The silence of their home in Brea was crushing after their son’s death. Gilbert and Irene Reyes moved about inertly, hearing only echoes. They took their turns in Alex’s room. They buried their noses in his shirts, looked through his checkbook, clasped the “Toy Story” doll he’d bought for his baby son, Drew.
Their only fragment of joy came on weekends, when they picked up Drew from his mother. The 21-month-old teetered around their living room on his bowlegs, shrieking in amusement, brimming with things to say and no way to say them.
He had his father’s sly laugh, chin tucked in, cuspids peeking out from his upper lip. The one word Drew knew was “Dada.” His grandparents teared up whenever he said it.
So much had been taken.
They would not let Drew be taken too.
FOR THE RECORD
Grandparents’ ordeal: A caption accompanying an article in Friday’s Section A about the struggles of Gilbert and Irene Reyes to visit with the child of their slain son, Alex, said that their son was killed by his wife’s grandfather. He was killed by his wife’s grandmother.
Of their four sons, Irene had a singular bond with Alex. They had been through so much together.
When she and Gilbert first married, they bought a little postwar home on a T-intersection in South Whittier. One night, with Alex in her womb, Irene was lying on the floor of the living room watching TV. Gilbert had fallen asleep beside her. She heard a car coming fast down the street that ended at their home and ran to the picture window.
“Gilbert!” she screamed, as the rectangular grille of the station wagon hurtled up their lawn.
Irene went in and out of consciousness in the dark under a collapsed wall. She heard a voice telling her to stay awake. She knew it was God. Then she felt hands on her, trying to get a pulse.
She and the baby would survive. Gilbert would too, with a broken pelvis and internal bleeding that required a 10-day stay in the intensive care unit.
The driver, a drunk 17-year-old girl, had rolled right over him. Irene prayed that the baby was OK.
Alex was born with only minor complications. But he would be plagued by health problems.
He almost died of a 106-degree fever brought on by pneumonia at 9 months old and suffered seizures throughout his youth. Sometimes he’d start convulsing in the bath or while eating. His medications left him dazed. Alex had to stay in special education throughout grade school, and Irene was focused on protecting him.
By junior high, the seizures had stopped and Alex was in regular classes. He was an easygoing, exultant child. Having spent so much time with his mom, he related more to adults than other adolescents.
“Teachers loved him,” Irene said. “Even the neighbors -- he’d be out washing the car and say, ‘Would you like me to wash your car too?’ ”
When he graduated, he told his parents he wanted to be a police officer.
Gilbert -- who worked in the scraped-knuckle culture of a machine shop -- welcomed the idea. Irene did not. “Absolutely not, too dangerous,” she said.
Alex worked customer service jobs. At an insurance company in Orange, his boss told him he should meet her daughter, Leslie. They went on a boat cruise and started dating. She was his first girlfriend.
Alex still dreamed of being a cop. “I can’t stand it anymore,” he told his mom. “I want to go to the police academy. It’s in me.”
He went to the Fullerton College police academy at age 22, in 2002. When he graduated, he applied to police departments across the state and had three interviews but never got called back.
Irene suspects they could tell he was not streetwise.
The next year Leslie became pregnant and the couple decided to get married.
Leslie was living with her grandmother, Jeane Ellen Allen, in Lake Forest. They’d bought the house together when Leslie’s mother died of lung disease.
Allen did not like Alex and was possessive of Leslie, constantly calling to see where she was. On their wedding day, Allen tried to talk the pastor out of marrying the couple. She said Alex had no future and denigrated him for being “Mexican.”
And the Reyeses had concerns about Leslie: She seemed withdrawn, strangely disconnected.
Alex and Leslie nonetheless got married that day in January 2004. Alex moved in with her and Allen, and Leslie gave birth to Drew in June.
Alex jumped headlong into being a dad and couldn’t wait to see his son’s personality emerge.
But the grandmother’s behavior became increasingly hateful and bizarre. She told Alex that men should not change a baby’s diapers. Another time, when he was holding Drew on his lap, she barked at him that the baby was too close to his “privates.”
Their pastor advised the couple to move out to save the marriage.
In September, Alex got home from work one day, and Leslie and the baby were gone. He later told his parents that Allen had confronted him. “She’s divorcing you,” she said. “You’re molesting the baby . . . You’re never going to see him again.”
Alex called his parents in a panic. Gilbert told him to call the police, go outside and wait for them to help him move out.
When Alex talked to Leslie later, he asked if she believed the accusation. She told him her grandmother never lied.
In Leslie’s divorce filing in October, she accused Alex of repeatedly molesting and making sexual comments to their 3-month-old.
Alex vehemently denied the claims and questioned why they hadn’t called authorities if they believed it all was true.
His parents hired attorney Larry Fancher. Both parties agreed to have a neutral psychologist do an evaluation, which would include a battery of tests to see if Alex was aroused by children.
Until the matter was resolved, Alex could see his son only two days a week with a court-appointed monitor.
In his office, Fancher gave Alex a solemn admonition.
“Alex, if you have the slightest pedophile propensities, you need to tell me,” the lawyer said. “We’re in a privileged environment. You don’t need to take these tests. We don’t need to give them evidence they can use.”
“Mr. Fancher,” Alex said, “I’ll take any test to see my son.”
One test included measuring his genitals while he looked at suggestive photos of men, women and children, another while he listened to audio stories of adults having sex with children. He also took a lie detector test.
The psychologist’s report was confidential, but Fancher said the evaluation found no evidence that Alex was a pedophile, and recommended he have two days a week of unsupervised visitation with his son.
