The children, ages 7 and 4, had cereal and, for a time, milk. Frozen TV dinners and corn dogs, too. All the basics, to their mother's mind, to survive the 20 days she planned to be in North Carolina wooing a potential husband she'd met over the Internet.
The mother -- Janet Hseuh Chen, 31 -- tended to the details with meticulous care, authorities said. She unplugged the phone and taped the drapes shut. She lied to school officials, saying she and the children were going out of town. She taught the children how to heat their own meals and stash the trash in the refrigerator away from bugs.
But her plans didn't quite work out.
Neighbors became suspicious Monday when they spotted a 4-year-old boy peering out the window of a Placentia apartment with a week-old "missed delivery" tag hanging on the door. Their suspicions led to a call to police, who discovered the children had been left by themselves since two days before Christmas.
"They were alone when all those Santa Ana winds were blowing, and the complex [lost] power," said Placentia Police Det. Corinne Loomis. "I can't imagine being 4 and 7 and practically living in the middle of a 'Wizard of Oz' tornado."
The food ran out Monday, the same day police discovered the children, and more than 24 hours before Chen's scheduled return.
As police entered the apartment Monday, neighbors said, the children at first hid in a closet but were quickly coaxed out.
"Are you going to arrest me?" the nervous 4-year-old said. "Please don't take me to jail."
Chen was arrested Tuesday night after she arrived home, couldn't find her children and called police. Arraignment on child-endangerment and neglect charges was postponed Thursday to Jan. 23. Bail was set at $50,000.
The children were taken to the Orangewood Children's Home while authorities decide whether to place them in foster care or with a family member, Loomis said. The children were in good health.
"She missed it by a day," Loomis said. "She said as a child she had never been left alone like that and that she knew when she did it, it was wrong.... She basically did what she wanted to do and hoped that everything would be OK."
Chen told her children she was going to China, Loomis added, because the eldest child knows where China is "but doesn't know where North Carolina is."
Chen arranged for vacation from her job as an office assistant at Genes Industry Inc. a Placentia window-coverings business, and told school and day-care officials she was taking the children to a family reunion on the East Coast, Loomis said.
Instead, Chen flew to North Carolina.
She had met a man through an online dating chat room some weeks earlier. The trip marked their first face-to-face meeting, police said, and Chen was trying to decide whether to marry him. Authorities would not identify the man.
"They had a falling out New Year's Eve," Loomis said. Chen told police she didn't have the money to change the return air ticket so she slept in her rental car for a week until her scheduled flight home, Loomis said.
On Monday, neighbors' growing concerns led them to alert the complex manager, who called a work number Chen had included in her rental application. The manager was told Chen was on vacation, and called police.
Neighbors and authorities said the children have different fathers, a key reason for the falling out with her family.
The boy's father, whose name was not immediately available, lives in Taiwan, but was in Orange County this week for an Immigration and Naturalization Service hearing. Authorities said he and Chen married in 1999 -- a year after the son was born -- but don't live together.
Neighbors said the father showed up at the apartment Wednesday night and was surprised to find the family gone.
The girl's father, Sergio Sanchez of Compton, is in Mexico and could not be reached. Sobaida Valdez, Sanchez's sister, said Chen avoids the family and makes it difficult for them to see the girl.
"Every time we want to get in touch with her or to see the kids, she moves or changes the telephone," Valdez said. "She doesn't want anything to do with us."
Chen and the children moved into the Placentia apartment in July, neighbors said, and kept largely to themselves. Not seeing the Chen children around was not unusual.
"The kids are never out," said neighbor Mindy Jedrey, 29, whose apartment opens onto the same front patio as Chen's. "I'd see her bring the children home from school and we'd say, 'Hi,' but she always looked down and went on her way."
Before Chen left town, police said, she bought what she thought would be three weeks worth of food, most of it frozen.
"She told me that basically what they were eating while she was gone was what she fed them all the time," Loomis said. "She doesn't cook, and rounds it out with fast food or Chinese [takeout] food."
Chen instructed the children to prepare the frozen food in the microwave, hid the knives and unplugged the telephone, ordering them to leave it unplugged unless there was an emergency, Loomis said.
"If she called and the phone wasn't plugged in, that meant everything was OK, because there was no need to plug it in," Loomis said. "I asked her if she ever thought that maybe [an unplugged phone meant] the kids were dead.... She realized she screwed it up."
Chen left the children a single videotape. "Some cartoon or something," Loomis said. Other than a few toys, the children had nothing else to entertain themselves.
But they never ventured outside and appeared not to have disobeyed their mother's orders. They ate their meals and placed the empty containers in the refrigerator where they wouldn't attract bugs. When the milk ran out, they ate their cereal dry. They kept the house clean, and when someone knocked on the door they apparently didn't answer.
Authorities often arrest parents who have left children unattended for a raft of reasons, from drinking binges to pressing work demands with no available day-care available. But leaving children alone for days is a rare occurrence.
It first rose to national attention a decade ago when David and Sharon Schoo left their daughters, ages 9 and 4, alone in Illinois while they vacationed in Mexico for nine days. They were found out when the girls fled to a neighbor's house after a smoke alarm went off. The couple later gave the children up for adoption.
Chen, one of 10 children, is estranged from her family and no one reported her missing or raised concerns about the children, Loomis said. Jedrey and other neighbors said they occasionally heard the children, including bouts of crying, over the last 20 days but didn't realize they were alone.
"It just broke our hearts that the kids were prisoners in their own home," she said.
Times staff writers Stuart Pfeifer and David Reyes contributed to this report.