriguez moved to Los Angeles, where his brother lives, and a couple of years later he sent for his future wife and their young child. The pair - legal residents who had "temporary protective status" granted to people from nations undergoing conflict - settled about five years ago near Benitez's sister in Frederick, a city of about 57,000. (Largely because of the job market, the Washington D.C. metropolitan area has the second-largest Salvadoran population - 550,000 people - in the country, said Ana Margarita Chavez, El Salvador's consul general in Washington.)

With a third- and fifth-grade education, respectively, Benitez and Rodriguez had limited reading skills and knew little English, Delgado said. Simple tasks, such as buying new car tires or opening a tamper-proof bottle cap, could be confusing. Sometimes they depended on their 9-year-old, Elsa, to translate, a neighbor said.

Though they sometimes foundered, the family seemed to be finding its way. She worked at several different restaurants, most recently Outback Steakhouse. He found a steady job with Masonite International Corp., a residential door manufacturing plant in Frederick. The couple married in 2002, court records show. A friend, Esmeralda Bonilla, 37, said the family attended St. John the Evangelist Church, a few blocks from their home. The church attracts a sizable Hispanic population because it offers mass in Spanish three times a week, according to the church's weekly bulletin.

The family was considered a success story at a local organization that helped them secure and pay for a home for the better part of two years, said Elizabeth Galaida, the executive director of Advocates for Homeless Families. As participants in a housing program, they received weekly visits from a case worker and went to English classes, an education goal they established for themselves.

"They were a happy family. They loved their children," Galaida said. "They were struggling in the beginning with English, but they improved greatly while they were with us." The couple even made it into the organization's 2004 annual report. "D.B. and P.R. learned English, paid off their debt, became a two-income household and graduated from the program early. They are now working on purchasing a home," the brochure reads.

Eventually, they did purchase that home. Delgado advised them against it; she thought it was too great a financial burden. But they were determined, and in 2005 they paid $195,900 and moved into a two-story beige condominium in a quiet neighborhood where the kids would ride bikes and run on the lawn. Some stray toys - a lavender scooter, a tiny jeep - still sit, deserted, on the family's patio.

Benitez spoke frequently to her mother and sister in El Salvador, reporting on her life and her kids' progress. Angel was jealous of his new baby sister. The 1-year-old was just starting to walk.

At one point, Benitez's mother suggested sending some of the children to live with her, but there was no way. Rodriguez, who was one of 11 and always wanted a large family, was far too attached to them, Delgado said.

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