For more than a decade, Geraldine Kelley (search) told her children their father had been killed when he stepped in front of a car in a drunken haze.

She complained when her daughter pestered her about where he was buried, according to a woman who worked for Kelley as a maid at a California motel she ran.

"'I don't know why they're all concerned, because John never cared, he never loved them,"' Marilynn Contreras quoted Kelley as saying.

"I had no reason to doubt the fact that she was so bitter about her husband, she didn't want her children to know where he is," Contreras said, recalling the 1997 conversation.

That changed last week with Kelley's deathbed confession to her daughter that she'd killed John Kelley about 13 years ago. Kelley claimed her husband had abused her for years.

A prosecutor said her reasons for confessing were likely a mix of wanting to unburden herself and ensuring her children were not blamed if the body was ever found.

"It appears her concern was for them," said Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley (search).

Authorities on Thursday found human remains in a locked, unplugged freezer in a rented storage room in Somerville.

On Friday, Coakley said the body had been tentatively identified as John Kelley's, based on tattoos he was known to have as well as similarities to his 5-foot-6, 135-pound build. The cause of death was a gunshot to the back of the head.

The family was torn by domestic violence and the Kelleys' two children were estranged from both parents by the late 1980s, Coakley said. John Kelley was also estranged from other members of his family, and that was likely why no one asked questions when he went missing in the early 1990s, she said.

"It does not appear that anyone was aware of his disappearance," Coakley said.

Kelley, 54, died at home on Nov. 12 of breast cancer, but not before telling her daughter, Sheri-Ann Bouchie, now 36, what she had done.

The family's attorneys released a statement from Kelley's daughter and son, John P. Kelley, which said this was a "a time of deep emotion" for them.

"Until the recent disclosure by their mother, they accepted and believed their mother's story as true," the statement read. "Today they are facing the grim reality of what actually happened."

Attorneys declined to disclose details of the deathbed confession.

Investigators believe Kelley killed her husband in 1991 or 1992 in California's Ventura County (search), though she told people he died in Las Vegas after stepping in front of a car while he was drunk.

Kelley later moved to Ventura, where she became a live-in manager at the 36-room Victoria Motel in 1993. Police believe she stored John Kelley's body nearby.

Contreras got to know Kelley when she began working at the Victoria in 1997.

"To look at her, she looked like maybe a librarian," said Contreras, now the motel's manager. "She never projected anything other than that. ... You wouldn't have known the lady had that kind of secret."

In 1998, Kelley moved back to Somerville, where she had once lived with her husband. That year, rental company records showed the freezer was shipped from the West Coast.

Coakley said her office was continuing a joint investigation with the Ventura County Sheriff's office. A spokesman for the office declined comment.