One by one, Diana Lumbrera buried each of her six children, weeping and fainting as the tiny bodies were lowered into the ground, begging on her knees for her little ones to come back.
Each of the children died before his or her 5th birthday, and doctors ascribed each death to natural causes. Diana Lumbrera knew better than that; she had been cursed by her former mother-in-law, she said.
But now, authorities say the children’s deaths were neither natural nor supernatural. They say that Diana Lumbrera, 32, killed her offspring.
She has been convicted of killing one 4-year-old son; she faces charges that she killed three daughters, a son and the daughter of a cousin; authorities are investigating the death of another son.
Still, her friends and family insist that a terrible mistake is being made.
“She was a loving mother and she took care of those children,” said her aunt, Elodia Flores. “She worked hard every day and made those children No. 1. in her life. I just don’t believe she killed those children.”
Joanna Garza, age 3 months, died Nov. 30, 1976. The cause of death: “strangulation due to asphyxiation due to convulsive disorder.”
Jose Lionel Garza, 2 1/2 months, died Feb. 13, 1978. The cause of death is listed as undetermined.
Melissa Garza, 3, died Oct. 2, 1978, The cause: “asphyxia due to aspiration of stomach contents.”
Erica Aleman, Lumbrera’s 6-week-old cousin, died Oct. 8, 1980. Medical records are missing.
Melinda Ann Garza, 2, died Aug. 17, 1982. The cause is listed as “heart failure due to increased taxation on a case of congenital heart disease.”
Christopher Daniel Lumbrera, 5 1/2 months, died March 28, 1984, of what doctors said was septicemia--a fatal infection of the blood.
Jose Antonio Lumbrera, 4, died May 1, 1990. The cause of death was listed as “asphyxia due to smothering.”
For 14 years, as Lumbrera’s children died one after another, law enforcement authorities in Texas suspected nothing. The death certificates gave them no reason to be suspicious.
Then authorities in Garden City, Kan., where Lumbrera had moved, were handed a murder case. Doctors there attributed Jose Antonio’s death to smothering, and a jury agreed in October, taking just three hours to convict Lumbrera of murder. She was sentenced to life in prison.
The Kansas charges prompted a massive investigation into the other deaths, resulting in the five murder indictments in three West Texas counties.
“A death certificate may say death due to heart failure. Everyone who dies suffers from heart failure,” said Parmer County Dist. Atty. Johnny Actkinson, who will prosecute Lumbrera in an upcoming trial.
“The question is, what caused the heart failure?”
Actkinson says there was no cover-up; instead, he suggested that those who issued the death reports probably did not want to think the worst.
“Those kids’ deaths were such a horrible state of affairs that no one considered a mother would murder her own children. So the doctors look for another way to explain it. I am not being critical. It’s just human nature.”
Lionel Garza, Lumbrera’s second husband and father of four of the dead children, says he was shocked by her conviction in Jose Antonio’s death.
“All my life I lived thinking my kids died of natural causes. Now all the doors of question are open and the pain is rushing back in,” he said.
Still, Garza--who filed for divorce from Lumbrera in 1980, two years after their third child’s death--apparently harbored suspicions about his wife, according to authorities acquainted with his grand jury testimony.
“Lionel was suspicious of Diana after the third death,” said Bovina Police Chief Gary Coleman. “Especially since he said he was playing with the child (Melissa Garza) early that morning before going to work.
“He said the child was healthy and he didn’t detect anything wrong. Thirty minutes after he arrives at work, he’s called and told the child has died.”
Garza said the allegations against his wife “gave me a lot of anger. But now I just want the truth. I want to know if she killed my babies.”
Virginia Bribiesca, Lumbrera’s sister, says she was there when Garza’s mother cursed her, telling Lumbrera her children would die at their mother’s hands. “I heard the woman say it,” she said.
Garza denies that it ever happened. His wife “never said anything to me about the children being cursed by my mother,” he said.
Parmer County Deputy Sheriff Richard Bonham, who helped lead the investigation into the deaths of Lumbrera’s children in Texas, says the witchcraft argument is irrelevant: “In our investigation, that holds no water for defense of what she has done.”
But those who know Lumbrera--a frail former meatpacker--say there is no doubt that she believes in the supernatural.
Maria Antillon, a close friend, said the defendant is high-strung, emotional and frequently talks about her fervent belief in spiritual healers and curanderos -- witchcraft doctors prevalent in Latino culture who have the power to bless or curse a person’s life.
“She told me several times about witchcraft and things she believed in like curses and things like that,” Antillon said. “She used to tell me that she felt her mother-in-law had cursed her. She said if you believe in the curanderos they will get to you. If you don’t, they won’t.”
Antillon is one of Lumbrera’s defenders.
“Diana went to church every Sunday when she lived here,” she said. “Everybody liked her. She wasn’t the type of person that would get in trouble with a neighbor. I never heard that she had gotten into an argument with someone else. And she loved her kids.”
Her aunt, Elva Hernandez, notes that Lumbrera suffered from polio when she was a child. “Diana was often sick when she was young. How can they just disregard that the kids could have died because of sickness?”
Other friends and family members are suspicious of authorities’ motives in pressing the case. Robert Olvera, 33, Lumbrera’s cousin, says the police have actively pursued the case because the defendant is Latino.
“You think this would happen to a Diana if she was white? No way. Absolutely not,” Olvera said.
“The police are just looking for publicity, if you ask me,” he said. “That is the only way you can explain all this coming out so many years later. The doctors ruled the children died of natural causes.”
Bribiesca fears that the Kansas conviction will doom her sister in Texas.
“She didn’t get a fair trial” in Garden City, said Bribiesca, who resides in Kansas. “Before this, I think she could have gotten one in Texas, but not now. Not after this. They’re going to think she killed all her kids. But Diana’s not going to give up, I’ll tell you that.”
In late January, Lumbrera faces trial on murder charges in Parmer County in the deaths of Joanna, Melissa and Melinda; the grand jury said she smothered the three children to collect $15,000 in life insurance benefits.
She also faces separate trials in Lubbock and Bailey counties in the deaths of Jose Lionel and Erica Aleman. An investigation into the death of Christopher Lumbrera continues. If she is convicted in any case, she could face either life in prison or the death penalty, administered by lethal injection.
Gordon Green, Lumbrera’s lawyer, would not allow her to be interviewed.
“It’s not an everyday case,” said Green, refusing to comment further.
Lumbrera is being held in the Parmer County Jail on $300,000 bond. Fifteen miles away, at the Bovina Cemetery, elaborate headstones stand over the graves of five of Lumbrera’s children.
Each bears the same epitaph: “Darling, we miss thee.”