Allegations by Los Angeles police that "Shield" actor Michael Jace shot his wife to death at their Hyde Park home Monday night shocked longtime neighbors who described the couple as loving and friendly, but it isn't the first time he's faced accusations of domestic violence.
Law enforcement sources told the Los Angeles Times that Jace confessed to fatally shooting his wife, April, multiple times around 8:30 p.m. Monday at their home in the 5400 block of Brynhurst Avenue. April Jace, a well-liked financial aid employee at Biola University, had walked in the door just 10 to 15 minutes earlier after picking up the couple's sons from baseball practice.
Los Angeles police said in a statement that the motive for the shooting "is believed to be domestic violence" — an accusation levied against Michael Jace nearly two decades ago when he divorced his previous wife, Jennifer Bitterman.
In court documents she described one instance in which she said Michael Jace threatened to kill her if they went to “war” over his visitation rights of their son. In the divorce filing, Bitterman painted a portrait of her husband as temperamental and unreliable.
In another filing, a longtime friend of Bitterman's described a violent incident she said she witnessed between the couple.
The woman told the court she was in the room when Michael Jace “choked and hit” Bitterman and “slammed her against the wall while [her son] screamed in his crib next to her.” The child was 6 months old at the time.
The friend added she saw at least three more incidents of violence in the eight months she lived with the couple between 1996 and when Michael Jace filed for divorce in 1997.
It was not the same picture painted by Jace's neighbors in Hyde Park, who on Tuesday said they never saw or suspected any violence in the home.
"All I heard coming out of that household were giggles," said Shirley Harding, who has lived next door for about 12 years.
She added that the couple always appeared to be in good spirits.
"They were always hugging and kissing each other," she said. "Both were great parents."
That sentiment was shared by most neighbors, who said they often saw Jace walking his German Shephard named Max and his two children on the street.
"He's a very good dad who always played with his kids," said Brandon Cook, 35.
But behind the giggles and dog walks, Michael Jace, 51, was under financial stress.
The actor filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection in March 2011, when he listed his liabilities at more than $500,000 against assets of $325,000, according to federal court records.
At the time he was more than $22,000 in debt to the government, more than $16,000 in debt to credit card companies and still owed on two mortgages.
Cook said Michael Jace struggled to find steady work after "The Shield" stopped airing a few years ago, and he noticed that the family downgraded to less expensive cars.
"It was apparent," Cook said.
The actor appeared to have been keeping up with his payments until late last year, when one of his creditors filed a motion stating the actor had fallen behind by about $2,800, according to the federal court records.
On Monday, Harding said she saw Michael Jace quickly pull his gray van into the driveway, leaving his front door ajar.
Shortly after, as she was washing her car, she heard a popping noise.
"I wasn't sure if it was a gunshot, but then I heard two more popping noises and I ran into my house."
Other neighbors reported hearing the couple arguing just before the shots rang out, KNBC-TV reported.
Los Angeles police say the couple's two sons, both under 10, were home at the time of the shooting, but were physically unharmed.
Michael Jace was standing in the doorway unarmed when police arrived. His wife's body was found in a hallway inside the home, police said.
As police continued to investigate the pink stucco house Tuesday, neighbors were forced to confront two incredibly different narratives of the family they thought they knew.
"They were like the Huxtables on the block," Tonja Edwards, 42, said. That Michael Jace might have killed his wife "in cold blood like that, really leaves us all puzzled," she added.
The shooting also shocked Biola University, where April Jace was a well-liked financial aid worker.
University President Barry H. Corey issued a statement Tuesday saying the La Mirada campus was “obviously shocked and saddened by this terrible news, to lose a wonderful colleague, mother and friend.”
The couple's two sons were staying with family members as the investigation continued. In addition to the two sons she had with Michael Jace, April also had an older son from a previous relationship.
"I'm heartbroken," Cook said. "My prayers go out to the family and for those kids because they don't have their mom or their dad anymore."