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October 19, 2010, 7:38 AM Last updated: Thursday, October 28, 2010, 4:40 PM
By HANNAN ADELY, ANDREA ALEXANDER, BARBARA WILLIAMS and WILLIAM LAMB, STAFF WRITERS
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There were almost no outward signs of trouble from the modest Pompton Lakes condominium that Kurtis Birth and his wife, Zoey Mendoza-Birth, shared with their two young children. There were no restraining orders, no calls to the police — nothing, authorities said, to prepare them for the grisly scene late Monday outside Kurtis Birth’s childhood home in nearby Ringwood: Birth had shot his daughter Jada, 5, and son Jordan, 3, in the back of their heads with a .22-caliber rifle before taking his own life.
The Births were in the midst of a “very friendly separation,” said Detective Lt. Steve Seifried of the Pompton Lakes police. But both parents retained custody of the children, Seifried said, and there were no court orders in effect. Birth and Mendoza-Birth continued to live together in the condominium on Terrace Court that they had bought in 2003.
Kurtis Birth, an accounts executive for Cablevision in Oakland, gave no indication to friends and colleagues in recent days and weeks that he was troubled. People who knew the Births were left to wonder Tuesday how a man who seemed to have such a happy disposition, who seemed to have everything going for him, could be capable of taking his own life and the lives of his young children so violently.
“It’s horrific, absolutely horrifying,” said one neighbor, Tom Dorsett. “Of all people, he looked like he had it pretty well together. He had a beautiful family.”
The case left police officers in Ringwood so rattled that grief counselors were summoned to the station house, said Chief Bernard Lombardo, whose eyes brimmed with tears at one point.
Mendoza-Birth was so traumatized after the bodies of her children and husband were discovered that she was taken to a hospital Monday night, the chief said. Lombardo said Tuesday that he did not know whether she had been released.
“I’ve been a police officer for 29 years and I’ve been to a lot of different crime scenes, and this was the most difficult, emotionally,” Lombardo said. “I’ve seen more grisly and gruesome scenes, but to see two young children taken in such a horrible way, this was by far the hardest.”
The events leading to the discovery began to unfold just before 8 p.m. Monday when Mendoza-Birth called police to report her children missing. She said her husband had picked the children up at 3:30 p.m. from Donna Reid’s Child Development Center, a day-care center on Black Oak Ridge Road in Wayne. But he had not returned home with the children, she said, and had not answered his cellphone all afternoon.
Police took a missing-persons report with descriptions of the children: One was wearing a Spider-Man shirt, Seifried said, the other a shirt with a dinosaur image. Mendoza-Birth told police her husband had a key to his childhood home, a house on Skyview Road in Ringwood’s Stonetown section that had fallen into disrepair after his father died several years ago and his mother moved to the Bronx. Pompton Lakes police asked police in New York City to check the Bronx address, and Ringwood police to check the vacant house.
In Ringwood, they found Jada’s lifeless body on the front porch, a single gunshot wound to the back of her head. They found Kurtis Birth in the driver’s seat of his black Nissan Maxima, which was parked on the property, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot to the right side of his head. Officers entered the house and found Jordan’s body inside the front door, also with a single gunshot to the back of his head.
A colleague who stopped late Tuesday to contribute three silver Christmas ornaments to a makeshift memorial outside the Births’ front door said Birth, an accomplished salesman, was known for his friendly, outgoing disposition.
“He was friendly with everybody,” said the colleague, who declined to give his name. “I can’t fathom what would drive him to this. He’s not that type of person.”
Dorsett, the neighbor, said he had seen Birth playing ball with his daughter on their quiet, dead-end street as recently as Sunday. Another neighbor, Patrice Kaydough, said Birth often was seen playing with the children outside their home or at a local playground.
“He seemed like a great dad, a doting father,” she said. “He was very involved with them.”
The family recently had installed new carpeting in their home and had placed old furniture by the curb for pickup, according to another neighbor, Caron Manning. The only sign anything was amiss, she said, was that she had rarely seen the couple together in recent months.
Harry Mihas, the owner of the Oakland Diner on Ramapo Valley Road, said Birth was a regular customer, stopping for lunch about three times a week with colleagues from Cablevision — at least until the lunchtime visits ceased suddenly about three weeks ago. Birth had helped set up the restaurant’s cable service, Mihas said, and was unfailingly friendly to the restaurant’s staff.
“I’m telling you,” Mihas said, “the guy was always smiling. He just looked like a level-headed, nice man that was happy. He was a nice guy. He was a gentleman. I just can’t believe he had these kinds of problems.”
Relatives of Mendoza-Birth’s in Ashland, Ore., where she had grown up, did not return telephone messages on Tuesday. A man who answered the door at Birth’s mother’s house in the Bronx identified himself as Birth’s brother, but did not give a name.
“He was my brother,” the man said. “Now give me my privacy.”
Lombardo declined to speculate on a motive and declined to comment when asked if Birth had left a suicide note. Toxicological test results, he said, would not be complete for several weeks.
Birth graduated in 1990 from Lakeland Regional High School, where a school record listed him as a jumper on the track team, and he attended William Paterson University until 1998. He won at least one award from Cablevision last year for achievement in sales.
A Cablevision spokeswoman, Charlstie Laytin, confirmed that Birth worked for the company, but declined to comment further.
Mendoza-Birth was employed through the 2008-09 school year as a social worker at Paterson School 30, also known as the Martin Luther King School, on East 28th Street. A spokesman for the district said she no longer works there.
Public records show that in October 2003, the Births paid $281,970 in cash for their condominium on Terrace Court in Pompton Lakes, on a hill above the former DuPont munitions plant. Four days later, records show, the couple took out two mortgages on the property, totaling $253,773, from Countrywide Home Loan Inc. With the real estate market rising, the loan was refinanced in November 2004 with a $305,000 mortgage, according to records.
Public records showed there was nothing amiss with the Births’ arrangement with Countrywide. Their property taxes were paid in full, according to the borough tax office, and a leading collector of foreclosure records, Realty Trac of Irvine, Calif., said it had no record that the Births’ home was in foreclosure.
As the police investigation proceeds, the communities of Pompton Lakes and Ringwood remain shaken.
Michelle Fenwick, director of special services for the Pompton Lakes public schools, said her office was putting together a flier encouraging parents under stress to seek help from mental health agencies, religious groups and other resources.
“In this climate,” she said, “everyone is under a lot of stress.”
“Something like this rocks the community,” said Lombardo, tears welling in his eyes. “It shouldn’t happen anywhere and no less a place as great as Ringwood.” He described the borough as a “tiny community” in which people “band together.”
“We will survive and people will help the mother get through this,” he said.
Staff Writers Patricia Alex, Deena Yellin, Leslie Brody, Meredith Mandell, Dave Sheingold and Matt Fagan contributed to this story.
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December 22, 2015
Kurtis and I, like any married couple, had our ups and downs, and after 12 years together, we were in the process of an amicable separation. We [still] lived in the same house, parented our children together, and openly discussed the troubles in our marriage. I was asking for a separation, but Kurtis didn’t want any part of it — I tried to reinforce that we could remain friends, and co-parent our two beautiful children.
Seven weeks prior to killing our kids, Kurtis attempted suicide and was placed in a psychiatric hospital for 72 hours. I visited him every single day. This was so out of character for Kurtis and nothing anyone could have red-flagged. Kurtis was diagnosed with situational depression. His doctors stated that his depression was based entirely on his sadness that our marriage was going to end. They prescribed him Zoloft, told him to try and make things better with me, and attend individual therapy.