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Mother Arrested in 4 Girls’ Deaths, Fire

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Sandi Nieves was fighting hard to hang on to her children in an ugly custody battle, worried that the allegedly violent behavior of her ex-husband’s older son presented a danger to her four young daughters.

“I am concerned for the safety of our children,” she wrote a judge.

On Thursday, authorities accused her of killing them.

Nieves, 34, who was arrested on suspicion of murder, allegedly encouraged her four girls--ages 5, 7, 11 and 12--to hold a slumber party in the kitchen of the family’s Santa Clarita home Tuesday night, then asphyxiated them with natural gas from the oven, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and coroner’s sources said. Nieves then allegedly used gasoline to ignite a fire that blackened the inside of the home but did little damage to its exterior, sources said.

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Firefighters responding to a 911 call from the home on Cherry Creek Drive on Wednesday afternoon found the four girls tucked into sleeping bags on the floor of the kitchen. Nieves and her son, David Nieves, 14, were taken to a hospital for treatment for smoke inhalation, where they are listed in good condition.

Authorities said Nieves would be taken to jail as soon as she is released by doctors.

The killings came just one day before Nieves and her ex-husband, David E. Folden, 47, were due in a Riverside County court in advance of a hearing Monday to reconsider custody of their children, as well as the division of shared property.

Folden was seeking greater access to his children, but Nieves said in court papers that she feared for their safety because of alleged drug problems and violent behavior by Folden’s son from a previous marriage. That son, David M. Folden, 25, twice violated a restraining order forbidding him to come within 300 yards of the younger children, according to Riverside County Sheriff’s Department records.

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The elder Folden declined to comment when contacted Thursday at his home in Perris. His lawyer was visibly upset as she left Thursday’s court hearing, which was canceled by Family Law Court Judge Jean P. Leonard.

“It’s a typical divorce case. This is shocking,” said Folden’s lawyer, Krystal Clemens. “They had no money to fight over.”

Nieves’ lawyer did not return phone calls Thursday seeking comment.

Nieves’ stepmother, Penny Lucia, said the couple’s divorce had grown increasingly rancorous since the couple separated in February 1997. The divorce was made final in August, but Folden had applied to the court for custody of the two younger girls, his biological daughters. Folden told the court that Nieves beat the children with a long wooden spoon. However, Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services officials said they had no reports of child abuse by Nieves.

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Nieves, who had been unemployed, believed that she would be able to retain full custody of the children, Lucia said, because she had recently completed training to become a police officer and was applying for jobs in San Diego County.

Lucia said she spoke with her stepdaughter Tuesday, the day before the children’s deaths. The two, she said, had a typical mother-daughter chat about the children, school and how they missed each other.

“Sandi would die for her kids,” Lucia said. “That’s why the divorce is so bitter. It’s over the kids. She wants everything for those kids.”

In a bizarre twist to an already bizarre case, Lucia said that Folden met Nieves when he married her mother--Delores Folden. When he divorced Delores Folden in 1987, he listed Nieves as his daughter in court papers.

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After that divorce, Nieves and Folden grew close and married in June 1989, Lucia said. Eventually, Folden adopted Nieves’ three children from her previous marriage: David, the 14-year-old, and his two sisters, both of whom were killed: Nikolet A. Folden, 12 and Rashel H. Folden, 11.

The couple then had two of their own children, Kristl D. Folden, 7, and Jaqlene M. Folden, 5, both of whom authorities said were also killed by the gas.

The biological father of the oldest three children, Ferdinand Nieves, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Penny Lucia said her stepdaughter told her that Folden served her papers Monday seeking to annul his adoption of the three oldest children in order to reduce his child support payments. No documents seeking such an annulment could be found Thursday in the Divorce Court file.

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Authorities speculated that Nieves may have tried to kill herself after killing her children. The role, if any, of her son in the deaths was unclear. Penny Lucia said relatives told her that the 14-year-old and his mother were found by police in opposite ends of the home.

Friends of the family expressed shock at the killings. They described Sandi Nieves as a good parent, close to her children and a devout Mormon.

Pat Rogers, a neighbor and friend who lived across the street from the family in Perris, said she last spoke to Sandi about three months ago, shortly before Nieves left the neighborhood.

“She had just pulled away from everyone. She was very confused and very mixed up about a lot of things, but her kids were everything to her,” Rogers said. “Maybe the threat of losing custody might have pushed her over the edge.

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“I don’t know where the truth is . . . when you do something like that. If she, in fact, did that, that is not the Sandi I knew,” Rogers said. “Something snapped somewhere.”

Carol Jernigan, who lives across the street from the family’s home, said: “To sit back and think about this mother planning this is hard to imagine. I can’t believe a mother would do this to her own children.”

Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein and correspondents Richard Winton and Darrell Satzman contributed to this story.


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