Amy Hunter this week cradled a cup of tea in her West Sacramento mobile home, choosing to remember the sweet memories of her daughters rather than dwell on what went so horribly wrong on New Year’s Eve.
“I want people to remember how they lived, not how they died,” said Hunter, 47, speaking publicly for the first time since she discovered their bodies in her ex-husband’s Hyundai.
Hunter on the evening of Dec. 31 went to a Subway parking lot near her home to pick up her daughters, Sophia, 12, and Sara, 9, from their father, Hamdy Rouin. By the time the paramedics arrived, Rouin, 46, was already dead. The girls later were pronounced dead at UC Davis Medical Center.
West Sacramento police allege that Rouin killed the girls before killing himself. Their deaths are still under investigation.
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For years, Hunter had been involved in a legal battle to try to free herself and her daughters from Rouin. Hunter said her alcoholic ex-husband had long been a ticking time bomb, and there was a “disconnect” between Yolo County’s family law court, which had issued several restraining orders against him, and the criminal justice system, which was responsible for enforcing those orders.
The girls died less than two days before Rouin was scheduled to be arraigned in Yolo County Superior Court on 546 misdemeanor counts of violating a longstanding protective order forbidding him to come within 100 yards of Hunter or interacting with her, even by text, unless it had to do specifically with picking up and dropping off their kids.
The Yolo County District Attorney’s Office alleged Rouin texted Hunter on 182 occasions over a 10-month period that violated the protective order, with each contact resulting in three misdemeanor counts. A warrant for his arrest was issued May 25, but it wasn’t until he was arrested on Sept. 25 – after officers saw him walking in West Sacramento with what appeared to be an open container – that he received the notice to appear in court.
Hunter said she first reported the texts to West Sacramento police nearly a year before Rouin was arrested.
“I called police about 30-40 times over the last year if there were 20, 30 or 40 texts in one day (from Rouin), but they frequently told me they couldn’t file a report,” she said. “It seemed to depend on which officer got the call.”
Hunter and Rouin’s troubled relationship began at a Starbucks in Las Vegas in 1999 and ended in divorce in 2016. Hunter said Rouin, an immigrant from Tunisia “who spoke seven languages,” initially seemed charming, but that their relationship quickly soured, in part because of Rouin’s drinking. She first separated from him in May 2001.
Hunter, who had not lived with Rouin for years, said the first time she called a domestic abuse hotline was in May 2005, when she was seven months pregnant with Sophia.
Over the years, Rouin had threatened to “cripple” her, kill her relatives, their cat, their daughters and himself, according to court documents. During one altercation, he knocked her glasses off her face, hit her on the chin and urinated on her house. He was arrested in June 2014 on domestic violence charges.
“He frequently said he would kill the girls and himself and leave me alone with my guilt,” Hunter said. “I think this was his revenge, punishing me for defying him by leaving him. ... He accused me numerous times of having affairs that I never had. I think it was important for him to hurt me mentally and emotionally, not physically. Mental abuse comes long before physical abuse. He has you brainwashed into believing things are all your fault.”
One of the texts Rouin sent her said: “You’re such a good mother but you’re such a sick woman,” Hunter said. Another said: “You’re going to see the result of your action.”
When interviewed by police in 2017, Rouin accused Hunter of trying to turn their daughters against him by “playing the victim to the police and the others,” according to a police report. “I did not want to violate the restraining order, I was just trying to do what I felt was best for the children,” he said.
Hunter said the police would call Rouin and “tell him to knock it off, but it’s not enough to tell him to stop texting. He might stop for that night and continue the next day.”
Hunter’s story has raised questions about whether more could have been done to protect the children. If Rouin was violating the protective order, why wasn’t he locked up? Why was he still allowed to have unsupervised visits with Sara and Sophia?
If Rouin had been convicted of the misdemeanor counts of repeatedly violating the protective order, he could have been sentenced to anywhere from two weeks to two months, said Yolo County Chief Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Raven.
But none of the texts contained threats that would have elevated them to a felony, Raven said. “There were hundreds of texts, and they were all very benign, including ‘Don’t use your graduate degree from UNLV against me,’ or ‘Don’t threaten me with the police.’ ”
Citing the texts, Hunter could have asked the family court judge to revoke Rouin’s unsupervised visits, Raven said. But “you can’t put any sort of onus or blame on a victim who’s going through this sort of thing. They aren’t thinking clearly, they’re afraid, they don’t want to exacerbate the situation.”
And there is no guarantee the text messages would have led the family court judge to take away Rouin’s unsupervised visits, Raven added.
Hunter said she didn’t ask the family court to revoke the unsupervised visits because “my feeling was I couldn’t ask for it until after he had gone to court.” She also said that the girls “loved their father but they didn’t always like him.”
Hunter first filed for a domestic violence restraining order in 2012. In July 2014, Rouin was given two-hour supervised visits per week with the girls. In December of that year, the visits increased to three hours. After completing weekly parenting and anger management classes, the Yolo family court granted him unsupervised visits, and by November 2016 he was granted overnight visits.
While the courts prefer both parents to be involved in their children’s lives, “If there is a need for change in this field, when there’s a violation of a restraining order that poses a realistic threat to both the victim of domestic violence and children, there ought to be a strong presumption of no visitation at all unless the abuser takes significant steps to show he can be trusted,” said McGeorge Law Professor John E.B. Myers.
But, “it’s a pretty steep burden to convince the judge to cut this guy out all together,” said Myers, adding that even if Rouin had done jail time, it might not have affected his visitation after he got out.
Myers called the family court judge in this case, Kathleen White, “a completely competent judge who gave him unsupervised visitation.”
Watchdog groups have seized upon this case as an example of what they say is wrong with family courts.
“The red flags were flying for years in this case – domestic violence, constant suicide threats, heavy drinking, repeated threats to kill the children and to harm the cat,” said Kathleen Russell, executive director of the Marin-based Center for Judicial Excellence.
Russell and others have zeroed in on Rouin’s unsupervised visitation. “If a parent violates a protective order, then the judge should order that abusive parent into ‘supervised visits,’ so the kids remain safe. Period,” Russell said.
Because of his drinking, Rouin had a hard time holding down a job, often leaving Hunter as the sole provider for the family, she said. For a time, he worked as a handyman for a Rancho Cordova apartment complex. In May 2016 went to work in maintenance for a local security company run by Frank Roman, who called Rouin one of his best friends.
“What I learned about Hamdy immediately was his love for his daughters, they were all he talked about,” said Roman, a former Santa Clara County sheriff’s deputy.
Both Raven and Hunter’s attorney, Dana Botello, said the entire case needs to be examined.
“I understand the public wants to point the finger at the judge or the DA or counsel, but each person played their part,” Botello said.
Botello and Hunter said they had asked the court to order a psychiatric evaluation on Rouin, but Hunter would have had to pay about $5,000 for the evaluation, assuming Rouin would even agree to it.
In her living room this week, surrounded by pictures of her daughters, Hunter said she keeps three candles burning side by side – a purple one for Sophia, a pink one for Sara and a green one for her.
“They were both really good people,” she said. “Sophia was funny, a little bit sarcastic and brilliant at science. She wanted to use science to help other people. While Sophia was shy, Sara was boisterous and empathetic. When she met a homeless person at the store, she would look him in the eye and say ‘Hi,’ asking, ‘Are you having a nice day?’ to make him feel better.”
Hunter said if their lives inspire others to be kind, empathetic and open to others, even people they don’t know, “then the girls would have left a wonderful legacy.”