Amy Hunter arrived at a parking lot near her home in West Sacramento on New Year’s Eve to pick up her daughters, Sara, 9 and Sophie, 12.
The spot near West Sacramento’s City Hall was the designated drop-off point for the girls, whose parents had been involved in a custody battle for years, said Julie Jenkins, who knows Hunter and owns the Caring Connection Children’s Center, where Hunter worked as a teacher.
This time, she said, the girls never got out of the car.
They were later declared dead at UC Davis Medical Center in what West Sacramento Police said was a murder-suicide by their father, Hamdy Rouin, 46, a Tunisian immigrant who was also found dead in the car. Police said there were no visible injuries on the girls, and their cause of death had not been released as of Tuesday afternoon.
In court filings, Hunter described Rouin as an abusive husband and heavy drinker who had hit her, threatened to throw the cat out the car window and told her he would take the girls away to Tunisia. Rouin was scheduled to appear Tuesday morning in Yolo Superior Court for violating a protective order, court records show.
Jenkins said Hunter is in a state of shock, but is being supported by her mother, who flew in from Las Vegas, and other family and friends from her Islamic religious community. About 100 people gathered Tuesday evening for a vigil in front of the Casa Mobile Park, where Hunter lived with her daughters.
“It’s really heartbreaking,” said neighbor Calvin Lopez.
Beth Hassett, head of Sacramento’s WEAVE organization, which helps victims of domestic violence escape, called the apparent double homicide “the worst-case scenario” for a mother trying to escape an abusive relationship.
“We see perpetrators of domestic violence trying to continue to control the victim even after the divorce is final,” Hassett said. “The ultimate move is to kill themselves or the children.”
Often, she said, a court date can be a triggering event.
“It breaks my heart when we see victims who have done everything right using the tools available to them and they still end up with such a tragic outcome,” Hassett said.
Jenkins and other people who know Hunter said she was heavily involved in her daughters’ upbringing and education. “She worked for us for about three years and is a wonderful teacher who works with preschoolers and infants, and her daughters were happy, sweet and good,” Jenkins said of Hunter. “The youngest, Sara, would put sheets on the nap-time mats for our kids.”
Neighbor Abelina Ozuna said she often saw the girls riding their bikes in the mobile home park where they lived.
“It was pretty much just about her and her girls,” she said.
A Gofundme page has been established to support Hunter. It has raised $19,279 as of 4 p.m. Tuesday. The page describes the girls as kind and funny and says they were passionate about feeding the homeless. It says Sara wanted to be a mathematician for NASA and Sophie wanted to be a scientist.
Leaders of the Muslim community Tuesday mourned the loss of the girls and struggled to understand why Rouin would have killed them.
Imam M.A. Azeez of Tarbiya Institute mosque spoke at the vigil Tuesday evening. He said it took him half an hour to summon the strength to tell his daughter two of her best friends were dead.
Rouin was rarely seen at Tarbiya or the Salam mosques that his family attended, said Azeez and Metwalli Amer, founder and president of Salam. Azeez said he tried to mediate the couple’s protracted custody battle.
“I remember visibly his constant frustration that he is not understood,” Azeez said. He said Rouin told him, “I am the immigrant. I am the fresh-off-the boat guy. Nobody is going to listen to my story. My wife is white, so I’ve lost already.”
“I heard that many times,” Azeez said.
Rouin was deeply concerned with in the pro-democracy movements in Tunisia and Egypt, Azeez said. “He was extremely consumed with Tunisia and the revolution and its aftermath, and was always talking about Arab Spring.”
Rouin’s Facebook page lists no job. It features a photo of him smoking a cigarette in front of a No Smoking sign.
Hunter, his ex-wife, was very involved at Salam Academy, the full-time Islamic study center that her daughters attended before it closed last May, Amer said.
“She used to be a full-time teacher there, and also worked at our bookstore for a number of years,” Amer said. “She served on Salam Academy’s education board and helped with bake sales and fundraisers.” Amer said Rouin would show up, but Hunter kept him at a distance.
Hunter filed for divorce in December 2014, six months after she filed the first of several temporary restraining orders against Rouin. In a declaration filed with the court, Hunter described a constant stream of threats and verbal and sometimes physical abuse.
She said Rouin, whom she married in Las Vegas in 1999, worked a variety of part-time jobs, usually as a limo driver, but frequently missed work because of his heavy drinking.
“He always told me his drinking was my fault.....and that it was my fault he couldn’t get a job,” she said in her court declaration.
According to Hunter’s declaration, Rouin was arrested for being drunk and disorderly in Henderson, Nev., in 2009, soliciting a prostitute in West Sacramento in 2010, domestic violence while intoxicated in West Sacramento in 2014, and violating his temporary restraining order several times starting in 2014.
Rouin denied all of Hunter’s allegations of abuse, requested joint custody and alleged Hunter had made up the charges “to gain a tactical advantage in the custody and dissolution proceedings.”
Their divorce was finalized in December 2016.
As of July 2014, Rouin was allowed only supervised visits once a week with his children. But he completed a court-ordered parenting class and gradually had his access to the girls increased. As of 2016, he was allowed unsupervised visits.
Rouin was listed as having joint legal custody in a November 2016 document, while Hunter retained sole physical custody.
In August 2017, Rouin was arrested for violating a temporary restraining order and a criminal protective order based on a pending charge of domestic violence, as well as for contempt of court, according to court records. It was on that charge that he was scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday.
Jenkins, who has worked with other families caught up in custody disputes, said Hunter told her they were scheduled to be in court Tuesday morning, and remarked that she hoped “this is all going to be over soon; he has violated so many court orders.”