Army veteran pleads guilty to beating wife, two children to death
The Modesto Bee March 15, 2022
(Tribune News Service) — The Modesto, Calif., Army veteran who beat his wife, son and stepson to death on Father's Day weekend 2017 has pleaded guilty.
Oscar Daniel Espinoza, 33, used a baseball bat to kill his wife, Tiffany Espinoza, 30, his 9-year-old stepson, Spencer Giese, and 4-year-old son, Edward Espinoza.
Modesto police responded to the family's home on Bay Meadows Drive for a security check after Tiffany didn't show up to work. No one answered the door, but police returned to the home about 30 minutes later after receiving a report there was a bloodied man on the front porch.
Oscar Espinoza, who goes by Daniel or Danny, is an Army veteran who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to statements made by his mother and attorney during a sentencing hearing on Friday. His attorney, Gregory Spiering, said Espinoza tried to commit suicide after the murders and again in jail about a year ago. Questions about his mental competency to stand trial delayed proceedings several times over the years.
But Espinoza eventually was found competent and in January pleaded guilty to the three murders. On Friday, he listened to tearful victim impact statements from Tiffany's family before he was sentenced.
"I very often have nightmares of the terror and fear that Spencer and Eddie must have suffered hearing Danny kill their mom and wondering if they were going to be next," Tiffany's mother, Elouise King, said in a statement that was read by the prosecutor on her behalf. She said she is "overwhelmingly angry."
Tiffany's sister, Jaqulene Page, recounted the reaction of her children when she told them their cousins and aunt had been killed. She said her then-10-year-old son screamed for so long his nose bled, and her 14-year-old son didn't speak for a week.
Not long after, she overheard her older son tell his little brother there is no such thing as monsters. "He said, 'You are wrong because uncle Daniel is a monster,'" Page said. "My children have to grow up knowing that monsters exist."
Tiffany's cousin, Hanna Bunch, talked about the stress and fear over the past four and a half years from not knowing if Espinoza would be held responsible.
"I lost my oldest best friend," she said. "A part of me died that weekend and a little bit more gets left behind each time I enter this courthouse and endure this process."
They talked about who Tiffany and her sons were.
Tiffany, her family said, was an "unbelievably generous" person who would do anything for her loved ones. She cared for an ailing family member, consoled at times of loss, ran errands, bought dinner and gave rides.
"There was no favor too big or too small for her family," Page said, even when Tiffany was a single mother or the sole breadwinner for the family.
"Strong, independent and unafraid of being original. ... I always secretly envied her ability to ignore expectation and choose her own style and interests," Bunch said.
Spencer was a smart, sensitive child who liked reading, Legos and Minecraft and was looking forward to his first double-digit birthday, which was exactly two weeks after the day he was killed, according to his family.
"Spencer had a gentleness about him from the moment he was born," Bunch said. "His acceptance of others, kindness, sense of humor, intelligence and resilience made him a unique and remarkable individual."
Eddie was a spunky little boy who liked baby dolls and Peppa Pig and was looking forward to going to school like his big brother.
"I wish I could tell Eddie how truly happy he made me," Page said. "I wish I could take him to the car wash one more time just so the very next day he could look at me and tell me how dirty my truck is so we would have to go to the car wash again."
In a brief statement of his own, Oscar Espinoza said, " ... to all the people affected by this tragedy, I would just like to say I'm sorry."
"I sincerely mean that, I'm sorry and I would just like to say that I love my family very much," said Espinoza, who began sobbing before finishing. "And uh, I hope that one day they can find it in their heart to forgive me."
His mother and sister also spoke, and both said they forgive him.
His mother apologized to Tiffany Espinoza's family but also talked about her own grief and expressed regret about her son's difficult upbringing and that he couldn't get the help he needed after his military service.
Spiering said Espinoza served as a mortuary affairs specialist, caring for the dead and their personal effects.
He served a tour in Afghanistan preparing the bodies of fellow soldiers who had died in IED explosions and helicopter crashes. He also handled the remains of the civilian dead both in Afghanistan and in Haiti, where he helped extract bodies after the 2010 earthquake.
Spiering said Espinoza was awarded several medals and was honorably discharged but was haunted by his time in the military.
He was hospitalized shortly after his discharge and then bounced between different therapists who never kept him on the same medication, Spiering said. Eventually he was declared 70 percent disabled from PTSD.
Spiering said things really started to deteriorate for Espinoza a few months before the murders.
In April 2017, Espinoza was arrested for punching Tiffany in the neck. He bailed out of jail and checked into the VA hospital but left against medical advice, Spiering said. On May 17 he was readmitted to VA hospital, then released nine days before the murders. Spiering said his medications had again been altered and were "short of therapeutic level."
The night of the murders
On the night of the murders, Spiering said, Espinoza had printed out pictures from his deployment to Afghanistan. They were found on a living room table in the family's home. He said Espinoza gave statements to police in which he admitted to killing Tiffany, Spencer and Edward but his thoughts were "very disorganized ... he said, 'I saved them.'"
Espinoza kept his head bowed for most of the court proceedings but did look in his mother's direction as she spoke about and held up the last gift Tiffany Espinoza gave her: Christmas ornaments with Spencer and Eddie's pictures.
At the end of the hearing, Espinoza was sentenced to 25 years to life each for the first-degree murders of Spencer and Eddie and 15 years to life for the second-degree murder of Tiffany Espinoza, for a total of 68 years to life in prison. Each count also had a year added for the weapon enhancement for using a bat in the murders.
In exchange for his plea, a special enhancement for committing multiple murders was dropped. It had made him eligible for the death penalty, which the District Attorney's Office was pursuing, Spiering said.
Spiering said the plea avoids the "trauma of a trial for everyone," including for attorneys, court staff and people who would have had to serve on the jury.
Page's husband, Matthew Page, said Monday that his family agreed to the plea because, "After a length of time with little result we felt like this was the best way for everyone to move forward."
While Oscar Espinoza will very likely die in prison, Jaqulene Page said there is only one just sentence for him.
"I wish I could beat him to death with a baseball bat in his home where he felt safe from harm and bring him back to life so I could do it two more times," she said. "That would be justice for what he did, in my opinion."
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