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But Arcelia says it was Veronica's obsessive love for the father of her second child Juliana -- who's sitting here today, playing with her pet rabbit, Cuddles -- that began her spiral 11 years ago. "When she had Juliana, she started [going into] depressions. Post-partum blues. But not just that. I know she was very, very much in love with Juliana's dad. But he got married [to another, richer woman]. He wanted money. Veronica really went into a depression.

"We started noticing that she was getting paranoid, [believing] that somebody was trying to kill her. She even accused my brother Albert, who lives in San Jose. 'Yeah! He tried to kill me.' My brother goes, 'Veronica, you're dumb. If I wanted to kill you, you would have been dead!' That's how it started. It started escalating, getting worse."

"Always, Veronica was walking, walking," says Estela. "Sometimes no shoes. I gave her a backpack. Green with a brown suede bottom."

She brings out one similar to the pack Veronica's body was found with from a closet near the novenario altar.

"They should have put her in a hospital. She was chemically unbalanced, and they had her [diagnosed]as a paranoid schizophrenic," Arcelia says. "She would go out to the burger places over in Imperial Beach and come back saying, 'They put something in my hamburger and I'm going to blow their restaurant up because their food's no good.' Things like that, just off the wall. We could tell when she was on medication and when she was not. On it, she could have a nice conversation with you, calm, without any foul language, nothing of blowing up this and that. And when she wasn't on it, you could tell right away. And the police say, 'We can't do nothing.' California law. She had to admit herself for treatment. Except, according to her, she was fine. And then I go, 'How could she admit herself if she's not in her right mind? Isn't there anything you can do for her?' "

Estela says the final chapter started two years ago when Veronica gave birth to her youngest -- in her apartment.

"She gave labor by herself," says Estela. "[She put] the placenta in the refrigerator."

"The [apartment] manager happened to find out because he went to go check something in the apartment, and he opened the door, and he sees Veronica with the baby," says Arcelia. "And they call [Child] Protective Services and the police. She didn't have no food in there. She didn't have nothing in there. But she didn't want to let the people know that she had the baby, [because] they'd take it away. And that's what they did. They took the baby away."

"Then, one year ago, they took away her Social Security [benefits] too," says Estela.

"They took it away because they said she was fine," says Arcelia. "And she wasn't. But according to them she was fine. She didn't need that aid no more."

"I went and [begged] them, 'Give her the Social Security back,' " says Estela. "She's homeless. And someday she'll get killed in the street.' And they don't do anything. They don't care nothing. A lot of times Veronica goes to Social Security to [look for help]. And the police throw her out on the street. And I tell this to [Chula Vista Social Security claims representative Alberto] Villaseñor. And Villaseñor says, 'Oh, sometimes I go and help her.' [But] you know they throw her out [because she's] homeless and dirty."

On the phone, Villaseñor says Richard Chester, district manager of the Chula Vista office of the Social Security Administration, must address the issue. "She was suspended in September 1997," acknowledges Chester. But he says that happened only after repeated requests for her to come in for an updated evaluation.

"She'd been receiving benefits since 1989. She was called in for a 'continuing disability investigation.' This is set up so we can see if they're still disabled. We tried to get her to come in for an interview, with no response. There were a good many attempts, and no response, [so] we had to suspend her benefits, which we don't do lightly. We realize people are really dependent on [the money], and we try to go through normal administrative procedures before we do this. It's a last-line thing, basically to get them to come in so we can do this investigation. And even then she didn't respond for several months. Her benefits were terminated.

"I agree, it's a tragedy. Maybe we had something to do with it because we weren't paying her. I'm not sure. There's not much I can do about that. But I understood that even before, she was moving around the country some. It could have happened [because of] the kind of company she kept or the places she went. It's a shame."

Chester says Social Security has accepted claims for Veronica's three children since her death.

Ironically, last June, Veronica had seen a flicker of hope on the horizon. She had landed a job.

"It was at the Food Palace [market] in National City," says Arcelia. "She started buying clothes for it, because she didn't have any clothes. I gave her some stuff that I had, that my sisters gave, because they didn't fit them. She took a couple of pants, and some shoes that were there. But they must have found out that she wasn't in her right mind, because after one month, they asked her to leave."

Veronica had already shown she could travel. "Two months [ago] she called me collect," says Arcelia. "I answer, 'Hello?' She goes, 'Oh! Arcelia, do you have any money?' I go, 'No, Veronica, not right now. I don't get paid until next week. Why? Where are you?' She goes, 'Oh, I'm here in Sacramento.' And I go, 'What? What are you doing in Sacramento?' She goes, 'I don't know, but I want to go home.' A week after, she was here. I have no idea how she got money."

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