Family members and friends of Leticia Chavez and her two daughters got their first glimpse of Rodrigo Paniagua Jr., the man accused of murdering them, in Santa Clara County Superior Court Thursday.
The clicking sound of the shackles on Paniagua grew louder as he was led into court. Family members and friends who had packed the courtroom sniffled and took deep, rapid breaths as he emerged.
Paniagua, 28, stared at some of them directly in their eyes as he was charged with four counts of homicide and one count of arson in court today.
He is accused of stabbing and killing his live-in girlfriend Leticia Chavez, 26, who had worked at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital in Palo Alto.
Chavez was five months pregnant with Paniagua's child when she was stabbed, and she suffered three stab wounds to her stomach area, court records reveal. The fourth count of homicide is for the death of the fetus.
"It was appropriate in this," Santa Clara County Chief Assistant District Attorney Karyn Sinunu said after the arraignment. "The fetus was almost six months old. He caused the murder of the fetus."
Paniagua is also accused of killing his daughters Analisa Chavez, 3, and Adrina Chavez, 6.
Paniagua allegedly set their south San Jose home on fire early Monday morning to cover up the murders, Sinunu said.
When firefighters and paramedics arrived at the Pavan Drive home around 6:25 a.m. Monday, Adrina was lying on the driveway suffering from multiple stab wounds and serious cuts to her throat area, according to the police report. She succumbed to her wounds and was pronounced dead at a local hospital soon after.
The badly burned bodies of Leticia and Analisa Chavez were found in the back bedroom where fire investigators believe the fire started.
Paniagua is accused of using a knife in all four murders.
One of the attending paramedics allegedly saw Paniagua toss a knife to the ground as he watched his home burn, according to the police report. He was also covered with a large amount of blood at the scene.
The multiple crimes carry a special circumstance of mass murder, which could lead to the death penalty if Paniagua were convicted, Sinunu said.
But prosecutors have not decided whether they will pursue the death penalty.
"We will look at the circumstances surrounding this grisly murder" and Paniagua's relationship with his live-in girlfriend and daughters, Sinunu said.
Investigators believe the incident began as domestic violence and are not yet revealing how it escalated to quadruple homicide.
"It is very difficult to explain the complexities of domestic violence," Sinunu said outside the courthouse.
"We do know through recent investigation that there were some unreported" incidents of domestic violence involving the couple, she said.
Paniagua was convicted of domestic violence and terrorist threats against Leticia Chavez in 2002. He served jail time and completed a 52-week program for convicted batterers.
Police reports indicate that Paniagua waived his rights by 11 a.m. Monday and admitted to the murders. He also admitted to setting the house on fire, according to police.
Paniagua is being held at Santa Clara County jail without bail. A public defender was appointed for him at his arraignment today.
His next court appearance is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Nov. 3.
Members of the victims' family who hugged and leaned on each other in the hall and outside court today urged members of the community to donate to a memorial fund they've set up in the victims' honor.
The family is accepting donations for the Chavez Family Memorial Fund, account No. 1881173165, at Washington Mutual bank.