When an emergency dispatcher answered the first 911 phone call from a home in San Diego’s Paradise Hills community on Saturday morning, nobody was on the other end of the line.
But an argument was heard in the background, police said.
The second call was from a relative next door, who reported hearing what sounded like the pop-pop-pop of a nail gun.
San Diego police officers arrived, looked through a window and saw a 3-year-old boy covered in blood. They broke in, and soon all the horrible facts came together.
A domestic dispute, a gun and five dead from the same family, three of them boys under the age of 12. Another boy was in the hospital in critical condition Saturday night. Their names have not been released.
“A senseless tragedy,” San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said.
The couple at the center of it were estranged, according to police, and the 29-year-old woman had obtained a temporary restraining order against the 31-year-old man one day earlier.
It’s not clear whether he had been served with the papers, but police said they believe he was aware of the order.
Their conflict had brought officers to the house at least once before, two weeks ago, when the man came over to retrieve tools. Saturday morning he showed up again, and the shootings occurred about 7 a.m.
Police said they found the man, woman and their 3-year-old son dead at the scene. The other sons, ages 5, 9 and 11, were taken to the hospital. Two died.
Police initially identified the 11-year-old as the survivor but later said they weren’t sure yet which boy was which.
Police said the man shot the others and then turned the gun on himself. It was found at the scene.
“It appears to be a tragic case of domestic violence murder-suicide,” homicide Lt. Matt Dobbs said at a news conference Saturday afternoon.
It unfolded in a working-class neighborhood of single-story stucco and wood-sided homes that date to the 1940s, built to accommodate a World War II population boom.
The woman and four children lived in a granny flat adjacent to a house occupied by members of their extended family.
Neighbors said theirs is the kind of street where the kids all get together after school and on weekends, riding bikes and scooters, playing tetherball and shooting baskets at a curbside hoop.
“It’s like ‘The Sandlot,’” Jhoana Cruz said, referring to the 1993 movie about a group of baseball-playing boys. “Everybody knows everybody.”
She agonized over whether to tell her boys about the shootings.
“But I had to,” she said. “Lots of horrible things happen in the world, and it’s better to hear it from me, I guess.”
Another neighbor, Gabriel Durazo, said he often saw the children from the granny flat riding their bicycles or playing with a dog.
“They were just living the kids’ life on the outside, but who knows what goes on behind closed doors,” he said.
Two neighbors who declined to give their names said they sometimes heard the voices of adults arguing in the granny flat.
One said the slain woman had confided to her months ago that she was being abused “but she felt like she had nowhere else to go.”
Police said they are still investigating the couple’s history.
During the earlier call, on Nov. 1, officers were there to “preserve the peace” when the man went to get tools from the house, they said.
“The tragedy today in Paradise Hills is terribly sad,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer said via Twitter. “All of San Diego mourns for the family and the surrounding neighborhood. This senseless act of violence goes against everything our community stands for and we will get through this together.”
Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, who represents Paradise Hills, said in a statement that her office was mourning “the unfathomable tragedy” alongside all San Diegans.
“As this story makes national headlines,” she said, “we all grapple with the horror of the loss of these precious lives.”
Wilkens and Davis write for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Staff writer Pauline Repard contributed to this report.