NORTH STONINGTON, Conn. – Debra Denison chatted with day care workers as they helped load her two grandsons into her van.
It had been a day full of smiles and cupcakes for 2-year-old Alton Perry, who was celebrating his birthday, and nothing seemed amiss, said Nikki Salaun, the director of the Kidds & Co. day care.
But instead of taking the children home as planned, Denison vanished Tuesday and left behind a suicide note. After a frantic search, she and her grandsons, 2-year-old Alton Perry and 6-month-old Ashton Perry, were found shot to death in an apparent murder-suicide.
"We've all gone over it in our heads," Salaun said. "Did she say something that we could have picked up on? But no, there was nothing alarming."
Relatives said Denison had struggled with mental health problems, but family and friends were left struggling to understand what could have prompted the violence.
"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 Marcia White, a paternal great-grandmother of the slain boys. "She seemed to be doing well."
The boys' parents told WVIT-TV that Denison had split personalities and family members told WFSB-TV that she had bipolar disorder.
The bodies of 47-year-old Denison and the boys were found in a car parked near Lake of Isles in Preston, in the southeastern corner of Connecticut, a town over from the boys' day care center in North Stonington.
Denison had been to the day care before and was on a list of people authorized to pick up the children.
Denison's daughter, Brenda Perry, the boys' mother, had worked at the center several years ago. She now works at a local school and her husband, Jeremy, was a landscaper, Salaun said.
Salaun and day care center co-owner Christine Hare had attended Perry's baby showers and weren't surprised when she enrolled her boys there in October.
"Those boys were her world," Saloun said. "She coveted her family. Those boys were everything."
Alton, with his piercing blue eyes, was always smiling behind his ever-present pacifier, Hare said. He was nicknamed "the greeter" at the day care because he always went to meet visitors at the door while other children hung back.
Their mother had brought in mini-cupcakes for the toddler room to celebrate his birthday. She told staff that Denison would be picking up the children.
Salaun and Hare said that they were aware Denison had some mental health issues in the past but that she was friendly and talkative Tuesday.
"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, the staff discovered she had taken the wrong car seat. When they couldn't reach her by phone, they alerted Perry, who contacted police. The bodies were found at 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 armed with a revolver and they found a suicide note.
White, the great-grandmother, said Denison picked the children up alone Tuesday even though their mother asked her to bring along another relative. White says Denison's struggles with mental health were well known and Perry told Denison the boys were too much for her to handle.
White said Perry told her that Denison asked to pick the boys up to be with Alton on his birthday.
"She was apparently very convincing," said White, who expressed frustration that a gun was apparently available inside the house despite Denison's mental health history. She said the gun belonged to Denison's husband.
Denison also had a 13-year-year-old son who wasn't with her Tuesday afternoon. In her suicide note, she said in part that God was watching over him Tuesday, White said. What exactly she meant by that, and her motive for the killings and suicide, remain unclear.
Denison also has a 27-year-old son, Christopher Allen, who is prison serving a 32-year sentence for felony murder. Allen stabbed a man to death on a boat in Mystic in 2008 as he and a co-defendant boarded the vessel to steal money and drugs.
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 didn't 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's 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.
Melia and Associated Press writer Dave Collins contributed to this report from Hartford, Conn.