Robert Hodges will face trial in the murders of his three children and the attempted killing of his wife, a Yolo Superior Court Judge ruled Friday after nearly an hour of harrowing testimony about the deaths. His arraignment is set for Nov. 3.
According to West Sacramento police Detective Eric Palmer, who testified at Friday’s preliminary hearing, Hodges, 32, told authorities he was deep in financial crisis when he killed his children over a series of hours in their West Sacramento apartment. Palmer, who interviewed Hodges after the Sept. 13 killings, said Hodges told police he suffocated his infant son before using a belt to choke the life out of his two older children.
Between the deaths, Palmer said Hodges told him he took breaks on his portable tablet as he summoned the physical and mental strength to continue the killings and plan his wife’s demise.
Hodges previously pleaded not guilty to three counts of murder in the deaths of Kelvin Hodges, 11, Julia Hodges, 9, and Lucas Hodges, 7 months. He also faces one count of attempted murder for the alleged assault on his wife, Mai Sheng Hodges, and three “special circumstance” charge enhancements for lying in wait and committing multiple murders.
The charge enhancements make the death penalty a possibility in the case, but Yolo County prosecutors have not said whether they would seek capital punishment.
Palmer, a 19-year police veteran and lead investigator in the case, said he first came in contact with a soaking wet Hodges in the back of a California Highway Patrol cruiser near Bryte on the evening of Sept. 13. Hodges, he said, had gone into the water south of West Sacramento in a failed attempt to end his own life before swimming back to shore.
Hours later, Hodges and Palmer were together again, this time in a West Sacramento Police Department interview room. Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig asked Palmer if he had read Hodges his Miranda rights. Palmer said he did, then recited the familiar lines again in open court: “You have the right to remain silent ... .”
But Hodges was willing to talk, detailing the afternoon and evening that led to the deaths of his three children.
“Did he indicate he wanted to talk to you?” asked Reisig, prosecuting the case with one of his deputies.
“Yes,” Palmer replied. “He said he had murdered his family.”
Earlier witnesses at the Friday hearing testified there had been no indication of violence in the Hodges family before the killings. Hodges’ record shows only minor traffic infractions.
On Friday, Hodges’ counsel, Yolo County supervising Deputy Public Defender Ron Johnson, said Hodges seemed to be “a caring, loving father.” Johnson’s subsequent question echoed that of a family and community: “Why?”
“He said he didn’t want to leave his family in financial hardship,” Palmer testified.
The Internal Revenue Service was coming after the family for back taxes and their credit cards were maxed out, Palmer said Hodges told him during the station-house interview.
Hodges said he had been thinking about killing his family, then himself, for a year prior to Sept. 13, Palmer testified. He said two weeks before the murders he was alone with his wife and infant son and almost killed them then. Only a scheduled half-day at the older children’s school, and the thought of the two walking in on their father in the middle of the acts, persuaded him to abandon the idea, Palmer said.
As Palmer continued, sighs could be heard in the gallery of Yolo Superior Court Judge David Rosenberg’s courtroom. Hodges, in his blue and gray jail clothes, looked straight ahead.
The first child that was killed was Hodges’ infant son, Lucas, sometime around 3 p.m., Palmer testified. (“Hodges) said he put his hands over his nose and mouth and said it was very physically and emotionally draining for him to do that,” Palmer said under questioning by Reisig.
The detective said Hodges told him that it took time to prepare for the next child. “He had to develop a plan to proceed,” Palmer said. “He said he knew the ball was rolling and he had to complete the task. He had to continue on with his ultimate task of taking out the entire family.”
Daughter Julie was next, at 4:20 p.m. She was in her bedroom, Palmer testified. Kelvin was in the living room playing video games.
Palmer testified Hodges told him he attacked both older children from behind, wrapping a leather belt around their necks, using his weight to push them to the floor.
He used the belt to strangle his daughter in her room, then went out into the living room. “He had to calm down, summon the strength to kill his son,” Palmer testified. More than an hour went by before Hodges set upon Kelvin.
Hodges placed his sons’ bodies atop the bed in the master bedroom. His daughter’s body was set on the floor near a wall. He placed plastic bags over their heads. Condensation would tell Hodges whether his children were still alive, Palmer testified. Then Hodges waited for his wife to come home. Mai Sheng was due back at the apartment at 9 p.m.
“He said, ‘The plan was to kill Mai as soon as she got home, then kill myself,’” Palmer testified. Hodges tried to wrap the belt around Mai Sheng’s neck, but she fought back, “scratching, making noise, kicking, begging for mercy,” Palmer said. Hodges ended up grabbing his wife’s car keys and speeding away.
The attack took place near a stairwell in their apartment complex, witnesses said. A neighbor was already on the phone calling 911 when Mai Sheng called out, “He tried to kill me,” said West Sacramento police Officer Andrea King, in earlier testimony.
The neighbor asked about the Hodges’ children – she knew the couple had three, King said. Mai Sheng ran upstairs and into the apartment. The neighbor followed, staying on the line with dispatchers.
“He killed her kids,” King said the neighbor told the person on the other end of the line. “He killed her kids."”