Click photo to enlarge
Sunnyvale police are investigating why a mother shot her son in a Sunnyvale home. (KGO-TV)

A Sunnyvale woman who told neighbors she was "so tired" and could no longer handle caring for her 22-year-old autistic son shot him in his bedroom and then turned the gun on herself.

Elizabeth Hodgins' husband came home at 7:45 p.m. Tuesday to find his wife and their son, George, dead, according to the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety. Police declined to point to a motive. She left no note.

But neighbors say they saw a strain taking a toll on Elizabeth Hodgins, 53.

Although the son had spent most of his life going to the Morgan Autism Center in San Jose each day, he left the program in December and had been at home with his mother full time since then, along with his father -- Lester Hodgins, a ranger with Palo Alto Open Space and Parks -- when he wasn't working.

"She said she was tired and was having a difficult time getting him into a program. She couldn't find one that would take him," neighbor Jacquie Jauch said Wednesday. "She was just tired, tired and very lonely. She said she just couldn't do it anymore -- take care of him."

Jauch described the son -- the couple's only child -- as low functioning and high maintenance, unable to speak and easily agitated, but fully mobile. The neighbors' dogs frightened him. He often wore headphones and listened to music to calm himself down.

Elizabeth Hodgins told another neighbor, Charles Tovar, who she often took walks with, that she had experienced a "nervous breakdown" within the past six weeks or so.


Advertisement

"I knew she was depressed because she couldn't get the kid in school," Tovar said. "She had it nice for so many years. She'd send him to school, we'd go walking."

At one point recently, Hodgins pleaded with Jauch: "Please help me find a program. I need somewhere to put him. I need a rest."

The neighbors weren't sure why George Hodgins left the Morgan Autism Center. But Jennifer Sullivan, executive director of the center, said Elizabeth Hodgins told her that she wanted to find a program that was more community-oriented, where her son could be out in the world. He had been attending the school since he was 6, Sullivan said. When he turned 22, however, he could have moved into the adult program there.

When told that Hodgins was having trouble finding a new program, Sullivan became upset: "I wish we would have known. He could have come back here. We loved George."

His mother adored him and the two were "very close," she said.

"He was delightful," Sullivan said. "He was nonverbal but very physically active. He loved walking and hiking." He used a voice-output device that allowed him to communicate on a limited basis. He did not drive and "constantly was working on his independent-living skills," she said. "He needed to be supervised at all times for his own safety."

Having a child with autism can be very "isolating. You're on 24 hours a day. There is no respite," she said. "It's ongoing, and once your children become adults, you continually wonder, 'Who will take care of my child when I die?' "

Neighbors described the Hodginses as a "wonderful" family. They often worked in the garden together and easily chatted with neighbors. Sometimes, neighbors saw George pushing the lawn mower with his father, his dad's hands next to his. The three would often take walks together. No one answered the door at the Hodgins house Wednesday and messages left on the home phone's voice mail were not returned

"I always pictured her as very strong to take on the constant care of the child," Jauch said. "She was a woman that was loving, nurturing and maternal. That's what I saw. She loved her child very much and I could see that."

Hodgins, the neighbor speculated, "got to the point she didn't know what to do or where to turn. I never thought it would come to this."

Tracy May, a neighbor a few blocks away who helped raise a special-needs child, placed flowers Wednesday at the Hodgins house on Nectarine Avenue, adding to a growing memorial.

"It is a very big strain to raise a child with special needs," May said. "You have to have support. A lot falls on the mom."

The last time Jacquie Jauch saw Elizabeth Hodgins was Saturday. Hodgins was having a garage sale. Jauch's daughter, Heather Jauch, said she bought an antique tea set that Hodgins said had belonged to her mother, along with a black velvet skirt that Hodgins' mother had worn ballroom dancing with her father decades ago.

"Looking back now, why would she give her mother's things away?" Heather Jauch said. "Maybe it was a sign."

Contact Lisa Fernandez at lfernandez@mercurynews.com.

Help for special-needs families
Support services for families of autistic and special-needs children are available throughout the Bay Area, including Parents Helping Parents at www.php.com in San Jose.
"All ages, all stages," its website says. "Don't be alone." The center can be reached at 408-727-5775.