Shortly after two young boys and their grandparents were found murdered inside their home near Goleta earlier this month, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said investigators were searching for an explanation.
“There’s nothing that points out any motive or anything that would have preceded this terrible tragedy,” Brown told a news conference on Aug. 12, the day after Nicolas Holzer, 45, was arrested on murder charges.
Holzer is accused of fatally stabbing his sons, Sebastian, 13, and Vincent, 10; his parents, Sheila Garard Holzer, 74, and William Charles Holzer, 73; and the family dog at the home they all shared on Walnut Park Lane, a quiet cul-de-sac off Ribera Drive near Foothill School.
At the news conference, Brown said “Holzer told detectives that he had killed his family to fulfill what he believed was his destiny.” He said Holzer was waiting outside the house when deputies arrived and was taken into custody without incident.
To date, Brown and his department have released no additional information about what might have spurred the second mass murder to rock the South Coast this year.
But clues to what triggered the carnage may lie, in part, in the nasty custody fight between Holzer and his former wife that began in 2006 as the couple was going through a divorce.
An inches-thick Superior Court file obtained by Noozhawk chronicles the battle between Holzer and Juana Holzer, replete with accusations of mental illness, aggressive and controlling behavior, and sexual abuse.
The court ultimately granted Holzer full custody of their children, and largely cut off Juana from contact with the two boys.
But the matter was last in court more than four years ago, so it’s unclear if anything transpired in the interim to yield such a violent outcome.
However, court documents suggest that a family situation that may have seemed normal and amiable to friends and neighbors may have had a much darker side.
Family law attorney Matthew Long, who represented Holzer in the divorce, told Noozhawk that the case was one of the more protracted court custody cases he’s handled. But he said there was nothing in the custody case and Holzer’s interaction with the family court system that raised a concern.
“He always presented as a normal guy, which I know sounds preposterous given the events that unfolded,” Long said. “That’s what’s so disturbing about this. We want to have some kind of an explanation.”
Long said he last spoke with Holzer four years ago and last saw him six years ago.
“That’s the scary part ... A lot can happen in six years,” he said. “Obviously something happened.”
Neighbors of the Holzers have been reluctant to speak about the incident or the family.
One neighbor said the killings had been “devastating for those of us on the cul-de-sac as well as others within the neighborhood and the community.”
“The Holzers were always a very private family,” said the neighbor, who asked that her name not be used.
Wolf described William Holzer as a “brilliant scientist” and his wife, Sheila, as a “loving and devoted grandmother.”
She said she did not know the family personally, but has had many close to the family reach out to her office since the murders occurred.
Wolf described Vincent as a “boy with an electric smile who would have been joining his classmates starting fifth grade and was a standout on his school’s intramural Foothill Falcons football team.”
Sebastian was an incoming eighth-grader at La Colina Junior High School “who was a bright, spirited and gentle boy who loved being with his friends and participated in the school’s AVID program and while only 13 was already planning for college.”
Those close to Holzer’s ex-wife, Juana, are speaking out even as they are grieving the death of the boys, whose funerals were held last weekend.
Noozhawk spoke with Charles Sirois, Juana’s fiancé, who said her family is consumed with grief.
“It’s a tragic loss of life,” he said.
The custody battle was costly and protracted, and taxed Juana to the brink, Sirois said.
“To take on that family that was financially capable of doing whatever it took ...,” he said. “Juana is an immigrant. She didn’t stand a chance.”
Sirois said Juana had not been in touch with the children for a number of years because the court order had become so restrictive “it pretty much eliminated all contact.”
“She was under the impression that since the Holzers had financial resources, that they would be able to take care of the children and that they’d be in a safe place,” he said of the grandparents.
Sirois has reviewed the detailed court file of the couple’s custody battle. More than two inches thick and spanning more than five years, the file outlines a contentious custody battle for the boys, which began at the divorce, and details accusations of sexual abuse.
The records paint a heartbreaking picture of two young children caught in the crossfire. The file also depicts a mother who had little recourse or money to fight a financially secure father in the court battle, and who gradually lost more and more contact with her sons.
