After murder-suicide, judge defends denial of mom's custody request
PORTLAND, Ore. - When Amy Engels filed for divorce, she feared that her husband posed an "immediate danger" to her children and asked a Yamhill County judge for temporary custody of them.
The judge, Cal Tichenor, denied her request, writing "Danger not established."
Six weeks later, police say Amy Engels' husband, Randall, shot and killed them all, including himself in the family's Dundee home. Police said Friday that Amy and the children were shot in the head and then Randall shot himself in the head.
In Oregon, the law requires a person to prove there's an "immediate" danger. That can be documentation of a history of abuse or perhaps testimony from the parent. In this case, Amy Engels' handwritten description of the danger she felt did not convince the judge her husband was a threat.
She wrote in her filing for custody of their two children on May 29: "My husband threatened to steal them and not return them. He has threatened to hurt them. He yells at them and makes them feel nervous and upset."
On Friday, in an interview with The Associated Press, Tichenor defended his decision, saying it was upsetting to learn that Amy Engels and her two children had been murdered, but he made the right decision given the information presented at the time.
"The fact that the children are upset when one of the parents gets mad at them does not show that the children are danger," the judge said. "It may show that the children don't like it."
He said that Amy Engels provided no evidence her children would be in danger by having contact with the father. According to Tichenor, Amy Engels said at a hearing that her husband had never harmed the children and she didn't mind him having some time alone with them.
"I asked her if the children had ever been harmed and she said, 'No, the children have never been harmed by him,'" the judge recalled.
Tichenor said a fellow judge broke the news to him that Engels and the children she had sought to protect had been killed. Court records identify the children as a daughter, Bailey, born in 1999, and a son, Jackson, born in 2001.
"It calls you to start questioning: 'Why did I deny it? What was the reason? Did I make a mistake? Was there something that I missed?' You've got all those kinds of things that are going through your mind," the judge said.
Tichenor said he immediately reviewed the case and is satisfied he made the correct decision. He said Amy Engels filed the 'immediate danger' paperwork because she was concerned her husband would be granted custody of the children.
"That was not the right mechanism to try and determine custody of the children," he said.
At a hearing that did not include a lawyer or her husband, Amy Engels said she wanted custody but did not mind if her husband had some time with the children, the judge said.
The divorce petition filed by Engels supports Tichenor's recollection. Engels wrote that she and her husband agreed he would have parenting time at all sporting events, and at least once a week to be prearranged with at least two hours' notice.
Investigators have yet to say if such a visit was what brought the family together Wednesday at the house they had shared for more than a decade.
Julia Hagan, a family law expert, said there are a number of factors that go into a judge's decision, but they are always cautious about taking away custody from a parent, and that's why the burden of proof is set so high. It's not always cut and dried.
"These kinds of cases, where a parent will harm the other parent or harm their own children are absolutely tragic, and I do believe that there's a certain percentage that not even another professional could predict," she said.
Hagan says another issue is people sometimes file these documents themselves. Without any legal representation or advice, they can easily make mistakes or leave out important information that would give the judge a more accurate picture of the problem.
"And then sometimes there's a disconnect of the ability of the person who's bringing their own paperwork, and sometimes for even an attorney who's bringing the paperwork on behalf of a client, to get that information across in a manner that a court can rule in their favor," Hagan said.
According to the documents, Amy Engels did not have an attorney. She filled out the paperwork alone. So it is possible she might have left out key information that would have made a difference.
The bodies were discovered after a family friend noticed an alarming Facebook post and called police to conduct a welfare check. The post on Randall Engels' page read: "If she's gone i can't go on."
Steven DuBois of The Associated Press contributed to this report.