L. A. Times

Wednesday, November 24, 1999

Mother Allegedly Kills 3 Sons, Shoots Self

Violence: Doctor's wife, a churchgoer and school volunteer, is listed in critical condition.

By MARGARET TALEV TINA DIRMANN, DARYL KELLEY, Times Staff Writers
Los Angeles Times

MOORPARK--The wife of a respected San Fernando Valley physician, described as a doting mother and active churchgoer, apparently shot and killed three of her children, then tried to kill herself with a gunshot to the head, Ventura County sheriff's officials said Tuesday.

Her distraught husband, Dr. Xavier Caro, 52, called police after returning to his ridge top home in the upscale Santa Rosa Valley at 11:20 p.m. Monday to find his three school-age sons dead from wounds to the head, authorities said. Their infant brother was unharmed.

Christopher Caro, 5, Michael Caro, 8, and Joseph Caro, 11, had been shot while they slept, investigators said. All of them were students at Santa Rosa Elementary School.

Their mother, Socorro "Cora" Caro, 42, was airlifted to Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, where a surgeon removed bullet fragments from her skull. She remains in critical condition, a hospital spokeswoman said.

"We're not looking for anybody. We're looking at this to be a domestic [violence case]," sheriff's spokesman Eric Nishimoto said. "It's pretty tragic no matter how you look at it."

Cora Caro was alert Tuesday, hospital representative Kris Carraway-Bowman said. But a sheriff's investigator posted in her room could not interview her because she had a breathing tube in her throat.

Her husband, who has been a staff physician in rheumatology at Northridge Hospital Medical Center for 20 years, was questioned at length Tuesday, but authorities said he is not a suspect.

Investigators were told that the couple had a history of domestic problems over a period of years, "but nothing that would rise to the level of warranting this kind of action," a source close to the investigation said.

The only firsthand account of what happened Monday night apparently is coming from Xavier Caro. Authorities said Cora Caro made a statement when he got home that implicated her, but by the time she got to the hospital, she couldn't remember what had happened.

Friends of the Caros and their neighbors on winding Presilla Road in the hilly valley between Camarillo and Moorpark said they saw no hint of trouble in the home.

The tragedy was felt with particular pain at Padre Serra Church, the Camarillo parish where the Caros were active members. Father Jarlath Dolan, the church administrator, said he spoke to Xavier Caro on Tuesday morning.

"Understandably, the man is shocked," Dolan said. "He is in pain. He is stricken by the loss of his children and the tragedy of the moment.

"They were a well-respected family and quite well-known and admired because of family unity," the priest said. Cora Caro was especially involved with her children, volunteering at school and at church, friends said.

"That is why it is such a shock," Dolan said. "There's no easy way to help people understand this. Events like this are such a surprise everyone seems at a loss."

Krystie Souza, whose family sat with the Caros every week at church, said there was no sign that the mother was troubled. "She's a wonderful person, wonderful with her kids."

Souza described the Caros as a "very happy family. We sat next to them at church the other night, talking and laughing."

Souza spent Tuesday morning in tears, figuring how to help her son cope with the loss of one of his best friends, Michael Caro. The boys attended religion classes together and were close friends at school. Along with a third friend, they were "the Three Musketeers," she said.

At Santa Rosa School, the small elementary school that is the center of community life in the valley, students gathering for a Thanksgiving celebration were told about the deaths of their classmates.

All morning, parents arrived with food for the feast, but their faces were somber.

"Every year it's a festive tone," Principal Craig Helmstedter said. "Obviously, that will change today."

A physical education teacher who taught the Caro boys said they were good students and happy children. They had no attendance problems and there were no signs of trouble at home.

"If I start to talk about it, I'll start crying again," she said. "It's just all such a shock. We're all still in shock."

Even before school started, four psychologists from the county arrived to counsel teachers and comfort students. The school was preparing a letter about the deaths of the boys to be mailed to parents today.

Along the ridge where the Caros lived, residents said they heard no shots Monday night.

They said they knew Xavier Caro from homeowners meetings. The Caros moved into the Canyon Ranch Estates in December 1993 after paying $672,500 for a two-story custom Mediterranean villa worth more than $1 million today.

"He was always extremely helpful, friendly, intelligent, just a super neighbor," said a nearby homeowner. She said she never met his wife.

Neighbor Tina Todd said that's not unusual in the community of large estates and custom homes, where the closest house is often hundreds of yards away. "In this neighborhood, you don't really know your neighbor."

Xavier Caro received his medical degree from UC San Francisco in 1973, joined the faculty at Northridge Hospital in 1978, and became an associate clinical professor of medicine at UCLA in 1988. He has published extensively and is a founding fellow of the American College of Rheumatology.

"Because he was with the hospital for so long, a lot of people knew Dr. Caro and his wife," said Andrea Bogdan, a Northridge hospital spokeswoman. "It's a tremendous loss for everybody."

Walking her pony Tuesday morning, Rose Sullivan paused to look down on the Caros' 4,800-square-foot home, a green oasis among the brown hills. Sullivan said her four children rode bikes and skateboards with the Caro boys.

"They were just like normal little boys," she said. "I still can't believe it. I'm just in shock. [My boys] are going to be very, very upset."

Sheriff's Sgt. Steven Bourke looked toward the Caros' home, bordered by a white wooden fence and crowded with sheriff's cruisers and coroner's cars. News helicopters circled above. The copters were the first sign to neighbors that something terrible had happened in their valley.

"Looking down the roadway at that beautiful house, it looks so pretty," Bourke said. "Then you see that wagon full of death coming."

Times staff writers Tracy Wilson and Caitlin Liu and Times Community News reporter Holly J. Wolcott contributed to this story.

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times.