Zoey Mendoza has never spoken about the October day when her husband Kurtis tragically murdered their two children, Jada, 5, and Jordan, 3. Mendoza opens up to Yahoo Parenting’s Christine Coppa.
Kurtis and I, like any married couple, had our ups and downs, and after 12 years together, we were in the process of an amicable separation. We [still] lived in the same house, parented our children together, and openly discussed the troubles in our marriage. I was asking for a separation, but Kurtis didn’t want any part of it — I tried to reinforce that we could remain friends, and co-parent our two beautiful children.
Seven weeks prior to killing our kids, Kurtis attempted suicide and was placed in a psychiatric hospital for 72 hours. I visited him every single day. This was so out of character for Kurtis and nothing anyone could have red-flagged. Kurtis was diagnosed with situational depression. His doctors stated that his depression was based entirely on his sadness that our marriage was going to end. They prescribed him Zoloft, told him to try and make things better with me, and attend individual therapy.
The weeks that followed [the suicide attempt] seemed somewhat normal. Kurtis told me that he was taking his meds [which a blood sample later proved was wrong] and going to therapy. He played soccer with Jada and took the kids to a birthday party — they came back with puppy and butterfly painted faces. We cleaned out our basement and ate meals together at the dining room table while our children played nearby.
On October 18, 2010, Jordan woke up with a barky cough, but no fever. I put on a steam shower to clear his lungs. I did Jada’s hair that morning like I always did, spraying it with a moisturizing lotion, then sweeping it up into her two signature poofs.
Zoey and Jada (Jada with her two signature “poofs.” All photos courtesy of Zoey Mendoza)
Jordan’s cough subsided, so I helped him get dressed for school. My three-year-old son wanted to look like Michael Jackson all the time. He was insistent on wearing his MJ bolero hat to school, which was a constant, but fun battle. He also insisted on wearing a necktie over his zip-up sweatshirt.
That morning my kids and I drove the 7-minute car ride to Donna Reid Child Development Center formerly of Wayne, NJ. It was fall, but a warm day with rusty red and orange leaves falling from the trees.
From the backseat, strapped in her booster, Jada said: “Mommy, how come all of the leaves are falling to the ground?”
On the drive, I talked to Jada about the cycle of life, telling her leaves die, fall and in the spring, the trees bloom again.
Jada replied, “So, trees are alive and they die. Grass is alive, so it dies. Cars are not alive and don’t die? she suggested. Then to my confusion, she said: “Mama, I don’t want you to die.”
I looked in the rearview mirror and reassured her: “Oh honey, mommy’s not going to die. Mommy is going to grow to be old.”
Jada loved school, but that day, she didn’t race to the door and ring the bell as I unbuckled Jordan and grabbed his bag. She got out of the car very slowly and walked in with us. She held my hand and said, “Mama, I miss you already.”
“Honey, you don’t have to miss me – I’m right here,” I said, trying to comfort her. “No mama, I miss you already,” she said again. I bent down, eye-to-eye with my daughter. “I’m right here and I’ll pick you up after school — like I always do,” I said, searching her eyes. And again, Jada said, “But mama, I miss you already.”
I gave her a big bear hug and Jordan jumped on my back. We were all tangled up together — warm and in love — for the last time. I gave her a big smooch on the lips and watched her walk very slowly into her class. Jordan was a mama’s boy and never wanted to leave me, so I always carried him into his classroom on my hip.
Zoey and Jordan
I received a text from Kurtis, who was home supervising workers who were laying new carpeting. He asked me to bring him McDonald’s for lunch. As an in-home and individual therapist I often have free blocks of time during the day. So, we spent half an hour together, eating and checking out the new carpet. The last time I saw Kurtis – I gave him a peck on the cheek – and said goodbye.
I stopped for a quick manicure before my next appointment. My phone rang: “I love you and I want to make this work,” Kurtis said through the blue tooth device in my ear. “Why don’t you love me anymore? I don’t understand why we can’t fix this – please,” he continued. Sitting across from the manicurist, hands soaking in warm water, I quietly said: “I can’t have this discussion with you right now.”
An hour later Kurtis texted me: “Don’t worry about the kids. I’ll pick them up.” It didn’t make sense because the kids remain at school until 4:30 pm and more importantly, I hadn’t let him spend very much alone time with them since his suicide attempt.
I got into my car and headed to the daycare around 2:30 p.m. to get our children. On the way, I called the daycare and asked the administrator to get Jada and Jordan packed up because I was coming to get them early. I was surprised when she told me that my husband had already picked them up, a half hour earlier. (I had not disclosed to them that he had attempted suicide seven weeks prior.)
I called Kurtis’s cell phone, but he didn’t answer. I left him a voicemail: “Return the kids immediately or I will call the police.” I never heard back from him after that — but part of me thought maybe he took them to the park because it was a nice day.
At 6 p.m., with no word from Kurtis, I called the police. They didn’t get to my house until around 7 p.m., and didn’t seem to be overly concerned with my report. They said that they wouldn’t consider filing a missing person’s report unless they were gone for twenty-four hours.
