Two women and a 10-year-old girl were found dead in their beds in a northwest Columbia home Wednesday night, the victims of carbon monoxide poisoning.
“Evidence at the scene clearly indicated that carbon monoxide poisoning caused the deaths,” said Sgt. Steven Monticelli of the Columbia Police Department. “We have questions that we’re still getting answers to before we can make a final ruling on whether it’s a homicide or accidental.”
Update: Columbia police have classified the deaths as accidental, according to a statement released Friday. See related story.
Pelagia “Peggy” Cuellar, 75, Lea Alcomendas Camposano, 34, and her daughter, Rosalie “Shane” Camposano, 10, were discovered by police at about 11:30 p.m. in Cuellar’s house in the 2500 block of Primrose Drive.
Friends of the homeowner said police told them they found a car, with the ignition turned on and an empty gasoline tank, in the closed garage of the house.
Monticelli said police are continuing to investigate. Medical examiners have yet to verify the cause of death, but autopsy reports are expected today.
Camposano and Cuellar absent from school and work Wednesday morning
According to John Cuellar, Peggy Cuellar’s ex-husband, police responded to a call from Camposano’s sister, Adela Camposano of Columbia, who was notified Wednesday morning that her sister had failed to report to work and her niece was absent from school. After calling Cuellar’s home multiple times Wednesday evening, Adela Camposano drove by and discovered lights on in the bedroom. She phoned police around 11 p.m.
Larry Hine, a resident of Primrose Drive and a self-described “junkyard watchdog” of the block, said he was awakened shortly after 1 a.m. Thursday by the panicked phone call of Cuellar’s next-door neighbor, Ibbie Richardson, who was startled by police lights shining into her bedroom window.
Hine said he went outside to investigate the commotion and saw a fire truck, an ambulance and five police cars blocking the street.
“You don’t have five black-and-whites respond to a heart attack or a heart stroke or something, so I knew that there was something other than a simple health issue,” he said.
Residents say the three will be missed
Hine said Cuellar was a good neighbor and got along well with the other residents.
According to friends and family, Peggy Cuellar immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 1954. She moved to Columbia from Iowa in 1973 and worked as a nurse at Veteran’s Hospital for 20 years. She was an active member of the Filipino American Association of Mid-Missouri, said Eli Perez, an association member and longtime friend of Cuellar’s.
“She’s always present at our meetings and parties and always offers to cook and help out,” he said.
Cuellar was a woman filled with zest for life and her death will be a “big loss to the community,” Perez said.
“She loved her life here, and she was enjoying herself,” he said.
Perez attended Our Lady of Lourdes with Cuellar, whom he described as a devout Catholic and committed church member. He said the last time he saw Cuellar was at church on Sunday, when she was helping out with the collections during Mass.
Monsignor Michael Flanagan of Our Lady of Lourdes said he remembered seeing Cuellar at Mass every Sunday.
“She was very dedicated to her faith and her church, “ he said. “She signed up to be a hospitality minister and helped to wash the altar linens. She was a very holy and giving person.”
Alice Molina has been a close friend and neighbor of Cuellar’s for almost 30 years. The two women raised their children together. They also fished, attended church and even participated in hula hoop class together.
“She is like a sister to me and most of the Filipinos here,” she said. “Whenever there are new Filipinos coming to Columbia, she would help them by showing them the church and driving them to the grocery store.”
While Molina and her daughter were vacationing in San Diego last year, her husband fell sick. Cuellar was the one who called the hospital.
“She did more than a person could do for a friend,” Molina said.
Lea Camposano and her daughter, also Filipinos, rented rooms in Cuellar’s home.
Flanagan said Cuellar was known for taking in Filipino women that needed help.
Relatives of the Camposanos declined to comment on Thursday evening.
Rosalie Camposano, known to her classmates as “Shane,” was a student at Mary Paxton-Keeley Elementary School.
According to Elaine Hassemer, the school’s principal, the fourth-grader was new to the school last fall.
“She really loved school — she talked about it all the time,” Hassemer said. “And she participated in a cheerleading enrichment club. She really liked that, thought it was a lot of fun.”
Hassemer said Shane’s classmates, as well as the other fourth-grade students, were informed of Shane’s death Wednesday morning. She said it was left up to the teachers in other grades as to whether they informed their students of the death.
“They’re very sad — lots of tears from her classmates,” Hassemer said. “But we had our counselor there and she helped them with the situation and they were able to express their feelings.”
School officials sent home a letter with Paxton-Keeley students informing their parents of Shane’s death. Hassemer said the letter included guidelines concerning how children deal with death at different developmental stages.
Hassemer said the school will take time to inform students about the dangers of carbon monoxide.
“If there’s a teachable moment,” she said, “we should take advantage of that.”
Missourian reporters Emily Allen, Amanda J. Burke, Liza Lin and Emily Saettele contributed to this report.