The divorce was set to go to trial in March 2006.
Alex continued to see Drew on Fridays and Saturdays. He and his parents would drive to Lake Forest, meet the monitor and pick up Drew.
On Jan. 28, 2006, Leslie asked Alex to come by early so he could help set up a stroller.
Gilbert and Irene sat in the car while Alex went to work on the stroller.
Suddenly, four loud cracks reverberated from under the eaves. Gilbert leaped out of the car, ran around the corner of the garage and saw Allen standing there with a pistol. Leslie was holding the baby.
The two women backed into the house.
Gilbert looked around frantically for his son. Then he heard a moan behind him. He turned to see Alex lying behind a planter next to the toppled stroller. Gilbert saw two weeping holes in the back of his head.
He got down on his knees beside him. “Hang in there, Alex,” he said.
He screamed at Irene to stay back.
As the police pulled up, Alex made a faint move with his hand. In retrospect, Gilbert thinks he was waving goodbye.
It took police more than an hour to get Allen to surrender. Paramedics couldn’t approach as Alex lay there, bleeding into the dirt.
Doctors worked on him into the night. But tests showed he was brain dead.
Allen was charged with first degree murder, and Orange County sheriff’s detectives investigated whether Leslie was involved. In jail, Allen told reporters she’d killed a pedophile.
Gilbert and Irene couldn’t bear to read the allegation in the newspaper.
Allen would plead guilty and be sentenced to 25 years to life.
Drew, by then 19 months old, was taken as a ward of the Juvenile Dependency Court while the investigation into Leslie continued and placed in the Orangewood Children’s Home.
The Reyeses visited him there every day but one, the day of Alex’s funeral.
At home, they couldn’t get themselves to clean out Alex’s room. Irene put on his shoes one morning, and Gilbert started wearing his high school ring. The day Alex died, Irene had offered to do his laundry. He said he’d do it. The pile still sat there.
When Drew was released to his mother after a month, the court gave the Reyeses eight hours of visitation every other weekend.
Drew buzzed around their house, lightening the bleakest of days.
“From your head to your toes, you’re like your daddy,” Irene would tell him.
But the visits were short-lived. By that July, they could no longer reach Leslie.
Gilbert didn’t know what to do. Did grandparents even have rights? He poked around online and ended up on the phone with Susan Hoffman.
Hoffman had started a support group in Corona del Mar for grandparents whose grandchildren were suddenly removed from them. Like so many of the people she helped, her story was heartbreaking: She’d lost access to her beloved 5-year-old grandson Jacob so abruptly she couldn’t even say goodbye. It tormented her that he might think she didn’t love him anymore.
Hoffman started a nonprofit, Advocates for Grandparent Grandchild Connection. With Assemblyman Van Tran (R-Garden Grove), she sponsored a bill to buttress grandparents’ rights to visitation. The law passed unanimously in 2006.
“For a grandchild, a grandparent brings a secure, stable, unconditional love,” she said. “They know the person is there only because they want to be there. Why would you break that bond?”
Hoffman’s measure came too late to fix her own situation. She hadn’t been able to see Jacob for more than three years by then. In the law’s view, the tie had been severed too long.
She told Gilbert he had to act immediately and referred him to A Center for Children and Family Law in Orange.
The Reyeses kept calling Leslie and wrote letters to her.
Soon they learned that she had left town when she was cleared of involvement in Alex’s death, and the Juvenile Dependency Court closed the case Aug. 14. They hired a private investigator, who found her living in Chicago, near her father. They quickly filed a petition at the court in Orange for visitation.
Leslie responded at the end of October, arguing that Illinois was the proper venue for making the petition.
In December, the judge told the grandparents they would have to take their case to Chicago. Their son was not dead even a year. They couldn’t believe they had to fight this fight.
They hired an attorney in Chicago, who filed a petition there. Leslie moved to quash it. (Neither she nor her attorney answered requests to comment for this story.)
As the legal briefs went back and forth, the judge temporarily gave the Reyeses six hours of visitation once a month, with a monitor.
So every month, they flew to Chicago. They picked Drew up at Navy Pier, went to the zoo, museums, parks, malls.
When Drew asked about his dad, they said he was in heaven. They made sure he knew Alex loved him dearly.
The Reyeses were looting their retirement. They would spend more than $100,000 on attorneys’ fees alone.
On July 8, 2008, a judge ruled that Gilbert and Irene could see Drew once a month in Chicago and for three separate, weeklong periods in California. No monitors.
They could be grandparents.
On a warm afternoon a few weeks ago, Gilbert and Drew, now 5, were hitting a baseball in the park across from the Reyeses’ house.
“Remember I told you to hit it up in the air,” Gilbert said.
“Like this?” Drew asked. He lifted the bat higher and blew a solid grounder past his grandfather.
Irene walked up with a bottle of water, sat on a planter and watched them with a peaceful smile. Drew sidled up to her but was soon distracted by something on the sidewalk. “A fly! Can I pour water on it?”
A little girl his size, Eleanor, darted by and asked if he wanted to play. Her grandfather strolled up. He and Irene got to talking, while Drew and Eleanor chased each other. Another family arrived, with another grandpa, toting a big camera to take pictures of his grandchildren.
The Reyeses still had many issues to work out with Drew’s mother. They worried he might yet be taken from them. They were grieving for Alex. His pile of laundry sat by his bed, four years later.
But now, as dusk approached and Christmas lights flickered on, they at least had a small piece of what it was supposed to be like -- grandparents talking to other grandparents and watching the children play.