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Mother charged with capital murder in deaths of two children in Layton

LAYTON — Neighbors say the signs of domestic violence were evident.

Police admit they had been to the house in recent weeks and that "domestic violence issues" were part of their investigation.

Now, some are questioning whether the deaths of two children — allegedly by the hands of their mother — could have been prevented if people had paid attention to the possible warning signs.

"This whole community, we've failed those kids," neighbor Coleen John said, wiping away tears.

Police discovered the bodies of James Warhola, 8, and his sister Jean Warhola, 7, Wednesday afternoon in the boy's bedroom, which had been barricaded by a bed pushed up against the door.

Their mother, Sun Cha Warhola, 44, who was also in the room, was charged Thursday with two counts of aggravated murder, a capital offense, for allegedly killing the children during the "commission or attempted commission of child abuse."

"Distinct ligature marks" discovered on the children's necks were consistent with strangulation, the charges state. The Utah State Medical Examiner's Office will determine the official causes of death. There were no signs of a weapon being used, Layton Police Lt. Quinn Moyes said.

Both the children and their mother had multiple wounds on their arms and legs that police say appear to be defensive wounds, indicating a struggle.

"It's very tragic," Moyes said. "We're trying to piece together what went wrong."

The Deseret News contacted the children's grandfather Paul Warhola in New York. He said the family was in grief, but he would not offer any other comments.

The tragedy began to unfold about 5:45 p.m. Wednesday when Kenneth Warhola, 46, arrived home, 2184 N. Snoqualmie Circle, after work but did not immediately find his family in the house. He went to the children's bedrooms and found the doors closed and blocked from the inside. His wife, however, was inside. "She told him to give her 10 minutes before coming into the room," according to charges filed Thursday in 2nd District Court.

When Kenneth Warhola returned several minutes later, the door to his son's bedroom was still barricaded. He pushed it open.

"His wife was inside, and she asked him not to look at the children who were lying on the bed covered with a blanket," the charges state.

Kenneth Warhola told police he touched his son's face and it was cold to the touch. He could not find his house phone, so he ran across the street to a neighbor's house to dial 911, Moyes said.

Police arrived at the home after receiving the father's call at 6:45 p.m.

The mother told police that no one else had been inside the home except her and the children, the charges state.

The family lived in a relatively secluded house in the foothills overlooking Layton. As part of the investigation, Moyes said detectives were looking at prior allegations and "domestic violence issues." Most recently, he said, a case involving a "sexual allegation" was discussed with the Davis County Attorney's Office, which declined to file charges.

Moyes would not say who the alleged perpetrator was in that incident, but neighbors told the News that Sun Cha Warhola was making allegations against the children's father.

While not going into detail, Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings released a brief statement Thursday evening saying, "any speculation of alleged sexual abuse on the part of the children's father is baseless and very unfair to him."

A search of court records showed that both Sun Cha Warhola and Kenneth Warhola have a history of assault and domestic violence in Utah. Each were charged with domestic violence assault, a class B misdemeanor, but they both pleaded guilty and the charges were later reduced to an infraction, with the domestic violence enhancement dropped.

Both charges on the Warholas were apparently for the same incident on Jan. 4 at 1123 N. Fairfield Road, according to court records.

Neighbors said that over the past two weeks, police had been at the house nearly every day. Several who talked to the Deseret News said signs of domestic problems between the wife and husband were obvious.

The Division of Child and Family Services said it is prohibited from talking about any of its cases or even confirming if it had any past contact with the Warholas.

"We've all brought this up in our minds all night," said Rick John, who lives across the street. "How could we not see it?"

"I never ever thought she'd kill the kids," added his wife, Coleen John.

The Johns said they had noticed problems in the family for years. The children were always out playing by themselves, according to neighbors. Many times, they would stay at the Johns' house until after dark, but no one would ever come around to check on them or find out where they were. They would eventually have to send the children back to their home.

"That little girl was the sweetest little kid," Coleen John said. "They were good little kids."

The children were always clean and never appeared unkempt, neighbors said. The family had lived in the house about five or six years.

Sun Cha Warhola and her children were regular customers at Yun's Korean Market and Eatery in Layton.

"The kids were really good kids. Her daughter was really friendly," said owner Yun Hui Englen.

James liked to eat mandu, a dumpling similar to Japanese gyoza, while Jean enjoyed galbi, marinated short ribs, she said.

About two weeks ago, the family reportedly went on a trip to Disneyland and some neighbors thought things might be getting better. But soon after they returned, the Johns say, the mother took the two children to a shelter. She came back to the house about a week ago. Not long after, Sun Cha Warhola told the Johns that her husband had been abusing her and the children and had made allegations about his behavior that they said were too far-fetched to believe.

"She's out of control," Coleen John said. "She's just crazy."

The Johns said, in one incident, the children ran across the street to a neighbor's house to call 911.

The family now believes there were many warning signs that something bad was going to happen. They assumed, however, it would involve the parents, not the children.

"The police were there every other day. What were they talking to them about?" Rick John said.

Moyes said "any time there was a report, it was quickly and aggressively looked at" but would not go into detail about those reports, saying they were part of the ongoing investigation.

Neighbor Steve Bailey is a divorce attorney who also saw signs of severe family problems. He said he recently saw Sun Cha Warhola run down the street, yelling at her husband as he drove away. He said he had also heard the woman had been asking neighbors if they knew of a good divorce attorney. There was also a rumor in the neighborhood that the children hadn't gone to school in a couple of days.

"You hate to see any parent who's supposed to protect their children do something like that," Bailey said.

James and Jean attended East Layton Elementary School. Eight counselors were at the school Thursday to help students, faculty and parents.

"If they see a student who is having some trouble, they'll go up to them and ask, 'Would you like to come talk to me?' " said Davis School District spokesman Chris Williams. "There are kids having a tough time."

The counselors went room to room to talk to staff members and make sure the students were OK.

"This community is a very close community," Williams said. "The students were known."

Another Layton mother is facing aggravated murder charges and a possible death penalty for the death of her 4-year-old son, Ethan Stacy, in a brutal child abuse case that occurred in May. The boy's stepfather is also charged with aggravated murder. Rawlings said such child homicides are emotionally difficult for prosecutors in his office.

"It really is disturbing on a personal level," he told the Deseret News.

But Rawlings said being a prosecutor allows him to make a difference.

"We're in a position to do something about it," he said. "In a way, it helps us cope."

Contributing: Dennis Romboy, Emiley Morgan

e-mail: preavy@desnews.com