Anna Staver, The Denver Post
Flowers were placed outside a home at 3090 South Golden Way after three people were shot to death inside on May 23, 2019.
Nearly three years after the murders, family and friends of the McDaniels still don’t know why a man gunned down three members of the simple, easy-to-love family in their home — and maybe never will.
Althea McDaniels, 37, spoke softly, smiled often and worked endlessly. She loved learning new words in English — “discombobulated” being her favorite — and sent money from her jobs in hotels to her family in the Philippines to help pay for her brother’s college.
Joseph McDaniels’ entire world revolved around his family. After he was murdered, the elementary school children he shepherded to and from school every day as a bus driver for Denver Public Schools left messages at the makeshift memorial outside his home calling him “the nice bus guy.”
The couple’s 11-year-old daughter, Christine, loved to draw. She was so loved by her fifth-grade classmates at Traylor Academy that, after her death, they all claimed her as their best friend.
That’s how the McDaniels’ friends and family described the Denver family at the sentencing Friday of the man who murdered them in their Bear Valley home on May 23, 2019 — days before they were to move out of state.
Photo provided by the Denver Police Department
Denver District Court Judge Edward Bronfin sentenced the murderer, Bustaman Kartabrata, to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Kartabrata was Joseph McDaniels’ stepfather and grandfather to Christine.
“Every night as I lay in bed I ask: Why did this happen to my family?” Althea’s mom, Merlita Tantoy, said in a statement read to the court Friday. “We are only simple people, with simple dreams, of a simple life. Why would someone want to destroy that? I cry myself to sleep.”
A Denver jury on April 29 convicted Kartabrata of three counts of first-degree murder and one count of felony menacing for the threat he posed to his 9-year-old grandson, who escaped the house to find help after Kartabrata opened fire. The mandatory sentence for first-degree murder in Colorado is life imprisonment without the chance of parole.
Kartabrata entered the McDaniels’ home the night of the killings after telling them that his wife — Joseph McDaniels’ mom — left her purse inside while they were visiting earlier. Kartabrata then opened fire, shooting each of the victims multiple times. He shot Christine multiple times as she hid from him behind a door.
Investigators never determined a motive for the triple murder. Kartabrata declined to speak to the judge Friday during his sentencing hearing.
Tantoy and the boy were the only people to escape the home the night of the shootings and have been forever altered by their loss, family members said. The boy, who is now 12, testified in court during the trial and is now being cared for by his great-aunt and great-uncle.
“He asked me one day, three months after the tragedy, while we were doing our afternoon walk: ‘Terri, why do people kill?’” said Terri Francisco, a family friend. “How do I explain in terms understandable to a 9-year-old the concept of impermanence or the dark side of human nature?”
Algrein Tantoy said his sister Althea was his closest confidant, even though they lived in different countries for years. He hadn’t been able to see her since she left for the U.S. more than a decade ago. He never got to meet Christine.
The sentencing brings to a close a case that lasted nearly three years. The trial was delayed repeatedly as Kartabrata waited for a sanity exam after he entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. The test ultimately found he was legally sane at the time of the crime.
Bronfin and the Denver prosecutors on the case, Courtney Johnston and Ashley Beck, said the senseless murders struck a nerve, despite having handled dozens or hundreds of homicide cases in their careers.
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“I don’t know what you think about at night, Mr. Kartabrata, but I hope you are never able to let the images that we saw during the trial of the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. McDaniels and Christine McDaniels leave your mind,” Bronfin said to Kartabrata while announcing his sentence. “Those images of what you did to those completely innocent people — who had done absolutely nothing to you or to your wife — I hope those images are with you when you are awake and when you are asleep.”
The prosecutors and the judge called the McDaniels’ son a hero for his bravery in the immediate aftermath of the shootings and for his help in the investigation and trial that followed.
Police found Kartabrata before he fled the country because the boy helped them, the prosecutors said. Then, when prosecutors learned a few weeks ago the case would go to trial, they asked the quiet boy if he would testify about that night and recount to strangers — again — the night his grandfather eviscerated his family.
“His first response was, ‘Yes, I will do it. I will do it for my family,’” Johnston said.