On Feb. 29, 2008, at a gala awards dinner inside the Sheraton Grand Hotel, a 27-year-old Sacramento-area woman was honored as "family child care provider of the year."
Nominated by parents, Sheila Caceres was praised for her backyard barbecues, family dinner nights and special outings for children who attended Sheila's Garden Daycare in a new Mather subdivision. Caceres posed for pictures that night with Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli and then-Citrus Heights Mayor Steve Miller, among other dignitaries.
"She welcomes phone calls and visits from parents who want to check in on their children," according to the announcement by the Sacramento Child Care Coalition, which bestowed the award.
Now, in the wake of an infant's mysterious death inside Caceres' home in February, she is fielding phone calls and visits from sheriff's detectives and state licensing officials.
Together, they present a different image of Sheila Caceres and the day care home she operated for more than five years in a neighborhood bursting with young families.
This month, in a deal struck with the California Department of Social Services, Caceres agreed to a lifetime ban on operating, working in or being present in a day care home. She surrendered her license amid numerous allegations, including failure to call 911, lying to law enforcement, letting one child wander away from the home and having sex in front of at least one child in her care, according to records from the department's community care licensing division.
The Sacramento County Sheriff's Department recently forwarded its investigation of the baby's death to the district attorney for possible criminal charges. DA's spokeswoman Shelly Orio would say only that the case is "still under review."
So far, though, no one has been able to answer the most compelling question: What happened to 2-month-old Avin Rominger inside the Caceres home on Feb. 23?
Caceres did not respond to requests for comment left by phone and mail and a written request from The Bee hand-delivered to her home.
Her attorney in the licensing matter, Kathleen Morgan, said Caceres was not responsible for Avin's death, but that she had no desire to continue caring for children after the incident.
"Ms. Caceres, as you can probably imagine, didn't want to do child care anymore after the child died," Morgan said.
Caceres agreed to what is referred to as a "no admission, no finding agreement" with the state, Morgan said. She noted "there are no accusations that she caused Avin's death," and dismissed the other allegations filed by the state.
"Some allegations, you throw mud and see what sticks," Morgan said.
Ideal arrangement at first
Avin was born Dec. 11, 2010, after two years of fertility treatments and advice from doctors that Dave and Rachelle Rominger could not have another child. The couple had been paying Caceres for some time to watch their other child, 5-year-old Savannah, and the setup initially seemed ideal.
Their homes were less than a mile apart in a neighborhood of beige, one- and two-story homes near the old Mather Air Force Base.
Before Avin was born, Rachelle Rominger had volunteered numerous hours in the day care home, where she said she was thrilled by the exotic array of "beautiful, educational toys" no Barbies or My Little Ponies.
After Avin's birth, Caceres agreed to let the Romingers drop off their children early each day to accommodate their work schedules.
Dave Rominger works at Mather for the National Guard, where he oversees the tools used to maintain Guard helicopters. Rachelle Rominger is a 911 dispatcher, which in a twist of fate is how she first learned that her baby was in peril.
"A co-worker came running over to me and told me to look at a log," Rominger said.
She saw the address. She saw that an infant was having trouble breathing, and that the fire department was en route.
"It didn't register, and he told me to scroll down," she recalled. "And I saw my husband's name and I realized it was my son."
Dave Rominger had arrived at the Caceres house that day after 4 p.m., where he said Caceres told him everything was fine.
"I knocked on the door, she appeared, no problem," he said. "She was on the phone, and she says, 'OK, I'm going to go get your son.' "
Not long after Caceres went up the stairs, he said, he saw her running back down, saying, "Call 911, call 911, he's unresponsive!"
Rominger called 911 from his cellphone, he said, but as soon as he saw Avin he knew there was little hope. He saw blood in the boy's right nostril and his face and limbs already were blue, he said. A former emergency medical technician, Rominger said the alarming color change made no sense.
"I asked her, 'How long has he been down?' And she says, 'About 20 minutes.'
"I kept saying, 'That's not right, that's not right.' I'm an EMT. I know after 20 minutes you don't turn blue. It takes a lot longer than that."
A firefighter who lived across the street rushed over to help perform CPR while the others waited for an ambulance.
By the time Rachelle Rominger arrived, she said she had calmed down and "wasn't really worried." Avin probably had a cold, she figured something so minor it would be embarrassing to send away the fire department.
"I got to her house and saw the firetruck out in front and a crowd of people," she said. "And when I got to the door I saw a sheriff's officer posted outside the door.