The file outlines the beginning of their relationship, stating that Nicolas and Juana were married Jan. 13, 2001, and separated and divorced in 2006. At the time of the divorce, their sons, Sebastian and Vincent, were 6 and 3 years old, respectively.
The paperwork contains income statements and background of both parents used to sort out support payments and provide some personal history of the couple.
Holzer was listed as a graduate of UC Santa Barbara, but was enrolled at a trade school and living with his parents at the time of the divorce.
As part of the asset documentation, the file states that Nicolas had inherited some money prior to the marriage and the pair purchased a condo with the help of his parents in 2002.
Juana Holzer is described as having graduated the seventh grade in Mexico, where she was born, and had been unemployed during the marriage.
She lived in San Diego with other family members at the time of the divorce filing, and the documents state it was uncertain whether she had a driver’s license.
“Because of her educational background and lack of fluency with the English language, she will likely not be qualified for other than a minimum-wage occupation,” court records state.
When the couple separated, Juana moved into her sister’s house with the children. At the time, she had physical custody of the boys and Holzer was required to drive to San Diego for visitation.
“The evaluator recommends that physical custody be awarded to their father in Santa Barbara,” because it would be difficult for the mother to arrange transportation to get to Santa Barbara when the court arranged for custody visits with their father.
The document also acknowledged that the children would be spending time with their grandparents while Nicolas was attending classes in Ventura County.
Holzer previously worked at Raytheon, but layoffs were on the horizon and both he and his wife agreed that Holzer should be proactive and look to find a job with flexible hours and begin taking business classes, documents stated.
When the two separated, Holzer was working at Bargain Network in Goleta and shortly thereafter moved to another sales position at Select Personnel Services.
Holzer began attending ITT Technical Institute in Oxnard to become a record-coding specialist in hopes of earning what he had previously made at Raytheon.
Beginning in November 2006, Holzer was required to pay Juana $833 in child support and $490 in spousal support, with a $250 per month travel credit, leaving a monthly support obligation of $1,074.
Juana was not working at the time of the separation, and the court gave warning that she was expected to make “reasonable efforts to assist in providing for her support needs.”
In the court file, Juana expressed concern about Holzer’s mental stability and aggression toward the children. However, a 2006 statement from Holzer explained that doctors initially thought he was depressed but eventually diagnosed him with a thyroid condition.
Holzer’s parent were described as being supportive of the boys living with them in the Walnut Park Lane home.
“My parents are both in good health and good spirits and would very much like to provide a stable and loving home for Sebastian and Vincent,” Holzer wrote.
The divorce was just the beginning of the battle over the boys.
Perhaps the most revealing parts of the file are the notes about custody and visitation of the children, which chronicle a tumultuous battle between the parents.
A judge-appointed psychologist, paid by Holzer, performed a child custody evaluation on Oct. 3, 2007, and issued a 58-page report, which is not public record, recommending that Holzer be given custody.
Psychologist Gary Rick, who practices out of Ventura and is listed as an adjunct professor at Antioch University Santa Barbara, was hired by Holzer to evaluate the children and recommend who should be granted custody.
Rick did not respond to Noozhawk’s request for comment.
“The living situation and personal traits of the father were more likely to meet the emotional and educational needs of the minor children than those of the mother. Primary custody to the father is recommended,” Rick’s notes in the court file state.
Juana maintained that her ex-husband had mental-health problems and was aggressive and controlling toward her and the children, but Rick’s report indicates that “these allegations were not born out by the investigation.”
A chilling account from Juana in June 2008 states the contrary.
She noted that she was seeing the children every other weekend, and would go to Santa Barbara to pick them up and Holzer would retrieve them in San Diego.
“Vincent always cries because he doesn’t want to go with his father,” she said, adding that problems began when Holzer met her in the parking lot of a San Diego grocery store to hand off the children after a visit one weekend.
“As usual, Nicolas began to scream and offend me, then aggressively yanked Vincent from my arms,” she said. “I told him not to abuse my son, and he told me, ‘I have custody. I can do what I want.’”
Juana said William Holzer was out of the truck and saw the situation unfold. She said she asked him for help to stop his son from mistreating Vincent.
But her ex-husband told her to “go away” and that she “could not talk to his father.”
