HUDSON OAKS, Texas – After gathering the courage to leave her common-law husband and moving into her own mobile home, Gilberta Estrada was making a better life for herself and her four young daughters just a few years after arriving from Tamaulipas, Mexico.
She was even planning her 8-month-old daughter's baptism. So the news that she hanged her children and herself stunned the staff of the women's shelter where she stayed for three months last year.
"Obviously every client that comes into the shelter is going to have a difficult time, and at times she was sad, but she was so eager to do better for her daughters," Evelyn Haro, a case worker at SafeHaven of Tarrant County said Wednesday, a day after the hangings. "There was nothing to raise a red flag to me. She would always have a smile, and she loved, loved, loved those little girls."
Alejandra Estrada, worried after learning her sister failed to show up for work on Tuesday, broke into the trailer and found the woman and the four girls hanging in a closet from clothing tied around their necks. Only baby Evelyn Frayre, named in honor of the case worker, was alive.
Dr. Kimberly Aaron, medical director of emergency services at Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth, called the infant a "miracle."
The doctor attributed the baby's survival to the fact that she weighed only 20 pounds and her neck was protected by fatty tissue that kept it from breaking while she was suspended in the closet.
The baby has no brain damage and no long-term problems are expected, Aaron said. Baby Evelyn's constant smile, babbling and bouncing to music charmed the nurses, she added.
"She has a very happy, playful disposition," Aaron said Wednesday. "She certainly let us know she likes music."
The infant was released Wednesday to the custody of Child Protective Services, which will place her with a foster family while other options are being considered.
The child's father, Gregorio Frayre Rodriguez, went to the hospital but was not allowed to see the baby because of a protective court order issued in August after Gilberta Estrada, 25, claimed he abused her and tried to hit one of the children.
Attempts to reach Frayre, 38, on Wednesday were not successful.
The Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office ruled Estrada's death a suicide and the deaths of Maria Teresa Estrada, 5; Yaneth "Janet" Frayre, 3; and Magaly Frayre, 21 months, all homicides.
Parker County Sheriff Larry Fowler said the trailer doors were locked from the inside, and a relative said Estrada was depressed. The medical examiner's office said that while there were indications of depression, there was no documented history of suicide attempts and no evidence of antidepressants in the home. There also was no suicide note.
A fund to help relatives with funeral expenses has been set up at Wells Fargo banks under the name Estrada Memorial Fund, Haro said.
Gilberta Estrada claimed Frayre had been abusive since the couple began living together in 2003, at times pulling her hair, slapping her, trying to strangle her and once forcing her to have sex, according to court documents.
He once raised his hand to Maria when the girls were fighting over a toy, and then kicked Estrada and pulled the phone out of her hand when she tried calling 911, according to documents.
Estrada, who was pregnant with Evelyn at the time the order was granted, said Frayre was the father of Yaneth and Magaly.
About a week after that incident last June, Estrada left Frayre and took her children to a shelter in Weatherford. Because workers could not speak Spanish, Estrada was sent the next day to a SafeHaven of Tarrant County shelter in Fort Worth, about 25 miles east.
While living there from mid-June to late September, Estrada's fear of being on her own slowly faded, and she learned how to ride a bus to her doctor's appointments, never missing one, Haro said.
Estrada remained frightened of Frayre, Haro said. Estrada said she stayed in the abusive relationship because she had been too afraid to call police, fearing she might be deported, Haro said.
"I remember her telling me, `I am worth something. I am doing this for me, and I am doing this for my girls,"' said Haro, who saw her every day at the shelter. "She said, `I'm going to be OK.' Her self-esteem was building up."
Estrada left the shelter a few weeks after giving birth to Evelyn in September, saying she would live in a trailer across the street from her sister in Hudson Oaks, just outside Weatherford.
As a victim of domestic violence, Estrada was able to obtain a work permit through SafeHaven and got a job at a fast-food restaurant.
Donna Guion, a SafeHaven attorney who represented Estrada in the child custody case, said Frayre had not paid the $300 monthly child support since December. But Guion said Estrada was not depressed by those things.
Just two weeks ago, Estrada called Haro to ask if she had received some pictures of the children. Haro said she asked about the baby's upcoming baptism and Estrada told her she would be invited.
"I'm in shock because that was the last person I would expect something like that to happen to," Haro said. "She was my success story. I told her, `I'm so proud of you."'