The man described as a doting father to his two little girls left for the market Wednesday morning to buy juice and milk. He returned to his South Los Angeles home to find his wife trying to drown his young daughters in an infant tub, authorities say.
It appears the mother — who may have been battling depression or other mental illness — "snapped," killing her 1-year-old daughter and leaving her 5-year-old gravely injured, Deputy Police Chief Pat Gannon said.
By the time firefighters arrived at the home in the 900 block of West 50th Street about 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, the young girls were unconscious and not breathing. The 1-year-old, identified as Lindsay Taque, died shortly after being taken to a local hospital. And although they were able to regain a pulse on the 5-year-old, she remained in extremely critical condition at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.
Lorna Valle, 32, was arrested Wednesday evening on suspicion of murder and attempted murder and was being held on $1.5-million bail, Officer Karen Rayner said. No one else in the family has been identified.
The family lived in a modest space made from a converted garage, and neighbors described them as quiet and reclusive, yet cordial. The little girls seemed happy and healthy.
So on Wednesday morning, neighbors were startled by screams coming from the home.
One witness said they heard the father shouting, "My babies! My babies!" Other witnesses said the father had to be restrained as he tried to confront his wife, who was emotionless with an empty gaze.
Neighbor Dina Ceballos, who lived across the street, heard the father say, "If I didn't get out, my girls would still be alive."
"He was screaming and saying, 'Why didn't she kill herself instead of trying to kill my girls?' " Ceballos said.
Ceballos, who was still shaken and nauseated hours later, said the image of the girls being carried out by rescuers, limp and pale, is ingrained in her memory.
"It broke my heart to see those girls," Ceballos, 46, said.
Even the first responders, who are accustomed to difficult situations, were traumatized and were being offered counseling.
"I don't know what made her snap. This is a tragic and horrific incident," Gannon said. "Something no one likes to see."
Authorities are investigating whether the woman has a history of mental illness. She was taken to a hospital for evaluation.
A relative of the family told Ceballos that the woman had shown signs of depression recently and asked the relative to care for the children should anything happen to her. Her husband told her to go to the doctor, but she never sought that help, Ceballos said.
To neighbors, it was a confounding and chaotic scene Wednesday. The typically quiet street was clogged with police vehicles and news vans, with reporters asking them questions about a family they hardly knew.
The family kept to themselves but seemed like good people, they said. They would greet their Latino neighbors in Spanish but said little else. Some knew they were from Guatemala and had come here about a decade ago. But none said they knew their names.
"She stays in the house," said Judy McCann, who has lived on the street for 30 years. "She never comes out."
Neighbor Jennifer Houston, 37, said she's had little interaction with the family but has four children, including two daughters almost the same age as the girls.
"That hurts me," she said. "I got to tell my baby. She's going to want to know what happened. I'll tell her, 'Your little friend is in the hospital; she had an accident.' I can't just come out and tell her."
A few feet away, Joyce Williams, an elder at a neighborhood church, held hands with neighbors and led them in a prayer: "Let them know there is help in the midst of their storm."
Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.