BAY CITY, Texas - Laura Gonzalez was happy to be back at work after three weeks away that included a stay at a battered women's shelter. She saw it as the beginning of a new life. One without her husband and the father of her four children, she told co-workers. She wasn't going back to him this time, she said, and left for home.
Less than an hour later, her 24-year-old husband, Jose Avila, launched a brutal final assault. First he shot his wife three times. Then, he began shooting the children. Avila's final act was to kill himself.
Two of the children died at a hospital Thursday, a day after their two siblings were killed in the shooting that rattled the small southeast Texas town of Bay City. Their mother is hospitalized in critical condition.
As details trickled out, a picture emerged Thursday of a family long struggling with violence, including an assault reported by Gonzalez just before Thanksgiving. After that, she went to a battered women's shelter.
"I asked her how she was doing because I knew she was at the crisis center. She said she was trying to make something of her freedom and a better life for herself and her children," said Alejandro Gonzalez, a fellow waiter at La Casona, the Mexican restaurant where Gonzalez worked.
"She wanted to make a better life for his kids because they see all the violence," he added, recounting the conversation he had with Gonzalez hours before Avila turned on her.
Although Gonzalez left the trailer home she shared with her husband after reporting the assault, Bay City Lt. Andrew Lewis said she refused to press charges. He didn't know how long she stayed at the shelter.
Wednesday's violence unfolded on a quiet street in Bay City a town about 65 miles southwest of Houston just as two nearby schools were letting out. The couple started arguing inside the trailer, and Avila shot his wife twice, Lewis said. She ran out to the front yard, where Avila shot her a third time. Then, he turned on the children.
"We heard ... that he was walking around waving a gun," Lewis said, describing the violent scene that unfolded on a lawn now decorated with a makeshift memorial of teddy bears, candles and prayer books. At least one student witnessed the incident.
Two of the brothers, aged 3 and 5, died of their wounds at a Houston hospital Wednesday. Their 2-year-old sister and 4-year-old brother had been on life support but died Thursday. Gonzalez was in critical condition Thursday night at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Police have not officially released the names of the victims, but co-workers and neighbors identified Avila's wife as Laura Gonzalez.
The family had moved into the trailer home near Bay City's Western-style downtown about a year ago, neighbors said. They appeared to live a quiet life. On occasion, next-door neighbor Isuro Perez heard them arguing, but it appeared to be nothing out-of-the-ordinary. Just a run-of-the-mill dispute between a married couple.
"He always plays soccer out here in this field out here, plays soccer with his kids," Perez said, pointing to a grassy area opposite the row of trailer homes. "They were nice people, nothing went wrong really. They were a happy family."
At work, though, Gonzalez portrayed a different picture. Alejandro Gonzalez said he once saw her with a black eye. And Ruby Gomez, a waitress at La Casona, said Laura Gonzalez had told her about problems she had with her husband.
"She had to leave to get the kids in the afternoon because he threatened her that if she left him he was going to kill the four kids and her," Gomez said.
Once, Gomez said, Gonzalez told her Avila had locked her in the house and gone to work. She escaped through a window and went to a shelter, Gomez recounted. That was the second time she left him, and vowed not to go back.
The first time "he convinced her that he was going to change and that he really loved his kids, and convinced her to return to live with him," Gomez said.
Still, the tragic outcome of the relationship came as a shock to Gonzalez's co-workers and to other residents of Bay City a town of just over 17,000 people surrounded by large ranches and farmland. The shooting was the talk of the town Thursday, as residents drove slowly past the couple's home.
Some stopped to add something to the growing memorial. Others cried. Several prayed.
"It's going to be sad for the momma when she wakes up and finds out she lost her children," said Gloria Carranza, a 41-year-old Bay City native who added pink and blue balloons to the memorial.
"Things like this don't happen in a small town like Bay City," she said.