When she threatened to call the police if he didn’t stop abusing Vincent, Holzer taunted her, saying, “You remember who has custody? I do, not you, and I decide what to do with my children.”
Nicolas Holzer’s position in the court files was that his wife “refused to work on marital issues and was under the under influence of her family to act unilaterally and was not meeting the educational and emotional needs of the children.”
Her visitation rights were suspended in March 2008 when Vincent made “disturbing statements to his grandmother, me and his therapist,” Holzer wrote, saying that the boys reported they had been sexually abused by their mother and her sisters.
Juana stated that her ex-husband was telling the children to make those claims.
“I am concerned about the mental and emotional well-being of our children,” she wrote. “Because of the serious nature of the false accusations that are being made against me and my sisters, I began to investigate my options with several authorities, including the San Diego police, Santa Barbara police and La Casa de la Raza.”
“I have requested that similar investigations be made of Nicolas regarding his treatment of our children,” she wrote. “If someone is doing harm to my children, including putting ideas into their heads that their mother and aunts have sexually abused them, then I want this to be stopped.”
When the couple had been married, Juana said, she had seen Nicolas do things to their sons that she did not agree with and thought were abusive.
She said she reported these acts to Rick during the evaluation process.
Juana alleged that Holzer would touch the babies’ genitals while changing them, shower with the children and allow them to touch his genitals.
She also stated that at their home when they had been married and at his parents’ home, Holzer would touch himself in front of the children, even while his parents were present and would regularly look at child pornography.
“There were times when the children would wake up crying in the middle of the night, and he would go to into their rooms without turning on the light, grab them and cover their mouth so they couldn’t scream and put them in the car and drive away with them for as long as two or three hours at a time,” she wrote.
Attorneys for both parties expressed concern about the sexual-abuse allegations, and the documents record that sheriff's Deputy Michael Emens interviewed Holzer and one of the boys on March 11, 2008.
It’s unclear whether a forensic examination of the child was ever done.
Noozhawk has requested more information about this interview with Holzer from the Sheriff’s Department, but has not been provided any information about it.
Court documents state the children’s mother was diligent to call each night to speak with the children, but Holzer said that the calls proved to be “stressful for everyone in our household.”
Whenever the mother called, Holzer told the court, he would ask each child if they wanted to talk to their mother. They would always say no, he said.
“I encourage them to talk with their mother, but given her unwillingness to put in the effort to visit them, they are apparently angry with her and I don’t feel that it is appropriate to force them to talk on the telephone,” he said.
The paperwork details that the day before Sebastian’s eighth birthday in 2009, when Juana asked to see the children without following the supervision procedures in the court order, she announced to Sebastian, “Well, anyway, I will see you tomorrow,” and then hung up the phone.
“While she did not end up driving to Santa Barbara, this incident caused tremendous stress, confusion and sadness on a day that should have been one of family celebration and unity,” Holzer stated at the time.
He said he believed there had been a “significant negative, cumulative emotional and spiritual effect” from not visiting but continuing with the nightly phone calls.
The court ordered that Juana’s right to telephone calls be terminated, and that her visitation with the children should be supervised by a psychologist for “the purpose of addressing the children’s anger towards their mother.” The court said Juana would be responsible for the cost as long as it continued.
Juana maintained that Holzer was the one who did not want her to speak to her children.
In 2008, Juana’s attorney at the time stated that she was unable to afford the cost of professional supervised visitation.
“(She) currently has no resources available to her to challenge the findings and recommendation issued by Dr. Rick, and is dissatisfied with the manner in which the investigation was conducted,” her counsel said.
The documents also say that she contacted Catholic Charities, La Casa de la Raza, CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation), CASA of Santa Barbara County (Court-Appointed Special Advocates) and the Family Therapy Institute of Santa Barbara but “to date no such services have been obtained by her.”
The court case last came before Judge Thomas Anderle in June 2010. Holzer was present with his attorney, but Juana was not with her attorney.
Since then, she has had almost no contact with her children, her fiancé stated.
“It was just a such a tragic event,” Sirois said. “(The court battle) was such a display of money and power ... Everything was manipulated against her.”
Holzer is due back in court Sept. 9 for arraignment.