For Mother Accused of Murder, Some Early Signals of Trouble — (The New York Times)

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The New York Times

By PAUL von ZIELBAUER

Published: April 22, 2003

BRANFORD, Conn., April 19 — Inside 7-year-old Sara O’Connor’s coffin, family members attending her wake last week noticed, was a single rose that lay beside her, with a note: “To Sara — Love, Mommy. We’ll miss you forever.”

To those closest to Sara and her mother, Jennifer P. O’Connor, who has been charged with killing Sara with a rifle blast as the child slept, those eight words were a shocking reminder that Ms. O’Connor’s problems were bigger than anyone had imagined.

Jennifer O’Connor had shot Sara, according to an April 4 police report based on what police officers said was her confession, because she could no longer cope with her daughter’s learning disability. She bought a rifle at a local gun shop in February, just a few weeks after social workers from the state’s Department of Children and Families, having received a call about Ms. O’Connor’s problems, opened an investigation into the O’Connor household.

The state’s routine inquiry would have most likely found Ms. O’Connor’s home spotless and her refrigerator bare, members of her former husband’s family said. It would have also revealed that Ms. O’Connor, who worked sporadically and received welfare payments and services from the Department of Children and Families, regularly saw a psychiatrist to treat her mental and emotional problems.

Family members would have pointed out how she seemed at the limit of her capabilities and would scream at Sara — not yell but scream — if she made the slightest mess. There was also the strange fact that according to an article in The Hartford Courant last week, the person who had called the state agency to register concern over Ms. O’Connor’s ability to care for Sara apparently was Ms. O’Connor herself, pretending to be someone else.

Nevertheless, for the second time in the last few years, Ms. O’Connor’s relatives said, agency caseworkers opened and closed a file on Jennifer and Sara, apparently finding in mother or child no need for further action at that time.

“Initial review of the investigation showed that no information was brought to light that could have predicted this tragic incident,” Gary Kleeblatt, a spokesman for the state child-welfare agency, said last week.

In hindsight, of course, as is often the case, some clues seemed apparent, leaving everyone involved — state caseworkers, Sara’s schoolteachers, Ms. O’Connor’s former husband, her psychiatrist and her immediate family — wondering whether they could have somehow helped a troubled single mother and the child she is accused of killing.

“In outward appearance, she was normal,” said a member of the O’Connor family, one of two willing to speak but only on the condition of anonymity. “But if you sat down and talked to her, there was something not right.”

Jennifer Demir — Ms. O’Connor’s name before she married — grew up in Woodbridge, an affluent section of New Haven County, and attended Amity High School, relatives said. When she was a child, her mother, Elizabeth, remarried, to Dr. Peter A. Demir, a New Haven urologist, and since then Jennifer has considered him her own father.

Her psychiatric problems were evident in high school, according to her former husband’s family, and she lived with her parents until she met Ian O’Connor, whom she later married, in 1990 or 1991. Mr. O’Connor, who comes from a family of what he describes as “working people,” said they immediately took to each other despite the clear differences in their families’ backgrounds.

“I thought she was attractive and we got along well,” Mr. O’Connor, 44, said in an interview on Friday.

At first glance, Jennifer Demir seemed strange but satisfied with life’s simple pleasures, neighbors and Mr. O’Connor’s relatives said. She had never expressed much professional ambition but had pursued a degree in in early childhood education from Mattatuck Community College in Waterbury (now called Naugatuck Valley Community College), O’Connor family members said.

The couple moved into a Branford apartment in 1990 or so, Mr. O’Connor said. While he worked as a manual laborer, Jennifer sought out jobs in her field.

In 1991 or so, she found work as a teacher’s assistant at Cradles to Crayons, a day care center in Guilford, Conn., but left the job after only a few months, when she and her supervisors reached a “mutual agreement” that things were not working out, said a manager at the center.

The manager said Ms. O’Connor seemed qualified and responsible to hold such a job, and never appeared threatening to any child or colleague. Ms. O’Connor also worked at the Woodbridge Child Care center sometime in the early 1990’s, her relatives said, though no one at the center could confirm that. When not working full time, Ms. O’Connor also helped clean her stepfather’s doctor’s office, O’Connor family members said.

In 1997, shortly after Sara turned 2, Jennifer, encouraged by her parents, divorced Ian, Mr. O’Connor’s family members said. The two families never had much to say to each other, O’Connor family members said, and once Sara was born, they said, the Demirs seemed to want Jennifer to cut her ties with Ian.

