On May 20th, 2011, a confused and nude Claudia Pedreros was found wandering on a remote Trinity County road. Her two and a half year old daughter, Sophia, was missing and later found drowned in nearby Coffee Creek. Her husband, Robert Parker, who’d been away from home at the time, supported his wife in her subsequent trial for murder.
A little over a week ago, Claudia Pedreros was convicted of involuntary manslaughter as well as charges of child abuse but the jury determined her to be insane and she will be committed to a state mental hospital.
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“A lot of people,” Robert Parker states quietly over the phone, “are going to end up going forward saying, ‘here’s the woman who drowned her daughter and she got off.”
His voice rarely shakes as he speaks of the events that led to the jury decision. Only the thickness of his words now and then and a few barely audible sniffs indicates that he cries repeatedly throughout the interview.
“It was never proven in court that Claudia drowned Sophia. The verdict reflects that.” Parker insists that the drowning death of his daughter Sophia was a “very, very tragic accident.”
“It wasn’t the murder that the prosecution tried to portray it as being,” he says. “It is almost as if they want to believe Sophia was murdered.” Parker says he had known for over a year before Sophia’s death that his wife, who came from Chile, was suffering from mental health issues but, before the trial when he gave interviews, he could only touch on the issues for fear of jeopardizing the court case. In fact, he knew that she had been hospitalized for mental health issues when she was 15 years old.
Now that the verdict is in, he worries over how his wife appears in the media. His voice grows even huskier as he explains. “A lot of those details I wasn’t able to give before …because they had a bearing on the case. I can give them now…I feel bad that [the story after the verdict] just seemed to be about the woman who committed murder and got away with manslaughter. I think my wife deserves better than that.”
Over the soft hiss of the line, Parker’s voice is barely audible as he says, “I ask myself how necessary is the vindication in the public eye…” Without answering the question, he begins speaking of the years after his daughter’s birth.
Parker says his wife began isolating herself about a month after the birth of their daughter and withdrawing with Sophia into her room.
“We went to see her doctor in Arcata and she was placed on antidepressants. Over time things became worse and worse.
“…This escalated into not wanting to leave the house. If she went to the grocery store, she would feel people staring at her and judging her as a bad mother.
“She thought the neighbors could see in the window. I had to go outside with her to look through the window. I tried to show her that it would be difficult to see through. After a point, she wouldn’t allow the blinds to be opened up.
According to Parker, his wife had trouble breastfeeding their daughter. Sophia cried frequently.The baby was underweight and they took her to a pediatrician. After following the doctor’s recommendations, Sophia began to gain weight but she didn’t stop crying. Parker was worried.
His concerns are justified by science. According to just one paper reviewed in the journal Pediatrics, being depressed can affect women’s ability to breast feed successfully.
“The results from this review suggest that women with depressive symptomatology in the early postpartum period may be at increased risk for negative infant feeding outcomes including … increased breastfeeding difficulties… and decreased levels of breastfeeding self-efficacy.”
Then in the late summer of 2009, Parker says he saw something truly frightening. According to him, “Sophia was almost a year. Claudia was in the bedroom with the door closed. Sophia was crying and crying and crying.” Parker opened the door and saw that…
“Claudia was poking Sophia in the chest. Not violent. Not really hard. It was just really strange. I described it in the courtroom. It was just weird. I had thought Claudia was trying to feed Sophia and here she was poking her. I took [Sophia] into the kitchen and made a bottle. Claudia grabbed the bottle and threw it. She grabbed Sophia… . Claudia became agitated, almost aggressive. She turned around and went down the hallway.”
Then, in the midst of his confusion and worry, he did something he says that he never did before or since. He says, “I followed and slapped her…” He told his wife that he wasn’t going to allow her to hurt Sophia. Once he realized how bad the situation had escalated, Parker called both the Child Protective Service (CPS) and mental health crisis lines. Eventually, he says he “talked Claudia into going down to the mental health.” Because of her behavior under observation, she was put on a 5150, an involuntary hold at Sempervirens for approximately 10 days.”
During this time, Parker took a week off of school where he was attending classes at Humboldt State University (HSU) and, because of the nature of the situation, was able to enroll Sophia with an emergency placement at day care there.
“Sophia stopped crying all the time. She took to the bottle. She was calm. It was the first time that she was a calm baby. [Before] it seemed like she would pick up on Claudia’s agitation. I attribute a lot of the crying to that.
Claudia came home under treatment. Claudia weighed 90 pounds when typically she would have been a 125 pounds. She’d stopped eating. I worked to introduce her to the routine. Claudia was making frequent visits to a psychiatrist. I administered medications.
Things were pretty calm and normal. [There was a] slow recovery over time… Sophia thrived she was doing great. When she entered day care at one year, she was small and thin. At 2 years, she was a wonderful glowing child. She started to grow gaining weight. The staff felt she was withdrawn at first, but she blossomed over time. The workers said they could note the difference.
Claudia was a very loving mother. She completely adored Sophia even during the first year.”
Pedreros appeared to be recovering her footing. But, as Parker says, “It is important for people to realize when somebody has a mental illness, it can wax and wane. It is not a situation where people are presenting the worst symptomes of their illness all the time.” Early in 2011 or perhaps late in 2010, his wife began suffering from further delusions. Over time, for instance, Parker says she became convinced that a stuffed dog “had the ability to move around the house,” she thought that his father, who lived with them, was trying to hurt her, and she began spending money erratically.
“For March, April, into May,” Parker explained, “I was screaming, yelling and banging on doors” asking for help from CPS and from Pedreros’ doctors as well as mental health services.
“She became hyper animated…She became hyper religious, hyper sexual. I made a few more attempts to get help. Nobody was out there to help. I tried to walk on eggs around her. One day she was fine. Then the next, not. She was cycling rapidly.
“There was a lot of resources given to our family. but the case had been put to rest after awhile. Claudia’s behavior was increasingly bizarre. She found it impossible to focus. She would start to cook and forget that something was cooking.
One day I heard Sophia start to cry. Then cry louder. Claudia was on a laptop in the bedroom and Sophia in the bathroom, all the water had been drained out of the tub. Sophia was cold. I dried her. We had a huge fight. Claudia had forgotten Sophia in the tub.”
At this time, Claudia made several accusations, once to her brother in Chili and also once to neighbors, that Parker was abusing her. He believes this was a symptom of her illness. He says there were big arguments but he never hurt her. Still, he worried that he was making her illness worse not better.
In mid April of 2011, Claudia dropped Sophia off at daycare. According to Parker, she was supposed to come back around 1 to 1:30 to get his father to a dental appointment. She didn’t show. Parker called day care to see if Sophia had been picked up yet. She hadn’t so he cancelled his father’s appointment and went to get Sophia. Later, Claudia showed up “irate and agitated.” She wanted to take Sophia to a motel (this had happened several times before.) This time Parker was concerned and had a social worker from CPS there to help. Parker had also asked the Sheriff’s Department to send a deputy in case Claudia got too agitated. According to Parker, the social worker “urged Claudia to do a voluntary commit” at Sempervirens as the deputy refused to “5150 her,” put her in the hospital involuntarily. At Claudia’s request, Parker drove her to a motel for the night.
The next day Pedreros asked to come home. They had a long conversation. On the drive back, he says, they made an agreement.
“We’d been together so long. We had a beautiful daughter. We had had a beautiful relationship. I would try to spend more time with her. Claudia would keep with her doctor’s appointments and treatment plan.”
But Claudia was continuing to struggle with delusions and act strangely. Meanwhile, Parker graduated on May 14th with a Bachelor of Science degree in Fisheries Biology (see photo above.) Earlier he had been given a opportunity for advancement in his field and accepted it even though it meant that he would be away from his family. He explained,
“She had a doctor’s appointment on the 24th [of May.] Claudia had given me assurances she would make that appointment. I think I was in a real difficult situation. …I could call [the people in Reno I had agreed to work for] at last minute and tell them I couldn’t make it. Maybe if I removed myself maybe it would make it better for her especially after hearing that it was my fault what was happening. I considered taking Sophia with me. But I had no court order for custody. If I take her out of state without permission, Claudia could press charges for parental kidnapping. I thought about taking them both with me. But, at least in McKinleyville there was their pediatrician, the mental health professionals, medical, no worry about money, plus my dad was there to help. I thought that I’d get things set up in Reno and bring them out there. Claudia was doing some very very strange things. I’d had people accusing me of things. I was at my wits’ end. No matter what I did it was wrong.”
He says though that he wasn’t worried about his daughter. “I know Claudia and I know how much that she loves Sophia. There was no way I could have contemplated that something like this could occur.”
He left home and drove to Reno on the 19th of May. Sometime before 5am on the twentieth, Claudia Pedreros gathered her daughter and drove east leaving her sleeping father-in-law behind. When Robert Parker’s father awoke around 5am and realized what had happened, he filed a missing person report. Pedreros was found walked naked down Highway 3 in Trinity Co. near Coffee Creek. She appeared confused and denied having a husband or a daughter. Parker says that she “was limping badly and constantly complained about pain.”
According to Parker,
“Right from the beginning they had started to treat her as the guilty party—not as a parent who lost her child. That theory was set in stone in their minds. They needed to support the results they had already decided on.
“Claudia was held in a bare cell, naked except for her suicide smock which is like a padded velcro tube. No access to water. Very little access to food…She had less than 2 hours of sleep…She was awake approximately 40 hours when interrogation with [FBI Special Agent Peter Jackson] began….In addition she was in a compromised mental state…I urged that she receive further medical treatment but she never did.
“She was in a very very vulnerable place.”
Meanwhile, Sophia’s little body was found entwined in bushes at the edge of Coffee Creek around 1:30 on the 21st of May. According to Parker, neither he nor Pedreros were told until 3:30. Almost immediately, Jackson began “interrogating’ Pedreros. Meanwhile, Parker says that he had “essentially given [another detective] our life story. He had a lot of information.” According to Parker, “Jackson armed with that information questioned Claudia. He testified that he had been trained in interrogations that can be used to question people dealing with mental health issues.” Jackson and other law enforcement say Pedrero’s response was a confession.
According to Parker, one of the main tenets of Pedrero’s defense was the suggestibility that Claudia experienced because of mental illness. He said this was testified to by several psychologists. “Here is a key point,” he said earnestly. “It is possible to take one or two elements [of the confession] and use those out of context.” However, if you look at the interview as a whole, there was intimidation, suggestion, and “Claudia was pleading for food, water,” and to go to the bathroom. He says there never was a point in the taped confession where Pedreros gave a detailed explanation of what happened from start to finish. Instead, he said she made contradictory statements in bits and pieces over the course of the questioning.
“The jury saw the whole confession,” Parker said. “They saw them in context. The tape shows it. [her lawyer] was able to pick that apart…By the end of the day the jury saw very little validity to it.
In fact, Parker explains, the supposed confession has Claudia wading out in the water and holding Sophia under until she drowns, but the man who pulled Sophia’s body from the water, “he said it would have been too dangerous to wade out. He had to be lowered by helicopter.” Pedreros, he says, is very tiny and would have been unable to withstand the force of the water, too.
Even after Pedreros had been able to eat and sleep, she was behaving oddly, Parker says. She was
“…talking tangentially. Saying things that didn’t make sense. She seemed dazed and she had a thousand mile stare. She was not able to comprehend what was going on around her. …During the first few weeks she was incarcerated, I went to see her twice a week. When she would go into these really manic or psychotic episodes, her eyes would get really big and her pupils would dilate…. It was almost impossible for her to sit still. She was pacing. First she would be very quiet. Then she’d be talking 100 miles per hour.
“They began to medicate her after a few weeks. That seemed to help substantially. She seems to me be stable. [However,] she has a very childlike affect that continues. She processes things through the mind of a child. I don’t think that she comprehends. She lives in a fairly tale world. Her affect doesn’t fit the circumstances.”
Parker says that he is taking the phone out to stand on the balcony. Once outside, he draws in deeply, sucking all the air out of the phone line. He is quiet for a moment then says,
“One of the key tenets that prosecution had was that Claudia was abused—that I was abusive. One of the main reasons she [supposedly murdered Sophia]…was in reaction or revenge. They also stated that she intended to commit suicide. They repeated this over and over but gave no proof. Some of the early accusations of abuse come from anonymous sources or uncorroborated statements made by people.
Not one single witness stated abuse. Not one single witness stated suicide.”
Later, he would tell me that though a lot of people made the assumption along with law enforcement that Claudia murdered Sophia, there was no evidence of that either. The defense, he said, argued that “Claudia could have very well have lost track of Sophia when she was locked in the outhouse at the campground” and the two and a half year old could have wandered away and fallen in the creek. He spoke quietly,
“We’ll never know…I do not think that Claudia hurt Sophia. I do not see that. If I did, my opinion and my attitude would be different.
“…My wife was vindicated. I have never believed that she murdered Sophia. I remained unconvinced and more importantly the jury remained unconvinced.
“I’m not even looking for vindication for myself….I was in over my head. I had no training….The people who are close to me know the truth and I know there will always be keyboard warriors that are going to say whatever they want to say undercover of a pseudonym.
During the phone call, Parker explains that he’s barely had time to think about the future. He says that on his way home after the trial, “most of the day was taken up with the drive. … Here at home, I’m not sure how I’m going to fill the days… I know there is a lot I can do… But do I have the motivation to do it? I feel overwhelmed with all these choices.”
“Over time,” he says haltingly groping for words in the quiet of his balcony as the syllables fall out of his mouth one by one and ripple through the telephone connection, “I’ll focus more on my life. I’d like to go to school and finish my Master’s.” The ripples of that idea smooth and die before he speaks again. “… But it is difficult to find the reason why… so much of what I did before was to provide a stable environment for Sophia…” His voice drowns in the silence before he says again, “… difficult to find the reasons why…”
He rallies a moment. His voice growing firmer, “As far as Claudia is concerned, there is lots of work ahead. I want to be there for her. That will occupy a lot of my time.” Silence… and then under the silence, barely above whispering, he adds, “Almost like I’m killing time.” He repeats himself, “ Almost like I’m killing time ‘til I get old and pass on…”