Source AP ©

American dream of immigrant family ends as four children die in beds

As the search for the missing mother of four dead children entered a third day Wednesday, a portrait began to emerge of an immigrant family struggling to live the American dream.

Pedro Rodriguez and Deysi Benitez had faced language hurdles when they arrived in the far suburbs of Washington seven years ago from El Salvador. They worked menial jobs to pay a townhouse mortgage, took in a boarder and had a few run-ins with the law, including a shoplifting arrest over children's clothing.

The family's dreams ended this week with the four young children dead in their beds of unknown causes and the father hanging from his townhouse bannister.

Police were awaiting toxicology results to explain the deaths of Rodriguez, 28, daughters Elsa, 9, Vanessa, 4, and Carena, 1, and 3-year-old son Angel.

The preliminary autopsy ruled out shooting and stabbing for the children's deaths, Lt. Thomas Chase said. He said poisoning and suffocation are possibilities. Blankets had been pulled up over their heads.

Wednesday morning, authorities still had no leads to finding Benitez, the children's 25-year-old mother, and Chase said the search could become international.

"We are doing everything we can to try to locate her and, of course, first and foremost, to verify that she's OK," he said.

Before the bodies were found Monday, neighbors and co-workers said they had not seen Benitez for at least 10 days, and that neither the children nor Rodriguez had been seen for several days.

Benitez was in the U.S. under temporary protective status, similar to asylum, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Baltimore. The status of the other family members was being investigated.

When they first arrived, the couple and their oldest daughter lived in a rental unit with another Hispanic immigrant, Montenegro said.

He said they went through a number of apartments and jobs before buying their townhouse about two years ago. Real estate records list the purchase price at $195,900 (EUR146,774).

Benitez worked in fast-food restaurants, then took a job at an Outback Steakhouse a few blocks from their hillside condominium, neighbors said. Rodriguez worked at a Masonite International Corp. door manufacturing plant, according to company spokesman Larry Repar.

Oscar Velasquez, who worked with Rodriguez, described him as generally happy, calm and well-behaved. He said through an interpreter that any problems were in the couple's relationship.

There were signs of financial struggles in the home.

About a year and a half ago, the couple took in a boarder, renting a room to a man for two months before the birth of their youngest child.

Masonite, based in Tampa, Florida, has been through rounds of layoffs, though it was not immediately clear if any had been announced in Frederick.

Frederick police records also show officers were called to the townhouse eight times between March 5, 2006, and Monday. The calls were for a variety of reasons: noise, parking issues, disorderly conduct, a verbal dispute, and most were resolved without an arrest. A theft case is still open, according to the records.

Benitez had faced a charge of theft of less than $100 (EUR75), resolved last May when she agreed to do 24 hours of community service. Her attorney, Dino Flores, said she had tried to shoplift children's clothing. A few years earlier, she had been ordered to pay a $500 (EUR375) fine and spend a day in jail in another theft case.

"It may very well have been a woman in a very difficult situation trying to provide for her family," Flores said.

Flores, whose practice serves several Hispanic residents, said some immigrants who chase the American dream are not prepared for the expenses and end up in crushing debt.

Despite any difficulties, Frederick County Public Schools spokeswoman Marita Loose said the family's two oldest girls, who attended nearby Hillcrest Elementary School, were happy children.

Outside the townhouse Wednesday, small piles of stuffed animals, flowers, candles and children's crayon drawings pilled up at the base of trees in a memorial to their young lives.

One sign read in Spanish: "I'm sorry for your babies."