Houston Chronicle

July 3, 2001, 5:19PM

Woman recalls drowning kids in '86

By ROSANNA RUIZ
Houston Chronicle

Juana Leija says that when she loaded her seven children on a downtown bus with her one April day in 1986, she had no idea what she'd do next.

As they reached the banks of the Buffalo Bayou, one child asked if she had permission from their father to go on the what she thought was a picnic outing, Leija recalled during an interview today at the office of her former defense attorney, Dick DeGuerin.

She said her "mind was somewhere else" and she doesn't recall what order or how she even had the strength to toss her children into the bayou that day.

Leija explained that said she had not eaten well in days after repeated abuse from her husband Juan Leija left her with no appetite. She said he had badly beaten her the night before.

"I started to hear voices the day before that happened," Leija said.

She added that she started to feel "sick" after the birth of her sixth child and learned about a year later that she has a bipolar disorder.

"I found out later that I had a mental illness that I didn't know at that time. I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what it was," she said.

She tossed six of her seven children into the bayou.

Two died: Judas Dimas, 6, and Juana, 5.

Four were rescued, and one daughter Eloisa, then 9, ran away to seek help.

Leija said she has forgiven herself and more importantly she says, God has forgiven her too.

She said she takes comfort from the frequent contacts with her daughter Eloisa as well as Esther, one of the children who was rescued but who is now in a San Antonio institution.

Leija has since remarried and is a grandmother. Her daughter Eloisa has two children whom Leija said she helps cares for.

Leija said she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder while she was in a halfway house. The psychotic disorder is characterized by alternating periods of mania and mental depression.

She said she did not know she was sick; she just remembers being afraid that her husband would one day kill her. He had threatened her many times, she said.

She said she didn't much like her husband when the two met in their native Monterrey, Mexico, but after a short courtship, the two were married in 1973. She said she knew he was abusive even before they were married but said she felt trapped into marrying him.

The couple and 3-month-old daughter Esther moved to Houston about a year after they were married. Her husband continued to be abusive, she said, but with her family and friends back in Mexico, she felt like there was no one to turn to here.

Finally one day she did muster enough nerve to leave him. Two weeks later, however, she returned after prodding from a relative who insisted that her husband was distraught and had promised to change.

Pregnant with her second child, Leija decided she would go back home and give him a second chance, although she had doubts.

More years of abuse followed, Leija said, and she eventually felt as though she had no other option: She would have to end her children's lives to spare them. She could no longer care for them because of her illness, she said.

"I could never hurt them," she said. "Not even spank them. I did not plan it."

District Judge Jimmy James sentenced Leija to 10-years probation after she pleaded no contest June 18, 1987. The woman and her husband were divorced June 21, 1988. Leija said she has not seen her husband since those proceedings. After the court proceedings, Juan Leija denied he was abusive toward his wife.

"You can't have rancor against someone who has a mental illness," he said in a previous Houston Chronicle report about the trial. "I just hope God helps her."

Leija has not seen her other daughters in several years, she said. Three siblings, Esperanza, Rosa and Elvira, who were 4, 2, and 1 years old respectively at the time of the incident, were adopted together and remain in Houston.

Before they were adopted, Leija visited her daughters frequently, said Estella Olguin, a Children's Protective Services spokeswoman.

"The mom had contact, and we did a lot of visits, but the father not as much," Olguin said.

Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle