Tragedy struck a Southern California family this Christmas Eve. As many already know, shortly before midnight this December 24 th a recently divorced man dressed up as Santa Claus (Bruce Pardo) entered the home of his former in-laws and went on a killing rampage that resulted in nine people dead, including his ex-wife and her parents. Also shot in the melee was an eight-year-old little girl excitedly running towards “Santa” and a 16-year-old child. He then activated two homemade “machines” that doused the interior of the home with racing fuel and ignited the mixture creating an inferno of such devastation that the Coroner has had trouble identifying the remains for purposes of providing identification of the victims. Thirteen orphans were left in the wake of this slaughter.
What drives people to so dramatically lose touch with sanity and embark on this type of revengeful crusade? Were we only able to answer that question? What we do know is that Mr. Pardo had only recently (within a week or so) concluded his divorce from his now murdered wife, Sylvia Ortega, resulting in his agreement to buy out his alimony obligations for $10,000 and miscellaneous other agreements. They had no children of their union, but Sylvia had three children from a prior relationship that Mr. Pardo helped raise for a few years while living with Sylvia. We also know that Mr. Pardo seemed to have meticulously planned for this rampage as evidenced by his creation of two incendiary devices involving propellant and high-octane racing fuel, appearance at the Ortega home with several weapons, and booby-trapping his rented car with a trip-wire designed to detonate and explode when someone tried to move it. We also see evidence that Mr. Pardo was planning on fleeing after the killing spree. He was found dead in his brother’s home by a gunshot to the head, but he had been seriously burned in the chaos at the Ortega home. There was no suicide note, and strapped to his leg was $17,000 cash. He had booked a flight to Canada on Christmas Day.
Mr. Pardo had recently been fired by his employer, had recently been divorced from his wife, and there are indications that part of the cause for that split was her discovery that Mr. Pardo was the father of a young child he abandoned years earlier following a tragic accident in 2001 when, while under Mr. Pardo’s care, the toddler found his way into a swimming pool, resulting in his becoming severely brain-damaged and a paraplegic. Evidently, Mr. Pardo kept this child a secret from Ms. Ortega. Clearly, Mr. Pardo was under tremendous stress and was likely a very tortured individual. Those who knew him expressed surprise and disbelief when they were told of this incident, describing Mr. Pardo as a church usher and a good, quiet neighbor.
It is said we never know or see the demons that remain hidden behind the front doors of our neighbors. Insanity, it appears, is sometimes on a short fuse, and we search for but rarely find reason or rationality to explain things such as this. What we can learn from this tragedy, however, is this: divorce is a complicated tinderbox, constantly flirting with the gasoline of hatred, envy, fear, anger, resentment, embarrassment, revenge, and a host of other deep-seated emotions and psychological frailties. We never really know those around us; we think we do, but we don’t. And sometimes we embark down a road that is lined with rage and a desire to inflict pain, and when we do so we must take care where that road leads us because too often that destination is insanity. Perhaps if psychological counseling was required as part of the divorce process some of the insanity seen every day in the courthouses around the country might be lessened.
I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that we must all be vigilant to recognize, as much as possible, the pain in those around us, whether it be our casual neighbors or a close family member. Isolation, loneliness, desperation, and hopelessness are all emotions that are experienced at one time or another by people going through a divorce. The holidays also tend to bring these emotions to the forefront more often. The lawyers, family members, support people, and even the parties themselves must be ever watchful for signs of hopelessness, distress, and rage and be prepared to act upon what we see, whether through direct contact with the person experiencing it or by seeking professional intervention. This is why it is so important for divorce lawyers to regularly seek training in the psychological aspects of divorce in addition to the legal aspects. Of course, this article is not about assigning blame, as indeed that is a task that has neither productivity nor feasibility. It is simply to raise awareness in this area of the demons that plague us all, at times driving otherwise “normal” people to the brink of insanity and beyond. We have seen it before and will no doubt see it again, so let us all be mindful of our responsibility as companions in this journey to treat each other with compassion and understanding and keep a watchful eye out for those among us who are on the edge and who may need intervention and help.