They are seven children without mothers.
One believes she is away at work. Another is angry, thinking his mother left him. The oldest, age 10, calls his grandmother and two great-aunts upon waking and before going to bed--just to be sure they're still there.
They are the children of two sisters caught in an alleged murder-for-profit plot aimed at one's prosecutor-husband. The botched scheme left one sister dead, shot by the intended victim, and the other in jail.
"How do you explain to a child that his mother's dead, killed by his uncle, and that his aunt's in jail?" said Jillian Segal, a great-aunt. "It's baffling."
Three of the children, ages 18 months to 4 years, belong to Nicole Garza, a Woodland Hills lawyer who police say hatched the plan to kill her husband, veteran Deputy City Atty. Jose Garza. The other four children, ages 2 1/2 to 10, belonged to Lynette LaFontaine-Trujillo, who police say tried to kill Jose Garza but who was shot by him instead.
Today, Nicole Garza remains in Sybil Brand Institute for Women, charged with her sister's murder, conspiracy and attempted premeditated murder. She has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The children, meanwhile, are living with their three fathers. Two great-aunts, sisters of LaFontaine-Trujillo's and Garza's mother, have emerged as the de facto mothers for LaFontaine-Trujillo's sons and remain strong links between the broken families. Known to the children as Aunt Jillian and Aunt April, they shuttle between the children's homes, attend school music recitals, plan birthday parties, buy winter clothes.
And now, they are planning Christmas. They know it won't be easy.
"This is a horror beyond horrors," said Segal. "We are determined that these children are going to have a decent life and make something of themselves."
But even the adults can't comprehend the unlikely events that have drastically altered all their lives.
"I don't understand it," Segal said. "But I know we will never recover."
It was Sept. 25, their eldest daughter's fourth birthday, when Nicole Garza sent her husband to the garage to fetch some ice cream. But the dogs began barking, and Jose Garza, a gun enthusiast, picked up a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol and confronted a gun-toting intruder.
It was LaFontaine-Trujillo, disguised in a dark sweatshirt, a black wig covering her red hair and goggle-like sunglasses. She shot at Garza but missed. He returned fire, rapidly, hitting the dark figure in the shadows and also the water heater, the refrigerator and piercing the wall of his baby son's room, according to police.
Two days later--the day before his daughter's birthday party--police arrested Nicole Garza.
Shredded notes had been found inside LaFontaine-Trujillo's Ford Explorer linking the two to the conspiracy, police said. They were written by Nicole Garza to lure her sister into the scheme with promises of financial security and freedom, police and prosecutors said.
"1 1/2 minutes of terror and a 360 degree turn around in your life," the note said. "I'm sure the list can go on and on what a tremendous domino effect your action will have to better the lives of so many people."
Shot in the upper torso, LaFontaine-Trujillo held on for 13 days at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in critical condition before she died. She was guarded by police. Only her aunts were allowed into the room.
"In a million years I couldn't believe she had been shot," Segal said, adding that LaFontaine-Trujillo's sons wanted to know why they couldn't visit their mother in the hospital. "But nobody [else] could," Segal said.
The sisters were close, going back to their childhood. Former classmates and Segal said the two redheaded sisters were smart and popular. Known as Nikki and Gogi, they attended Monroe High School in North Hills, with Lynette graduating in 1979 and Nicole two years later.
LaFontaine-Trujillo, nicknamed Gogi by her brother, was artistic and a song leader. She was voted by her senior class as both the "girl with the longest hair" and "forever on a diet."
But she fought her own demons well into adulthood, constantly struggling with bulimia, according to friends and relatives. She married Miguel Trujillo and together they had three sons, but they divorced--her sister represented her in the proceedings five years ago. She had a son with a boyfriend in 1994.
For years, LaFontaine-Trujillo worked two waitressing jobs at San Fernando Valley restaurants and lived with her mother in a Sherman Oaks apartment. She saw her children frequently, even though they lived with their fathers. A neighbor recalled seeing her in early September with her sons in the apartment complex pool, laughing and playing in the water.
"She was a really sweet person," Segal said. "I think she had no idea how many people loved her."
Nicole Garza was academic, quick, bored by schoolwork she could complete without really trying, relatives and former classmates said. At 3, relatives recall, Nicole was smart, even lawyerly.
Segal recalled Garza's mother once asking Nicole if she had slammed a door.
" 'Coming in or going out?' " Segal quoted the youngster.
She attended Glendale University College of Law, graduated in 1990 and was admitted to the bar later that year. She was married briefly at 19, had no children and was divorced.
She married Jose Garza after she represented him in his divorce in 1992 and was most recently working at a Ventura Boulevard law firm in Woodland Hills.
Garza also frequently saw her sister and aunts, often while visiting her mother, who was hospitalized and remains so. But she was busy, working full time and running her household.
On one hospital visit, Segal recalled the relatives planning for Christmas.
It was clear that the clan would meet at the Garzas' Sylmar home.
"Everyone planned out what they would bring--all their favorite recipes handed down from the family," Segal said. "Nicole said my husband made this great stuffing."
The holiday, however, will be decidedly different.
The aunts will likely go to the Garza home on Christmas Eve and spend Christmas Day with the LaFontaine-Trujillo boys.
For her part, Nicole Garza refuses to be interviewed, and her lawyer, Public Defender Marie Girolamo, says her client probably won't see her children. Girolamo is seeking a gag order on all participants and closed-court proceedings. A hearing is scheduled for January and a preliminary hearing could begin in February.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Dale E. Cutler said the case is solid and that "nothing new or shocking" will emerge in court.
Jose Garza, a private man who shuns the limelight even when he wins his own cases, is aiding authorities. Cutler said he will be a key witness.
"He's cooperating and he's coping," Cutler said. "He's caring for his children."
While none of the fathers would be interviewed, Segal said they are struggling mightily to maintain a normal life for their children.
"We're very lucky," Segal said. "These are excellent fathers. The children are their whole lives."
Believing that it will help heal them, Segal encourages LaFontaine-Trujillo's boys to talk about their mother. Last weekend, she took them to place flowers on their mother's grave site on what would have been her 35th birthday.
"This is a lot for [the children] to overcome," said Segal. "I'm not sure how this will ever repair itself--for any of us."