Robert Hodges faced his wife in a Woodland courtroom Friday morning and apologized for “destroying the life we built together and taking the lives of our children.”
The West Sacramento man’s admission that he killed the couple’s three children and his apology did not spare him from being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole by Yolo Superior Court Judge David Rosenberg.
“God may forgive you, but this court does not,” Rosenberg said.
Hodges was a “serial killer of his own children,” Rosenberg said, calling it the “darkest, most depraved case I’ve ever handled.”
Hodges himself called his crimes “unforgivable.”
“I’ll spend the rest of my life begging (Mai) Sheng, Kelvin, Julie, Lucas and God for forgiveness,” he said. “I love you all and I’m sorry I failed you. That is all.”
Hodges, 32, pleaded guilty last month to killing Kelvin, 11, Julie, 9, and Lucas, 7 months, and attempting to murder his wife, Mai Sheng Vang, in their West Sacramento apartment on Sept. 13, in the worst mass slaying in decades in Yolo County.
“He’ll die in prison. That’s where he should die. He’ll never get out. It’s done today,” Yolo County District Attorney and Hodges’ prosecutor Jeff Reisig told reporters outside Yolo County Courthouse in Woodland following the hourlong morning hearing.
Hodges’ plea last month to life without parole had been negotiated for weeks. Reisig’s office had said the family’s “desire for a swift and certain conclusion to this heartbreaking case” led to the agreement.
Still, Reisig told reporters, “There’s never going to be solace for the family in this case. Three children are gone and there’s simply nothing that will ever heal the wounds. Our hope and prayer for the family is that they will be able to move past this stage into some form of healing, which I’m sure will last for the rest of their lives.”
Hodges’ December plea may have spared Mai Sheng and the family and friends who survive her children a jury trial, but not their pain. Mai sat in a far corner of the first row of the gallery, one among long, solemn rows of supporters. She did not speak.
But others did, sharing the hurt, shock and disbelief that continue to resonate. Mai Sheng’s sister, Sue, described Hodges as a loving father before “the demon got inside you and made you do all these things – you took one lovely piece, but left her in so many pieces.” Hodges’ father, Robert Sr., in prepared remarks read in court, remembered his son as “an upstanding guy – other than the day he lost his mind.”
Hodges, wearing a long, unkempt beard and faded jail clothes, listened with defense counsel Yolo County deputy public defender Ron Johnson. His body listed to one side as if to shield himself from the survivors’ words.
“There is this intense, immeasurable pain in our hearts that won’t subside. We are broken to the very core,” family friend Mai Menses told Rosenberg from the podium. “Kelvin, Julie and Lucas are gone. Mai is in despair. She is not the same person. She has lost her soul. Through it all, we also lost you.”
Menses recalled the young lives taken by their father:
Julie, who aspired to be a writer, and who would have changed the world for the better – had she had the chance.
Kelvin, a boy with no worries in the world and a million-dollar smile. He had it all figured out, Menses said.
And, baby Lucas, who, Menses said, was “Mai Sheng’s heart.”
She then directly addressed Hodges, calling him “Rob,” and telling him of the toll he exacted on her own children.
“They cry to the point of hyperventilation. You tainted what trust feels like. You took away our Julie, Kelvin and Lucas,” she said before directing her comments to the bench. “We all knew Rob to be a good man. We all loved him and thought of him as family. This pains us to know that we not only lost three, we lost four.”
Reisig on Friday called the West Sacramento killings “the most evil crime I’ve ever experienced as a DA: the sequential murders of three children by their father, with no explanation other than pure evil. We deployed an army of investigators to determine how Mr. Hodges got to this point, but there was nothing. It’s that fact that keeps us up at night.”
In preliminary hearing testimony, investigators who responded to the horrific scene and interrogated Hodges said he told them he was in deep financial crisis when he first suffocated his youngest child, then strangled the two older children over the space of several hours, surprising each of the older children from behind and choking them with a leather belt. He then planned to kill his wife and end his own life.
His reasoning for the slayings, investigators said, was to spare the family financial hardship. Hodges said he had taken breaks on his portable tablet between the killings to summon the physical and mental strength to carry out the killings.
During the preliminary hearing in October, West Sacramento police Detective Eric Palmer, the lead investigator on 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.
He said Hodges was willing to talk when they met later in an interview room at the West Sacramento Police Department.
He described in detail how he killed the children and waited for his wife to come home so he could kill her, too. But when he tried to wrap the belt around her neck she fought back, scratching, kicking and begging for mercy, Palmer said.
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 interview. He had been thinking about killing the family, then himself, for a year.
Court records showed that Hodges had no criminal record other than minor traffic violations. In a Facebook post days after the killings – made public by KCRA – Mai Hodges said her husband was never physically abusive.
“He had always been a caring and loving person,” she wrote. “But for whatever reason went (through) his mind, heart to do this, I can never imagine why. I ask myself everyday, ‘why?’ ”