When four young children woke one morning and couldn’t find their mum, they instinctively phoned their dad.
Their parents Michelle and Braulio had separated, and a protective order meant Braulio wasn’t allowed to step inside the family home.
So, abiding by the law, he had asked a neighbour to look for his ex-wife while he drove the children to school.
The neighbour called the police, and when they searched the house, they made a horrifying discovery. Michelle was hanging from a cord in a basement shower. Her suicide stunned everyone.
The devoted mum was on the brink of starting a new life, with holidays planned and her divorce almost finalised. Had the thought of life as a single mum been too daunting, or the pressure of the separation too much? An autopsy revealed a far more shocking reason behind her death.
Michelle, 43, was a proud mum to five children.The two eldest had been adopted and the youngest three were her biological kids. Michelle was living in a large home with her four youngest, aged 11, nine, six and three. The oldest, Nicholas, was away at college.
Michelle and her estranged husband Braulio had lived a privileged life. Braulio was the CEO of a security company and they’d built their luxury home, which was worth over $1.1 million. But for Braulio, life was spinning out of control.
In 2013, he’d been investigated and accused of gaining $500 million worth of government contracts through his friendship with an official. His relationship with Michelle was breaking down too.
Threatening behaviour By 2014, they’d been separated for a year and were in the middle of a bitter divorce battle. Michelle had accused Braulio of being threatening during their marriage, and a judge had put a protective order in place to keep him away from the family home.
Michelle had put forward four pages outlining his behaviour, including locking her in rooms and pushing the children. Braulio was still allowed access to the children and moved to a home less than a mile away.
Smothered by a pillow On 19 March 2014, the children visited Braulio, and his sister delivered them back to Michelle at a local car park. While she was driving back, Braulio broke into his former home in Ashburn, North Virginia, and hid. He waited until Michelle had put the children to bed, then attacked.
He tried to smother Michelle with a pillow on her bed, until he realised that one of his young sons was sleeping there. He woke the disorientated boy and told him to go to his brother’s room.
When he was gone, Braulio struck again. He beat and strangled Michelle to death. Then he dragged her body downstairs to a bathroom in the basement.
He wrapped an electrical cord around her neck and hung her from the shower to make it look like she had killed herself. After staging the scene, he fled, leaving the children in the house with their dead mother.
The next morning, when the kids phoned him because they couldn’t find their mum, he played the concerned father.
After Michelle’s body was found, an autopsy revealed she hadn’t died from the cord around her neck. There were signs that she’d been beaten and suffocated to death – and Braulio was the prime suspect. Police had CCTV footage of a man matching his description entering Michelle’s home just before she returned. He was captured on a neighbour’s camera leaving alone after midnight.
When police went to talk to him, he had a black eye and a cut to his face. His DNA was also found in the house that he hadn’t lived in for a year.
Two months later, the disgraced CEO was arrested and charged with Michelle’s murder. He was released on a $2million bail. While his children were in the care of Michelle’s best friend, he walked free for two years.
At the trial in June this year, Braulio, 52, took the stand and calmly denied breaking into his old home and murdering Michelle. The jury were not allowed to hear the reasons behind the protective order, or that Michelle thought her life was under threat.
Instead, he painted a picture of them amicably working their way through the divorce for the sake of the children. Braulio said he’d watched TV the night she was killed, before falling asleep, and said his black eye was down to his son accidentally throwing a torch at him.
His defence experts claimed that Michelle could have committed suicide and the bruising on her face could have been inflicted during death convulsions.
His lawyers questioned why he would choose to kill Michelle when the kids were in the home, rather than striking during one of her isolated training runs.
The young son who had been sleeping in Michelle’s bed testified that he’d been woken by his dad and asked to leave the room. Another son said his dad had given him a golden coin in return for the security code to the house – also denying there had been an accident with a torch. The eldest son, Nicholas, identified his father on the surveillance tapes from his distinctive walk.
Braulio was found guilty of killing Michelle and staging it to look like suicide. As he remained silent. Family and friends cheered. The jury spent five hours before sentencing Braulio to life in prison for murder, plus 15 years for breaking and entering, and another year for breaking the protection order.