A San Diego man who called authorities to report he had shot and killed his wife – a young mother of six – on New Year’s Day in their East County home pleaded not guilty to the crime Wednesday.
Hauati Fa’anunu, 41, also known to friends as “Howard,” entered a not guilty plea at his court arraignment to one count of first-degree murder in the deadly shooting of his wife, Mary Fa’anunu, 34. The suspect was also charged with six counts of child endangerment because his children were home at the time of the shooting, according to the prosecution.
A prosecutor said the couple's 8-year-old son witnessed the shooting.
A judge set Hauati's bail at $2 million and the suspect was ordered to stay away from his children. He is not to contact the children at all, even through a third party.
According to the couple's neighbors, the two were having marital problems and Mary had filed for divorce.
Several of their friends showed up to the arraignment, but no family attended. Fa’anunu's friends said he is a hard worker, and the man they saw in court is not the man they knew.
Mary's friends described her as the best mom to her six children.
"She was selfless," said Emily McMackin. "She was so giving. You'd call her and needed anything and she would be there. She would be there to talk, come by. She was an amazing mother. She loved those kids furiously and would do anything for them and to protect them."
On Jan. 1, at around 12:35 a.m., the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (SDSO) Lakeside Substation received a phone call from Fa’anunu who claimed he had shot his wife at their family home in the 8200 block of Melrose Lane in unincorporated El Cajon.
Deputies were dispatched to the house. When they arrived, they discovered Mary alone inside the house, suffering from trauma to her upper body. She had been critically shot in the head, and was pronounced dead.
Fa’anunu, however, was nowhere to be found.
About a half-hour later, Fa’anunu turned himself in at the El Cajon Police Department. Deputies from the sheriff’s department were called to the police station to take him into custody. Fa'anunu was booked into jail on suspicion of his wife’s murder
Until the suspect's arraignment Wednesday, it was unclear if any of the children had actually witnessed the shooting of their mother. Now, according to prosecutors, it appears at least one child was a witness.
The children were unharmed, Nelson confirmed, and were dropped off with family members after the shooting. Shortly after investigators left the Fa'anunu's home on Jan. 1, family members returned to the house to pick up the children's belongings.
At the suspect's arraignment Wednesday, friends of the Fa'anunu family and a family attorney said the children were being cared for by family members during this tragic time.
The attorney said the family is asking for privacy, but wants the public to know the couple's children are being taken care of.
As news of the fatal shooting unfolded last week, some neighbors were surprised to hear of the violence on Melrose Lane.
“We heard some shots in the night, but New Year's around here, people shoot their guns, so we didn't think anything of it,” said resident John Pool.
Other residents told NBC 7 the couple had marital problems and were separated, living apart for some time.
The family was active in an East County Mormon church, neighbors said, and Hauati worked for a local water district.
“The kids, they were very nice kids, six of them,” Pool told NBC 7. “So I feel sorry for the kids. They'll probably end up at their granddad's.”
The victim’s mother posted a heartfelt message to her Facebook page following Mary’s death. In the post, the mother said the family was “shocked and saddened” to announce Mary’s passing and thanked friends and family members for supporting their grieving family.
The victim’s mother also shared a link to this GoFundMe account, where donations are being accepted to benefit Mary’s six children.
As of 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, nearly $52,500 had been donated to the children's fund.
This message of gratitude was posted to the page on behalf of the family:
“We cannot express the tremendous gratitude we feel for the outpouring of love and support from all of you. Due to the ongoing needs of Mary's children and the difficult road ahead, we have been encouraged by family and friends to increase our goal amount. Again, we are so thankful to all of you for your generosity at this very difficult time. We love you.”
The family will continue to accept donations on that online fundraising page.
The killing of the young mother remains under investigation, and a motive has not been revealed. Anyone with information should contact the SDSO Homicide Detail at (858) 974-2321 or Crime Stoppers at (888) 580-8477.
Lt. Nelson said officials do sometimes see an increase in violent and deadly domestic violence cases this time of year.
“It is an absolute tragedy and, unfortunately, when the holidays come around, emotions tend to run a little high, tempers seem to run a little bit short. It’s not uncommon to see a small uptick in violent issues – especially among family members – this time of year, unfortunately,” he told NBC 7 on New Year’s Day.