Scared, I asked them to check my husband’s parents’ abandoned Ringwood, NJ home and his mother’s current residence in Bronx, NY. The Ringwood police department responded to the beautiful wooded property that is sprung with giant trees and stamped with huge rocks. (Jada loved to play outside there.) The 3-bedroom brick red sided home, with a deck and pool, was rundown and no one lived there, so it looked a little creepy from the outside. However, it was still full of furniture and a lifetime of things. This is where Kurtis found his grandfather’s 20-year-old rifle that he used to kill our children.
At approximately 7:30 p.m., neighbors near the Ringwood home got in touch with a friend of mine, who called me. She told me the Ringwood home was surrounded by cops, ambulances, crime scene tape and even a TV news crew.
I was frantic — my best friend Jody drove me over. On the 20-minute ride all I said was: He killed my kids. He killed my kids. He killed my kids. It was mayhem when we arrived.
“THOSE ARE MY CHILDREN,” I screamed. A police officer immediately escorted me into a CSI trailer and after a few minutes, asked for a photo of my children. I had a picture of them on my cell phone.
When the detective came back, he said: “I’m sorry to have to say this to you, but your children and husband are deceased.”
I laid my head in Jody’s lap and wept. I felt like I already knew, but hearing the words aloud made it a crashing, devastating reality. I called my mom in Oregon: “Mommy, he killed my babies. Mommy ….” (It was like I reverted back to a child.)
Shortly thereafter, I was put in an ambulance and taken to the hospital where a crisis team was waiting. On the ride, I felt delirious, in a dream, like nothing was happening in real time. I think my heart and soul were blown right open in that moment. At the hospital, they gave me something to help me sleep.
Kurtis didn’t leave a note. He did not plan this. I’m not making excuses for him. He created his own legacy as a father who took his children out of this world and away from all of us who love them so dearly. The truth is that my children lived a beautiful, happy life with both of us. I know who Kurtis was before he was engulfed with depression and anxiety. He descended very slowly into mental illness, and he was a terrific liar.
As a mother, my job was to protect my children, and one of my most defining struggles is that I never thought they were in danger with their father. I never knew I had to protect my babies from Kurtis.
Kurtis and his son, Jordan
About three weeks after my children died, they came to me. That night, I got into bed with my mom (she never left my side). I had a terrible migraine and my head was throbbing in pain. My mom handed me Lessons from the Light, by George Anderson — and told me to read the chapter about children who die.
The chapter focused entirely on children who pass, and how they still truly live in the Hereafter — what I call Heaven. That they are in peace and are still with us. I began chanting in my head, I miss you, I love you, over and over. I couldn’t fall asleep. I was tossing and turning.
All of a sudden I heard my children giggling. I sat straight up in bed and my room was bright white. It was like the sun was blazing though the windows, but it was nighttime. There was a white staircase next to my bed and my kids were standing at the top, smiling. The second our eyes met, they ran to me. They held me and laughed. They let me know that they love me and will always be with me. I wrote it all down in great detail. I said to Jada: “Someone else did your hair. I never did your hair like that!”
Jordan, my mama’s boy just laid on me. On another visit, Jada sat with me and I said to her “You’ve been gone a long time.” She nodded, Yes.
”Where have you been?” She pointed to the sky.
“What is it called there?“
"Heaven,” she replied.
“What is it like there?” I asked her.
She rolled her eyes at me: “Mama, it’s like you tell everyone: I’m free of burden and I’m never sad!”
I Wanted to Know How My Children Died
I never asked to see my children after they died — although the police
never offered to let me see them that night. Months later, when I felt
strong enough to hear the answers, I asked about the scene where my
children died. I was told that Jordan was found inside the front door
of the Ringwood house. He had been playing with his superhero action
figures. Jada was found outside, near the front steps of the home, and
Kurtis’s body was found in the driver’s seat of his car, which was
parked in the driveway.
It may be hard for some people to understand why I wanted to know about the circumstances surrounding my children’s death, but I made a decision early on that I wouldn’t numb myself to this pain. I wanted to be informed. I couldn’t run away from what my children experienced in their last moments.
I have spent over four years deeply grieving the loss of my most precious children. I am active in my grief. I attended intensive grief and loss therapy for over a year, and read every single piece of literature that I could find about child loss and the grief process.
Zoey got a tattoo of the eternity symbol to express their eternal love as mother and children. The tattoo artist was able to use Jada and Jordan’s ashes with the ink.
I talk and talk and talk to all of my dear family and friends about my feelings. I don’t numb my pain. I live in it and walk through it every single day. I will honor my children for the rest of my life by sharing pictures and stories and dreams and memories.
I have also worked hard to forgive Kurtis. There is no “right” way to grieve. Losing a child is the most unnatural experience a parent can endure.
Zoey remarried in 2012 with photos of her babies on either side of her as she took her vows. She lives in a small community in NY. She has three stepchildren. She says Jada and Jordan still visit her through visions.
(Top photo: Jordan, then aged 2, with his sister, Jada, then 4).
Yahoo Parenting has chosen this story, originally published on March 4, as an example of one of our best of 2015.