SPRING, Texas (AP) — A man charged with killing four children and their parents forced his way into the family’s suburban Houston home, tied them up and shot them in the back of the head when they refused to tell him where his ex-wife was, authorities said Thursday.
The lone survivor of the attack, the slain couple’s 15-year-old daughter, suffered a fractured skull when a bullet grazed her head. She played dead and called 911 after Ronald Lee Haskell left the house, prosecutors said at a court hearing.
A day after the slayings, investigators slowly built a picture of Haskell, who was the couple’s estranged brother-in-law.
The 33-year-old man is accused of killing his ex-wife’s sister, Katie Stay, and her husband and the children, ranging in age from 4 to 14, after binding them and putting the family face-down on the floor of their home.
Haskell had a handful of previous run-ins with law enforcement in Utah, where he had lived with his wife. Neighbors said Haskell’s marriage was so rocky that Stay went to Utah last fall to help her sister escape the relationship and start a new life in Texas.
Stay “was very instrumental in helping her sister get here so she could have a fresh start. Katie’s a spitfire. She has energy to stand up for what she believes is right and true,” said Verena Beckstrand, a neighbor who choked back tears as she talked about the family.
Haskell had previously been jailed in 2008 in Logan, about 80 miles north of Salt Lake City, on charges of assault and domestic violence. His wife told police he dragged her by her hair and struck her in the head in front of their children.
Those charges were later dismissed as part of a plea deal, according to information released Thursday by Logan authorities.
Haskell was also served last year with a protective order from his ex-wife. It was dismissed in October after the couple filed for divorce, online court records show.
By Thursday morning, a small memorial with three candles and a plant had been set up at the front door of the family’s two-story white-brick and brown wood-trimmed home. A couple with a child left a framed photo of the family with the inscription “Faith, Hope, Love.”
“I don’t think any of us will ever be able to see that house the same again,” said Viri Palacios, who lives across the street. “I just want the word to get out they were a really, really good family.”
The father, Stephen Stay, was a real estate broker. The mother was a helpful presence around the neighborhood, planning Halloween and Christmas parties for children, Palacios said.
A few blocks from the home at Lemm Elementary School, Principal Kathy Brown tied multi-colored ribbons around trees in front of the building and encouraged parents to do the same.
“It’s to have positive bright thoughts about the family,” Brown said, noting that two of the slain children had attended school there and a third had graduated from Lemm.
Documents from Thursday’s preliminary court hearing say that the daughter who survived attempted to close the door after telling Haskell her parents were not home. But he allegedly kicked it in. The teen remained in critical condition in a Houston hospital.
In a statement, issued Thursday through the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Katie Stay’s father, Roger Lyon, said his 15-year-old granddaughter “is expected to make a full recovery.”
When the badly wounded daughter contacted authorities, she told them the gunman was planning to shoot other relatives, Harris County Constable Ron Hickman said. Police located Haskell’s car and took him into custody after a three-hour standoff.
“We are grateful for this miracle,” Lyon said in his statement. “We are in awe of her bravery and courage in calling 911, an act that is likely to have saved all of our lives. She is our hero.”
Haskell was wearing a FedEx shirt at the time of the attack, but authorities seemed uncertain whether it was a deliberate attempt to deceive.
Hickman initially said Haskell showed up at the Stay home “in the guise of a FedEx driver.”
But he and other officials later declined to say whether Haskell used the uniform to gain access to the home. Hickman said investigators were not sure whether the suspect would have needed a disguise to get in the house, or if the children knew him.
Haskell had once done work for FedEx but not since January, the company said in a statement.
Online jail records did not list an attorney for Haskell, who was initially misidentified by authorities as the slain children’s father. Police did not explain the mistake.
A divorce decree issued in February shows Haskell and Melanie Kaye Haskell were married in 2002 in Orange County, California. They separated in June 2013.
A judge granted joint custody of the couple’s four children, ranging in age from 3 to 11, with Haskell’s wife getting primary custody.
At the time of the divorce, Haskell was making $2,300 a month, although the records do not say what kind of work he did. He was ordered to pay $773 per month in child support. His wife was given the house, valued at $190,000, in the small town of Smithfield, Utah, just outside Logan.
On Thursday, the sheriff’s office in San Diego County, California, said that Haskell’s mother reported an argument with her son July 2 at her home in San Marcos, California. A statement from the sheriff’s office says at one point Karla Haskell tried to leave the house to call for help, but her son physically restrained her and kept her from leaving. Ronald Haskell finally left after a few hours, and his mother contacted 911, the statement says. She later obtained a restraining order against her son.
That case is still under investigation, according to the statement.
Associated Press writers Emily Schmall in Fort Worth, David Warren in Dallas and Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.
Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP .
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