Thursday, October 6, 2011

Woodbury, MN: Murder-suicide suspected in deaths of 3 from Woodbury

Friends and neighbors mourning the deaths of a Woodbury man and his two young children whose bodies were discovered after an RV blaze near the Grand Canyon learned Wednesday night that the children likely died by their father's hand.

It remained unclear what killed Tony DeHaven, 35, his son, Jace DeHaven, 11, and daughter, Jersey DeHaven, 5. But federal authorities said a preliminary investigation of the Monday fire "suggests the possibility of a murder-suicide and does not suggest the involvement of an unknown party."

Because the investigation is continuing, Debbie Brenchley, district ranger for the National Park Service, would not disclose what led authorities to surmise that this was a double-murder suicide, or whether the fire was arson.

In Minnesota, a family member contacted Woodbury police at roughly the same time as the tragedy was unfolding in Arizona, authorities said.

Deputy Police Chief Todd Johnson said that report has become part of the investigation by the Park Service, which asked that details not be disclosed. Johnson declined to say who had called.

That report apparently is the only time that Woodbury police had contact with the family, Johnson said.

Park visitors and a ranger arriving at work near the entrance to Grand Canyon National Park on Monday noticed smoke inside the motor home shortly after 7 a.m. and tapped on its door, but nobody responded, Brenchley said.

"It was literally just a couple of minutes after our park ranger got on the scene and was knocking on the door that it burst into flames," she said. "There was no time for anything."

Brenchley said it was unclear if the children and their father had died before fire consumed the vehicle. The bodies were discovered once the blaze was out. She declined to say whether weapons were recovered but did say that to her knowledge, "nobody heard any gunshots."

The children's mother, Angela Elizabeth Velasquez, could not be reached for comment. Neighbors said the family's two-story townhouse, not far from Radio Drive and Interstate 94, has been dark for days and they haven't seen her. Only the father and two kids were found in the charred RV, but police said Velasquez is not missing.

Neighbors in mourning

The murder-suicide report confirmed what a DeHaven neighbor, Zach Cade, said he had feared since learning of the fire and deaths.

Cade said he had been friends with Velasquez, whom he hasn't seen in the neighborhood for several months. She had confided in him last year about the couple's marital struggles.

"They were having some problems and she had wanted to move out and get her own place," Cade said. "He was way into her more than she was into him."

DeHaven was a big man who did flooring and other construction work, Cade said, adding that it seemed odd that should a fire have started accidentally, DeHaven wouldn't have been able to get out of the RV with the kids. Cade said he also found it strange that the father had taken the kids on vacation only weeks after school started.

In Woodbury, two small bikes

On Wednesday, two small bicycles still leaned against a garage wall at the DeHaven home. One was the silver-and-black trick bike owned by Jace, a sixth-grader at Skyview Middle School in nearby Oakdale. Next to his bicycle was a tiny pink one with training wheels and princess stickers that Jersey, a kindergartner at Skyview Elementary, would ride around the neighborhood.

"She was just a sweet little thing, a cute little brown-haired, dark-eyed girl," said neighbor Greg Miller, whose daughters were friends with Jersey. "Very polite. She was just a sweetheart."

Jersey used to run through the back yards and tap on his windows to see if his daughters were home, Miller said. On Wednesday, he gazed out his back door toward the back of the DeHaven townhouse.

"I just discovered this morning that it was Jersey and her older brother who died, and I can't get it off my mind," Miller said, anguishing over how to break the news to his kids. He said his heart went out to the survivors, including the mom.

"I keep looking over there, and I can't imagine," Miller said. "I have kids that age, and it would be devastating."

A few doors down, Laura Forgey, 43, said the children were always friendly and sweet.

"It is extremely sad," she said. "It makes you want to hold onto the ones you love dearly."

Joy Powell • 651-925-5038

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