PRESTON, Conn. – Debra Denison's struggles with mental illness were well known in her family, and when she wanted to pick up her grandsons from day care to mark the older boy's birthday, mother Brenda Perry hesitated.
Denison not only wanted to pick up 2-year-old Alton and 6-month-old Ashton, but she also wanted to do it alone, the boys' great-grandmother said. Perry told her mother the boys were too much for her to handle, but Denison insisted.
"She was apparently very convincing," said Marcia White, the boys' great-grandmother on their father's side. So Perry asked her to take along another relative. She didn't -- and now a family and a town are wondering whether anything could have prevented what came next.
Denison left a suicide note, drove alone to the day care, picked up the boys, took them to a nearby lake and apparently used her husband's gun to fatally shoot them and herself, authorities and relatives said Wednesday. The bodies were found Tuesday night, about two hours after a frantic search began.
State police had not officially determined they all died because of the gunfire, but autopsies were planned.
Denison, 47, also had a 13-year-old son who was not with her Tuesday afternoon and was unharmed. In her suicide note, she said in part that God was watching over him on Tuesday, White said. What exactly she meant by that, and her motive for the killings and suicide, remain unclear.
But state property tax records revealed financial difficulties, including a lien put on their home last month. And the boys' parents told WVIT-TV that Denison had "split personalities," while WFSB-TV reported that family members described her as having bipolar disorder.
"She would go along and have seasons where everything was A OK, and other times when she would be depressed, running to the doctor and getting prescriptions," said White, the grandmother of the boys' father, Jeremy Perry.
The parents are reeling with grief, she said, on what should have been a happy day of looking over snapshots of their older son's birthday.
"They have a strong faith in God, and they're just clinging to each other and God," she said.
Nothing seemed amiss when Denison collected the boys from Kidds & Co., where she had been before and was on a list of people authorized to pick up the children. Their mother had told staff members the grandmother would be picking up the children, and Denison was friendly and talkative when she arrived, according to director Nikki Salaun.
The staff described the boys as very happy children. Alton had been sent to the day care Tuesday with mini-cupcakes to share in honor of his birthday; he was nicknamed "the greeter" at the center because he always went to see visitors at the door, while other children hung back.
In a Facebook posting Monday, the mother had written: "So excited making mini cupcakes and play dough for Altons day tomorrow can't believe 2 years old already. So blessed".
Salaun and center co-owner Christine Hare said that they keep going over the pickup in their minds, but that there is nothing they could have done differently.
"Brenda obviously put her on the list thinking she would be OK," Hare said. "We go with the parents. We can't override their wishes. Obviously, if she had come here obviously distraught, we would have intervened."
After helping Denison to her van with the children, they discovered she had taken the wrong car seat. When they could not reach her by phone, they alerted the boys' mother, who contacted police. The bodies were found around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, about two hours after state police issued a statewide Amber Alert.
As state police were searching, they learned that Denison had left her home Tuesday afternoon armed with a revolver and had left a suicide note. The contents of the note weren't officially released.
The bodies of Denison and the boys were found in a car parked near Lake of Isles in Preston, in the southeastern corner of Connecticut. It's a town over from the day care center in North Stonington, a bedroom and farming community just a few miles away from one of the world's largest casinos.
In Facebook postings, Brenda Perry thanked people for their prayers and said she loved her sons. "God (has) two beautiful angels helping him now," the postings said.
A man who answered the door at the family home Wednesday declined to comment, and a man at the address listed for Denison said the family is asking for space.
Denison's criminal record appeared clean. She had two convictions for minor driving offenses, said Peggy Muckle, a clerk at New London Superior Court. She was fined $35 in 2003 for following too closely and, in 2004, she pleaded guilty to reckless driving, but a judge did not require her to pay the $100 fine.
Denison and her husband, Jance Denison, have had financial problems over the past several years, including a $5,926 state tax lien put on their home last month.
There were several other liens on the Denison home dating back to the late 1990s, mostly in Jance Denison's name, records show. They included three liens totaling more than $3,900 against Debra Denison by The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich and a $668 lien by Connecticut Behavioral Health Associates against Jance and Debra Denison.