Elizabeth and Peter Demir did not respond to telephone and e-mail messages seeking their comments.

In 1991 or so, she found work as a teacher’s assistant at Cradles to Crayons, a day care center in Guilford, Conn., but left the job after only a few months, when she and her supervisors reached a “mutual agreement” that things were not working out, said a manager at the center.
The manager said Ms. O’Connor seemed qualified and responsible to hold such a job, and never appeared threatening to any child or colleague. Ms. O’Connor also worked at the Woodbridge Child Care center sometime in the early 1990’s, her relatives said, though no one at the center could confirm that. When not working full time, Ms. O’Connor also helped clean her stepfather’s doctor’s office, O’Connor family members said.
In 1997, shortly after Sara turned 2, Jennifer, encouraged by her parents, divorced Ian, Mr. O’Connor’s family members said. The two families never had much to say to each other, O’Connor family members said, and once Sara was born, they said, the Demirs seemed to want Jennifer to cut her ties with Ian.
Elizabeth and Peter Demir did not respond to telephone and e-mail messages seeking their comments.
Like her father and her mother, young Sara O’Connor also suffered from a learning disability. After the divorce, Jennifer still arranged to take her daughter to soccer and T-ball games, tap and dance lessons, family members and neighbors said. But they said she also seemed occasionally unhinged when Sara, who relatives say was taking Ritalin to help control her attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, did not listen.
Sometimes, O’Connor family members said, Sara seemed overly subdued, perhaps because she was being given too much Ritalin, they said. “The baby would literally sit there and stare into space,” an O’Connor family member said. “You’d have to shake her to make her look at you.”
Ms. O’Connor’s in-laws said she had always appeared to be different from most people. She’d talk until people couldn’t listen anymore, they said, and then laugh at awkward moments. Sometimes she would compulsively rearrange objects on a table over and over.
“If there was three pieces of clothes in the hamper, she’d be doing laundry,” the relative added. “If there was two or three pieces of paper in the garbage, she’d empty it. You went to her house, it was immaculate, you wouldn’t see a speck of dust, but there was no food in the refrigerator for the baby.”
Ian O’Connor, who now works in a factory making cardboard boxes for $8 an hour, said his former wife often called him about her problems caring for Sara. But she mostly declined his offers to help, he said.
A few years ago, after months of such calls, Mr. O’Connor said, he phoned the Department of Children and Families to express concern about how Jennifer was treating Sara. Caseworkers made some initial inquiries, O’Connor family members said, but nothing came of it. Mr. Kleeblatt, the agency spokesman, declined to comment on specific investigations.
In December 1998, a town Probate Court judge appointed Elizabeth Demir, Ms. O’Connor’s mother, sole conservator of her daughter’s assets, which totaled about $88,000. Property records also showed that Jennifer’s parents bought her a $130,000 condominium and a 2002 Mercury station wagon.
From the beginning, Mr. O’Connor said, his wife’s emotional problems were obvious. “Instead of looking at you in the eye when she talked to you, her eyes would be closed, and her eyelids would flutter,” he said.
The state’s investigation lasted four to six weeks, during which time social workers interviewed Sara, both parents, officials at Sara’s grade school, her pediatrician, and anyone else providing services to family, extended family members and neighbors, Mr. Kleeblatt said.
Social workers also talked to Jennifer O’Connor’s psychiatrist, who told them she had recently switched medications to treat depression.
The department’s social workers, finding no reason to intervene immediately, decided against asking a court to force Ms. O’Connor to seek further professional help, and closed the case.
About a month later, Ms. O’Connor bought a Winchester .30-caliber rifle, apparently without telling her former husband or any other family member.
On April 4, sometime after 6 a.m., Ms. O’Connor awoke, opened her dresser drawer, grabbed a round from a paper bag filled with ammunition and loaded the rifle, according to a police report.
Walking into Sara’s room as the child slept, she aimed and fired once, the police report said. O’Connor family relatives say they believe Ms. O’Connor waited up to 45 minutes before calling her former husband shortly before 7 a.m. and calmly telling him Sara had been shot. Then she called the police, who say she confessed to the shooting ? blaming it on her daughter’s learning disability  while sitting in a police car with three officers.
Sara died in a hospital three days later. Ms. O’Connor, who is being held in a state prison where she is getting psychiatric attention, is scheduled to enter a plea to her murder charge on April 29.
“She said she couldn’t cope with it anymore,” the police report said.