"And I knew my son was dead "
Story quickly unraveled
Sheriff's detectives say Caceres' story began to unravel almost from the start.
When Detective Darin Pometta first arrived, Caceres told him that Avin had been napping downstairs and she did not realize the baby was in trouble until his father arrived, according to interviews with Pometta and his supervisor, Sgt. Jeff Reinl of the sheriff's Child Abuse Unit.
But at Mercy San Juan Medical Center, where Avin had been taken and eventually would be declared dead, Detective Brian Shortz was hearing from Dave Rominger that Avin had been sleeping upstairs.
"It just wasn't adding up," Pometta said.
When Pometta arrived at his office the following morning, he said, Caceres had left him a voice message saying she wanted to amend her story.
In a lengthy follow-up interview, Pometta said, Caceres said she had left Avin sleeping on the second floor of the home in a car seat. Caceres later admitted to the state she knew leaving children upstairs violated regulations, documents show.
Caceres told Pometta she found Avin unresponsive sometime that afternoon, picked him up and then placed him on his side in a portable playpen. She then rubbed his back and went downstairs, Pometta said.
Sheriff's investigators say phone records indicate Caceres made a series of phone calls after that discovery, but that she never called 911.
"If she'd made that call, we probably wouldn't be sitting here talking," Reinl said.
Pometta said the woman told him she had panicked when she discovered the unresponsive infant and was afraid she would "get in trouble with licensing."
The Coroner's Office lists the official cause of death as "undetermined," but in the autopsy the coroner indicated that the delay in calling 911 was significant.
"The investigation by this office and the autopsy did not reveal a cause of death," the report stated. "The time delay is a factor of concern since it is unknown if he could have been revived from whatever event that caused his death."
The head of the sheriff's child abuse unit was more blunt.
"She didn't give Avin a chance to live," Sgt. Reinl said.
Appearance of success
Caceres, now 31 and a mother of three, was licensed in November 2005 to operate a day care facility for up to eight children, records show. In December 2006, she was licensed to care for up to 14.
She appeared to be successful.
Inside the 2,800-square-foot home on Grafton Circle, she had assembled a collection of toys and play areas that Detective Pometta described as an "immaculate layout." Rachelle Rominger says she had never seen a day care center as opulent as the one operated by Caceres.
"No other day care we looked at had stuff like this," she said. "We're talking about a two-story wooden play structure. She put in a playground with rubber bark and slides, and you walk in there and you're like, 'I don't have this for my children. This is where I want to put my child.' "
Records maintained by Sacramento County show no problems reported about the day care center before Avin died.
But after Avin's death, investigations by the state and Sheriff's Department resulted in numerous allegations, including Caceres' failure to call 911 after finding Avin unresponsive or to report his death to state licensing officials.
The state also alleged that she operated the facility over capacity and that at one point last year, Caceres "failed to notify the licensing office of an unusual incident in which a child wandered away from the facility and was found in the street."
She was accused of leaving chemicals and medications accessible to children. And, the state alleged, that "on more than one occasion from approximately 2009 to 2010" she took a day care child with her to another home and "engaged in sexual activity in the presence of the child."
Her license was suspended March 3. The state Office of Administrative Hearings then scheduled a hearing for Caceres to appeal the suspension and dispute the allegations.
Days before the hearing this month, however, Caceres agreed to settle the matter without conceding any wrongdoing. On Sept. 9, the state ordered a lifetime ban on her operating a day care center.
Morgan, her attorney, said it was simply too expensive for Caceres to fight the case.
Caceres' elaborate collection of high-end toys and day care supplies is currently offered for sale on Craigslist. The home on Grafton Circle is listed for sale on Internet sites, with an asking price of $245,000.
Struggling to understand
Inside the Rominger home, Avin's ashes are kept in a wooden box on the living room mantel.
"We just thought, why leave him in a grave all alone when we can keep him here nice and warm," his father said.
In Avin's bedroom, the bassinet where he once slept has remained untouched, with the tiny imprint of his body still visible in the sheets.
Avin's 5-year-old sister is still struggling to understand what happened. All of the friends she knew had been in the day care, and now her parents find they are no longer available for play dates.
"It's confusing for her," Rachelle Rominger said. "She thinks all babies die now, and she'll often ask people, 'When's your baby going to die?' "
The couple are expecting a new baby in January. But that, too, poses a dilemma.
"We have a three-bedroom house, so we have to decide," said Rachelle Rominger. "Do we move his things, or do we put the baby in with our daughter?"