NAPA, Calif. — He could do this, Don Hatfield insisted, rubbing his weary eyes as he stood in the cluttered kitchen of his hastily acquired new rental home.
He could get out of bed three times in the night to feed a bottle to baby Alex. He could change diapers, and clean up spills, and pick up toys, and cook oatmeal, and read bedtime stories to Eva and Ariel. He was more than capable of protecting two confused little girls and a baby boy who suddenly are without their parents after their mother was killed and their father arrested.
He had no choice.
"God has kept me fit and strong, and this is my new life," said Hatfield, 64, shrugging as he collapsed onto a sofa next to two small wooden Dora the Explorer chairs. "This is what I must do."
A year ago, Hatfield, a noted Northern California artist whose impressionist paintings hang in collections around the world, was dreaming of a retirement filled with golf dates and world travels with his beloved wife, Janey.
But the couple got underwater on their mortgage and lost their rustic 4,000-square-foot Napa, Calif., home to foreclosure, forcing them to move into a small condominium in Yountville, Calif. A few months later, Janey was diagnosed with cancer. She died in January.
Hatfield was in the full throes of grief, and still calculating medical bills for Janey's treatment, when he learned that his only daughter, Rachel, had been stabbed to death, allegedly by her husband, Todd Winkler. Authorities said that Alex, 9 months, Ariel, 2, and Eva, 4, were inside the couple's Cameron Park, Calif., home at the time of the attack Feb. 27.
On that terrible morning, Hatfield got a telephone call from one of the couple's neighbors on their normally quiet street near Cameron Airpark in El Dorado County, where for three years Rachel Winkler worked as general manager. Come quickly, the neighbor said. The children were safe, but something had happened to Rachel.
"Is there yellow tape around the property?" Hatfield recalled asking. The neighbor answered yes. "Is there an ambulance there?" No, the neighbor said.
"That's when I knew she was gone," said Hatfield.
Sheriff's deputies arrested Todd Winkler, 45, who was subsequently charged with murder. He has pleaded not guilty.
Winkler's lawyer, David Weiner, said his client is a solid citizen and successful businessman who acted in self-defense when his wife went after him with a pair of scissors.
"This man has an exceptional background, and has never been in trouble in his life," said Weiner.
Minutes after he learned of his daughter's death, Hatfield made a surreal drive from Napa to Cameron Park and collected his grandchildren. The next day, he appeared at a hearing to petition for temporary guardianship. He enlisted family members and friends to help him quickly find a larger home to accommodate him and the three youngsters. He began meeting with lawyers and talking to county child protection authorities while making final arrangements for Rachel.
Hatfield and the children moved into a four-bedroom rental house in Napa two weeks ago.
On a recent afternoon, Rachel's longtime friend Eva Tagore fed Alex in his high chair while the two girls finished their lunches and requested apple pie for dessert. Another friend would soon arrive to take them out for a drive while Grandpa talked to a reporter.
"I'm not doing all of this alone," said Hatfield, a tall, self-deprecating man with a full head of gray hair and a neatly trimmed goatee.
Tagore is among a group of close friends who plan to stick around for as long as Hatfield needs them. "Rachel's children are in loving hands," she said.
But it is unclear how long the youngsters will be staying with Hatfield.
On Friday, the children's Iowa grandmother, Janeth Winkler, filed for general guardianship of the youngsters, according to her lawyer, Lilka Martinez. After an investigation into the backgrounds of each of the competing sides, the court will decide who will get custody, said Martinez.
In the weeks since his daughter's death, Hatfield has been busy gathering the documentation necessary to prove to authorities that living with him would be in the children's best interest.
While money from friends, family and strangers trickles into a fund for their care at Wells Fargo Bank, Hatfield is buried in a mountain of paperwork outlining his income and background. He has submitted to fingerprinting, and must undergo a criminal background check and household safety check. He is pursuing medical insurance for the children, and grief counseling, and schooling. A hearing has been set for early April.
In the meantime, he must constantly reassure his grandchildren that they are safe and loved.
"Do you want to read a book?" he asked on a recent day. Eva and Ariel draped themselves across his lap, and, with his eyeglasses perched on his head, Hatfield launched into an animated rendition of "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish" by Dr. Seuss.
"Did you ever fly a kite in bed? Did you ever walk with ten cats on your head?"
Eva clutched a stuffed bear as the girls took turns flipping the pages. By the time Hatfield finished the story, Ariel's eyes were at half-mast.
Hatfield is unsure of what the children witnessed of their mother's final moments. Eva, who recently remarked that "Rachel is dead, Mommy is dead," seems somber at times, her huge blue eyes searching for answers. Ariel is restless and squirmy. Both have cried out in the night for comfort.
Hatfield declined to talk about the details of the murder case for fear of compromising the prosecution. But authorities have said the marriage was troubled, and that the couple had been fighting on the morning that Winkler told a neighbor that his wife was dead. Deputies found Rachel's body inside the home.
Rachel married Todd Winkler, a "Top Gun" graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and a stunt pilot, about seven years ago after a short courtship, Hatfield said. He said his daughter "was feeling the biological clock ticking" and wanted to have children.
"It was too … fast, but I didn't have control over Rachel," he said. "She did her own thing, and in order to stay in her world I kept my mouth shut."
Although Rachel treasured motherhood and doted on her children, she felt increasingly isolated from her husband, who traveled frequently for his work with a company that conducts diabetes research, said Tagore, her friend of 16 years. Tagore said she never saw signs of violence in Todd Winkler, nor did her friend talk about feeling physically threatened.
But recently Rachel had become disillusioned enough to start developing "an escape plan," Hatfield said.
Now, in the rolling hills of Napa Valley, Hatfield feels the presence of his daughter all around him.
Rachel, who was 37 when she died, was an early inspiration for Hatfield's art. She is everywhere in his oil paintings, many of which feature serene scenes of women and children on beaches, at picnics and in flower fields.
Hatfield, who first dabbled in art while studying at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. in the late 1960s, become a commercial success and has been called one of the most innovative impressionists of his time.
His daughter was a talented artist in her own right, creating murals and whimsical paintings of fairies and unicorns and dolphins. "She could easily have had an art career," her father said, "but art can be sort of a solitary deal, and that wasn't Rachel."
Hatfield sees his daughter's "art spirit" in Eva, who recently produced a colorful drawing of Rapunzel for her Grandpa Don.
"My daughter was the spiritual and psychological heart of our family," said Hatfield. He also has three adult sons from his first marriage, to Diana DeLoach, who now lives in Georgia.
"She was such a spark of life," he said of his daughter, a striking beauty and adventurer who camped, rafted rivers and bungee-jumped and was the center of every social occasion.
Rachel, who had a business degree from Sonoma State University, moved with her husband to Cameron Park primarily so that he could fly small planes, and she often rode shotgun. "Rachel's life was a constant adventure," her father said.
But despite outward appearances of an idyllic life, something was terribly wrong inside the spacious house on Aeronca Way, said Hatfield.
Now he is working to pick up the pieces of a shattered family, even as his heart aches for his wife.
Rising from the sofa one afternoon, Hatfield lifted little Alex, the boy he lovingly calls Q-Ball, from Tagore's arms and lay down with him in bed.
"This is what it's all about — now," he said softly.
"My wife and I were going to walk into old age together, and then my whole world changed. But with God's help, I'm getting stronger."
He smiled at Alex. "I think we will be fine."