DE QUEEN, Ark. – A mother who left New York for a small Arkansas town to give her three children a safer home pleaded innocent Monday to charges of killing them.
Eleazar Paula Mendez, 43, was ordered held without bond on three counts of capital murder, and the judge ordered a mental evaluation.
Police found the bodies of 8-year-old Elvis and 6-year-old twins Samanta and Samuel on a bed in their home over the weekend after a call from the children's worried father, still living in New York. Sheriff John Partain said Monday that Mendez and her husband were estranged.
Mendez had collapsed when police arrived at the house and initially was hospitalized for drinking a toxic substance. Authorities say she left notes written in Spanish that could help determine a motive.
Autopsies were planned to determine whether the children had been poisoned or smothered, as their mother told police, authorities said.
Mendez, who speaks limited English, listened to an interpreter through headphones during Monday's hearing. She replied "Si" when asked if she understood the court's procedures.
Outside the family's one-story house was a pile of burned papers. A page in a religion book bore the words "vamos a celebrar" — Spanish for "let's celebrate." A child's handwriting was scrawled in blue ink across some papers, and there were charred letters from a labor union in New York.
Friends said Mendez was a caring mother, and her husband, Arturo Morales, 37, had planned to join her in Arkansas when he had paid off the mortgage of their house.
"Many times she showed me photos of her children," said M. Rocio Maya, who attended St. Barbara Catholic Church with Mendez. "She showed me when she was pregnant with each one of them, photos of her husband, of the happy life that they had always lived."
The Rev. Salvador Marquez-Munoz said he visited with Mendez at the hospital Saturday night.
"She has tremendous remorse. She is deeply sorry," he said Sunday. "She asked for our prayers and forgiveness because she is realizing how much she has hurt the community, as well."
He said Mendez had lived in the United States for 10 years since moving from Mexico, and left New York for Arkansas so her children could grow up in a safer environment. The family never missed Sunday Mass and attended religious education classes, he said.
Marquez-Munoz said he didn't know what compelled Mendez to hurt her children. "The only thing that I can imagine is some personal issues," he said.