The missing mother of four children found dead in the U.S. state of Maryland had been beaten by her husband and wanted to separate, her sister in El Salvador said Wednesday.

Authorities were looking for Deysi M. Benitez, 25, whose children, aged one to nine, were found dead in their beds Monday of unknown causes and her husband hanging from the townhouse bannister. Police said Benitez may have left the country or could already by dead.

In a telephone interview with The Associated Press in El Salvador, Angela Benitez, who is two years older than Deysi, said her sister and Pedro Rodriguez, 28, were having problems in their marriage and he beat her at least once, last December.

"He beat her," Angela Benitez said. "I didn't see it, but she called me and told me that he had left her face a complete mess, that it was a miracle he didn't kill her."

Deysi asked for a separation "but he told her he wouldn't allow it," Angela Benitez said.

The last time Angela spoke with Deysi, however, she "was talking very calmly. She didn't tell me anything ... and he was there."

A portrait emerged of the couple as an immigrant family struggling to live the American dream.

Rodriguez arrived in the United States from El Salvador in 1998 and Deysi Benitez in 2001, the sister said. The couple was married in Frederick, Maryland in 2002 and struggled with financial and legal problems. They held a series of menial jobs, lived at one point in an apartment subsidized by a homeless advocacy group, and took in at least one boarder to help pay their mortgage. Benitez was charged twice with theft and police were called to the townhouse eight times in the last year.

Angela, the sister, said the couple worked separate shifts, Pedro during the day and Angela at night.

El Salvador's consul general for the Salvadoran embassy in Washington, Ana Margarita Chavez, taped a televised appeal Wednesday asking the missing mother to contact her.

Chavez said she told Benitez in the appeal that "I will provide her with security and also that I understand her situation and that I was going to be waiting for her phone call."

However, the consul general acknowledged that the appeal, which will be broadcast on a Spanish-language station in the Washington-Baltimore area that encompasses Frederick, may be in vain.

"There are so many scenarios. One is that maybe she already left the country and she has already passed the border," Chavez said. "The other one is that probably she is in the United States. And there is another one that maybe she is dead."

Ernesto Clavijo, news director of Univision's local affiliate, planned to broadcast the appeal during Wednesday's evening news shows.

Chavez said she met Tuesday with Frederick Police Department officers and was able to locate family members in Sensuntepeque in north-central El Salvador. The consul general said Angela Benitez told her she spoke with her sister daily until March 16, when Deysi stopped answering her cell phone.

The consul general said she also had spoken with Rodriguez's parents, whom she described as "in shock."

Chavez said she planned to speak again Wednesday with family members about funeral arrangements. She said Benitez's sister indicated that relatives expect the bodies to be sent to El Salvador for burial.

Chase said the unanswered calls to Benitez's phone supported the theory that she has come to harm. "Absolutely, we're concerned about that," he said.

Chase said police didn't directly ask Chavez to help but "we welcome their assistance. It's something that makes sense, and we're glad that they've taken the initiative to do that because our goal is to find Ms. Benitez."

Police were awaiting complete autopsy results that they said could help explain the deaths of the children and their father. Officers found the children — girls Elsa, 9, Vanessa, 4, and Carena, 1, and 3-year-old boy Angel — in their beds with sheets and blankets pulled over their heads. The husband had apparently hanged himself, police said.

They said they had no suspects in the deaths.

Preliminary autopsy results ruled out shooting and stabbing as the cause of death for the children, Chase said. He said poisoning and suffocation are possibilities, and that police will learn more after the state medical examiner's office completes toxicology studies that could take at least a week.

James A. Dinkins, special agent in charge for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Baltimore, said the family was in the United States legally. Benitez, Rodriguez and their oldest child were in the United States under temporary protected status, which is similar to asylum and is extended to those from countries affected by war, disaster or other extraordinary circumstance. The three youngest children were U.S. citizens.