Some saw it in his silence, others saw it in his face. But they all saw the sadness in Bobby Blahnik.
His old high school friend Lawrence McDonald noticed it three months ago when the two men ran into each other outside Sorrento’s Pizza House in the seaside community of San Pedro. “He never spelled it out . . . but I could tell he was troubled,” McDonald recalled.
His aunt, Beverly Mraz, saw it a month back when the boy who used to never stop talking sat as quiet as could be during a family gathering, just holding onto his infant son, Kevin.
And Mraz’s son, Blaine, noticed it Sunday afternoon when he unexpectedly ran into his cousin, Blahnik, who was strolling with his two other boys by the beach, minutes before he allegedly shot and killed the boys and turned the gun on himself.
On Monday, they all struggled with those images--and with the other image they had, of the gentle, loving father who would never dream of hurting his boys.
Robert Blahnik, 34, of Long Beach lay in a hospital bed in critical condition from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound and under arrest in the shooting deaths of his two young sons, Ryan, 6, and Michael, 4.
The boys were shot to death about 4:30 p.m. Sunday on a rocky San Pedro beach just a 20-minute walk from the house where Blahnik grew up. At the time of the shooting, authorities said, Blahnik’s parents and wife Elizabeth were at the house with the couple’s 5-month-old son, waiting for him to return from what they thought was a short stroll on the beach.
Although the reason for the shooting was unclear, Los Angeles homicide detectives said Monday that they had recovered a lengthy note from Blahnik at the murder scene. Refusing to reveal its contents, Detective Steve Watson said only that the letter “did allude to despondency” by Blahnik, a crane mechanic who was said to have grown increasingly depressed about his work.
Still, family and friends said they found it almost impossible to believe that his work, or any combination of factors, could have driven Blahnik to commit the crime he will be charged with if he survives.
“He was a friendly guy . . . quiet,” recalled McDonald, who first met Blahnik when the two were 11-year-olds playing football. “Everybody really liked him.”
“A very loving guy. Very gentle,” is how Beverly Mraz described him. “He loved his wife very much. They had three beautiful children. He was a good father. He adored the boys.
“That’s why this is so hard. . . ,” she said.
Although police declined to discuss many details of the case, the following was culled from their reports and interviews with family and friends.
The couple and their three children were visiting Blahnik’s parents on Jackstadt Street in San Pedro when, sometime after 2 p.m., Blahnik left with his two older sons for a walk on the beach. Driving less than a mile along Paseo del Mar, he parked his car and took his sons along one of the chaparral and scrub brush trails that connect the bluffs and the beach.
On most summer days, the shoreline between Point Fermin and Royal Palms is populated by picnicking families and children running through shallow tide pools. This sunny day was no exception.
As he walked with his sons, Blahnik was met unexpectedly by his cousin, Blaine, 33, Beverly Mraz said. “He talked to [Blaine] for a minute . . . and then Bob said, ‘I’ll be seeing you, Blaine,’ ” Mraz said, recalling the account of her son.
Although the two young men spent only moments together, she said, Blahnik’s mood was clearly somber. “He didn’t look good and he didn’t want to talk,” she said.
No more than 30 minutes later, Blaine Mraz was one of many along the beach to hear a popping sound that resembled firecrackers.
Another person who heard the sound was Tommy Manzela, 37. Manzela, an acquaintance of Blahnik, lived in a home on the bluff just above the scene of the shooting.
First, Manzela said, he heard two shots. Then, a few minutes later, he and others saw a neighbor run frantically onto the street, waiting for the arrival of a patrol car. Within minutes, it was joined by half a dozen other cars and a Los Angeles Police Department helicopter.
On the beach below, firefighters pronounced the older boy, Ryan, dead at the scene. His brother died later at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, where Blahnik was hospitalized and put under arrest, a guard stationed at his room.
The shooting left even veteran officers shaken, Watson said.
“This is probably the most difficult [murder] case I have been involved in,” said the 15-year veteran of the department, who has been in homicide for five years.
Blahnik worked at Stevedoring Services of America for seven years. Five weeks ago, he switched from working nights to days.
“The entire crane department is very sad about this,” said Brian DeNike, acting foreman of the Long Beach crane shop, who declined to comment on Blahnik’s apparent dissatisfaction with his job. “He was a good mechanic and he’ll be missed. I won’t ever understand how he could’ve taken his sons with him.”
On the street where Blahnik grew up with two sisters and a brother, neighbors were stunned. “I couldn’t believe it,” Frank Bird, who has lived on the block 50 years, said as he spoke with neighbor Shelly Bowen about the shooting.
Peeking out the door of his home, Blahnik’s father said simply: “He was just a depressed person, that’s all I can tell you.”
And along the quiet sidewalks outside Blahnik’s own blue stucco home in Long Beach, neighbors huddled together, wondering aloud how to explain the loss of a father and two sons to their own children. One woman said she contacted a counselor to help her son deal with the deaths.
“If you were hating life, why would you take it out on your kids?” asked John Harris, 36, a construction worker whose sons Nicholas, 6, and Matt, 2, played regularly with Blahnik’s children.
Harris said he had watched Blahnik tumble into a deep depression during the past few months, since about the time his third child was born. Neighbors described Blahnik as dissatisfied with his job as a crane mechanic, and said he had been seeing a counselor to stave off depression.
“He was tired about work. Tired about the kids. Tired of everything,” Harris said.
But Blahnik appeared happy for the first time in months Saturday, as he watered the lawn while his two boys played in a wading pool in the yard, Harris said.
“I thought he was pulling out of whatever he was in,” Harris said.
Then, a day later, word of the tragedy spread through the tree-lined neighborhood of young families. When television news vans arrived at the house Monday morning, many residents still had not heard what happened.
“We thought they’d won the lotto,” said Robert Aboites, 28, a data processing manager, whose 9-year-old son played with Blahnik’s older boy. “This really hits home. You know these kids. You see them around.”
Residents said few of the adults in the neighborhood socialized with one another, but that children linked the community. Two or three evenings a week, groups of children, including the Blahnik boys, would roller-skate along the streets or play football in a neighbor’s yard.
As friends gathered Monday to console Elizabeth Blahnik, a yellow plastic seesaw, a beach pail and other toys lay scattered on the pavement behind the house. Back at his aunt’s home in San Pedro, the only thing that kept Blahnik’s family together was the notion that he could not have done it. Not knowingly at least.
“My husband had it right,” Beverly Mraz said as she stood with her daughter, Paula.
“He said, ‘You know, the Bobby we knew, that was not the Bobby that walked those boys down the cliff.’ ”