Herhold: A lethal child custody battle




Herhold: A lethal child custody battle

By Scott Herhold

Mercury News Columnist

Posted: 12/13/2009 12:00:00 AM PST

Updated: 12/13/2009 08:35:33 AM PST

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Daniel Tilbury, 34, is charged with killing his ex-wife,... ( courtesy sc county dept of corre )

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This is the week that Fabian Gonzales is scheduled to tell his story in court, the story he told the officers on the night his fiancée was killed, the story he told me as he made dinner for his children. It is bloody and cruel but it is his story, a raw scar that will not fade.

In his narrative, one moment sticks in memory like the jab of a bayonet to the gut. It was the moment when his fiancée, Kristine Ramos, 33, looked at her ex-husband and said, "No, don't" — her last words before the shots that killed her.

"You think when this happens, it only happens in the movies," said Gonzales, 38, a stocky materials assembler at a high-tech company. "My thought was, 'Oh, my god, it's really happening.' I still hear the way she said, 'No, don't.' "

Several years ago, I swore I would attempt no more stories about child custody battles. There were too many complications, too much truth for any one side to claim it all. And it would take me far too long to parse the real facts.

This story, however, has a victim who cannot be anything but a victim: Kristine Ramos. It has a defendant: her ex-husband, Daniel Tilbury, 34. And it has a narrator: Fabian Gonzales, who tells the story as a tribute to his love for her and the children she left behind.

Even when this week's preliminary hearing is concluded — and after the case is eventually tried or settled — it will be the children who bear the brunt of this

tragedy, the unlikely combination of seven kids who melded far better than anyone had a right to expect.

Kristine Ramos, an independent and resourceful woman who was the daughter of former KPIX newsman Manny Ramos, started living with Gonzales four years before her death, when her marriage to Tilbury had disintegrated.

Ramos and Tilbury had agreed to share custody of their three kids, known as "the boys:" — Hunter, now 8; Jacob, 7; and Justin, 5. The boys were joined by four more kids: Gabriel, now 15, Kristine's son by a previous relationship; Isaac, 10, Gonzales' son from a previous relationship; and two children they had together: Madison, now 3, and Aidan, 2.

Despite the odds, this seemed to work in a creaky fashion. When the family went into a restaurant, no one talked of blending. The kids got along.

Then, a few months before the shooting, Tilbury got a job as a network engineer in Washington state — and by Gonzales' account, talked of taking "the boys" with him.

Court order

Kristine Ramos was determined that this would not happen. Fabian says she preferred to compromise with her ex-husband. But when the idea of taking the boys out of state persisted, she obtained a court order giving her 100 percent custody.

"I don't think he could handle the loss of control," Gonzales explained of Tilbury. "Once he moved to Washington and he realized we'd have the kids 100 percent of the time, he lost the last bit of control, and it drove him over the edge."

By Gonzales' account, that set in motion the events of Dec. 29, 2008. Several days before, Ramos had let "the boys" visit their father at his parents' house. This time, she called to tell her ex — firmly — that she wanted them back. The police say Tilbury then drove over to her house in South San Jose.

"Daniel walked toward us and pulled out a gun and shot Kristine several times, killing her in the presence of our kids," Gonzales said. "It was like I wasn't even there. He was dead focused on her."

The other side

Is there another side to the story? Did the prospect of losing custody of his boys push Tilbury to rage? Tilbury's attorney, deputy public defender Sylvia Perez, didn't return my call. Neither did Tilbury's parents, who had hosted his kids on the night Ramos was killed.

We know that there is a victim, a defendant and a narrator. And that narrator now is trying to raise half that family on his own: Isaac, Madison and Aidan. The three "boys" live with Tilbury's parents, and Gabriel lives with a relative of Kristine's. Gonzales says he tries to see the boys every other weekend.

You realize that Fabian Gonzales, this bereft and eloquent father who has to rise at 5 a.m. to get his kids ready for school before leaving for work, is trying to hold together the strands of his family by telling the story of what ripped them apart.

"How can I tell these kids just how great a mother she was?" he asked. "The single most important thing in her life was her children. She lived and died for her children."

Contact Scott Herhold at sherhold@mercurynews.com or 408-275-0917.