The fire-damaged backyard of a house where a man carried out a Christmas Eve massacre is seen Thursday in Covina, Calif.
But things quickly turned sour and divorce documents paint a bitter picture of Bruce Pardo's increasing desperation as he lost first his wife, then his job and finally the dog. By fall 2008, Pardo was asking a judge to have his ex-wife pay him support and cover his attorney's fees.
Pardo's downward slide ended Christmas Eve, when the 45-year-old electrical engineer donned a Santa suit and massacred nine people at his former in-laws' house in Covina, where a family Christmas party was underway. He then used a homemade device disguised as a present to spray racing fuel that quickly sent the home up in flames.
Pardo had planned to flee to Canada following the killing spree but suffered third-degree burns in the fire -- which melted part of the Santa suit to him -- and decided to kill himself instead, investigators said. His body, with a bullet wound to the head, was found at his brother's home about 40 miles away.
The slaughter came six days after Pardo and his ex-wife appeared in court to finalize their divorce. Police believe the dead included Sylvia Pardo, 43, and her parents, Joseph Ortega, 80, and his 70-year-old wife, Alicia. Other suspected victims were Sylvia Pardo's two brothers and their wives, her sister and a 17-year-old nephew.
Police listed the victims as unaccounted for because coroner's officials said the nine bodies were too badly charred for immediate identification.
Shocked friends said nothing indicated Bruce Pardo was on the verge of a murderous rampage. Pardo had told one friend he planned to usher at the Christmas Eve midnight Mass at his church and told another to expect him for a visit in Iowa around the holidays. He had no previous criminal record.
"I can't believe I'm seeing my old boyfriend on TV and all the people he destroyed," said Carol Sanchez, who dated Pardo for four years, when both were 18-year-old high school students. "It's very heartbreaking."
"He was a very easygoing person, a very friendly guy," she said. "I would never in my right mind think that he would ever do anything like this."
Pardo had a 9-year-old son, Matthew, by another former girlfriend, Elena Lucano. He had not seen the child for years, but apparently was claiming him as a dependent for tax purposes. Lucano told the Los Angeles Times that she didn't know Pardo was claiming their son as a dependent.
The boy was left severely brain damaged as a toddler when he fell into a backyard swimming pool on Jan. 6, 2001 while Pardo was alone with him at his former home in Woodland Hills, according to attorney Jeffrey Alvirez, who represented Lucano in the resulting court case.
Medical costs reached $340,000. Lucano sued Pardo to obtain money from his $100,000 homeowner's insurance policy and about $36,000 was put into a trust fund for the boy, who requires constant care. Pardo never contributed any more money to the boy's care.
"He never spent a dime on his son," Alvirez said.
Alvirez said he would not be surprised if Pardo kept that part of his life a secret from his wife.
Court documents from the Pardos' nearly yearlong divorce proceeding reveal a marriage that faltered early and then descended into a bitter feud.
The couple married on Jan. 29, 2006, and moved into a home Pardo already owned in Montrose, about 15 miles north of Los Angeles. The house sits up the hill from the Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, where he volunteered as an usher at the children's Mass.
Two days after the shootings, Christmas lights still twinkled from the fence and the roof line and blue-green lights sparkled in an orange tree as two police officers searched the house.
Sylvia Pardo didn't bring much money to the marriage -- just $31,000 a year from a job at a flower-breeding company in El Monte -- but she brought a 5-year-old daughter from a previous relationship and almost all the furniture. By all accounts, Pardo was close to his wife's daughter.
Sylvia Pardo also had two other children from a previous marriage.
Bruce Pardo was making $122,000 a year as an electrical engineer at ITT Electronic Systems Radar Systems in Van Nuys, and together the couple built a nest egg of $88,500 in two years. He often puttered around the house or walked Saki, the couple's big, brown Akita, in a local park.
But by December 2007, Sylvia Pardo was sleeping in another room and spending weekends with her parents, according to court papers. Two months later she told him she wanted a divorce.
She filed court papers asking for attorney's fees and $3,166 in monthly spousal support. She claimed her husband had drawn down their $88,500 savings to $17,000 in two months and was transferring funds to a private account.
"The situation has become untenable, and continuing the marriage was not an option," she said in court documents.
In July, Pardo lost his job at ITT and soon was drowning in debt while scrambling to find work. He begged the court to grant him spousal support until he could find employment. He complained in a filing that he had monthly expenses of $8,900 and ran a monthly deficit of $2,678. He also had $31,000 in credit card debt and a $2,700 monthly mortgage payment.
"I was not given a severance package from my last employer at termination and I am not receiving any other income," wrote Pardo, who also was denied unemployment benefits. "I am desperately seeking work."
Instead, the court ordered Pardo to pay his ex-wife $1,785 a month in spousal support, plus $3,570 for past payments. When the divorce was settled, the court waived those payments and Bruce Pardo got the house -- but he also had to pay his ex-wife $10,000 and return her valuable diamond wedding ring.
Two days before the killings, he told his attorney he still was trying to come up with the money.
When Pardo's body was found, $17,000 was strapped to it, money he apparently planned to use to fund his escape to Canada. His mother, Nancy Windsor, told the Los Angeles Times that she wanted that money and any in her son's estate to be placed in a fund for the children of her former daughter-in-law.
"Anything that our family realized from Bruce's vehicle, from the money on him, whenever that's released, everything is going to my grandchildren," Windsor said.
Associated Press reporter Anthony McCartney contributed to this story.