Jacob Calero and his new wife flew to Las Vegas to celebrate New Year’s, leaving his young children alone for several days. There was really only one major difference between that incident and many that preceded it: They got caught.
The luxury townhouse where Jacob Calero and Michelle de la Vega live looks like the perfect suburban nesting spot for a young, newlywed couple. The streets in their brand-new San Ramon neighborhood are clean, and the sidewalks are even and neat. Handsome stone planters decorate the couple’s front entryway. A porch bench faces out onto the East Bay hills.
In the condo’s main living spaces, pictures of Calero and de la Vega adorn the walls. Also prominently displayed in the beautifully appointed home are pictures of the couple’s dog, named Snow White.
It wasn’t until police entered the townhouse through a balcony on New Year’s Eve that the image of the couple’s home as a newlywed hideaway seriously clashed with reality. In an upstairs bedroom were two sleeping children, Calero’s five- and 10-year-old sons. The television was going and a gas fireplace was lit. In the kitchen sink was a collection of dirty plastic cups, and the garbage contained several frozen food cartons.
As the older boy, Joshua, had told his grandmother on the phone before she called the police, the children’s father and stepmother had gone to Las Vegas early the previous day, Friday. The couple was not due back until Wednesday, and Joshua and his younger brother, Jason, who is autistic, were on their own.
Calero, 39, was later convicted of felony child endangerment and sentenced to 270 days in jail. De la Vega, 32, was convicted of a misdemeanor for being an accessory to a felony and was sentenced to 180 days. Both were allowed home detention, wearing ankle bracelets so they could travel between their house and work. But the story didn’t end there. Two big questions remained. Why did two prosperous suburban professionals walk away from those children? What in the world were they thinking?
The more complete version of what led up to Joshua and Jason being left alone—as well as what’s likely to happen to them now—can be pieced together from news reports, police records, conversations with Calero’s family and an ex-nanny, and a lengthy interview with Jason’s godmother, a woman who knows the two boys as well as anyone. Calero declined a request for an interview, citing a gag order in the custody proceedings that began after his sons were found alone. But the circumstances revealed by people who know the family paint a tragic picture: The Las Vegas trip was merely the most egregious example in a pattern of abandonment that began as early as 2003, when the children’s mother died.
“Jacob became a different person after his wife passed away,” Erin Stoker, Jason’s godmother and a frequent babysitter, told police. “It was as if Jacob just forgot he even had children.”
Like all of us, Jacob Calero is a product of his environment. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was no stranger to family problems as a child, and his father set a poor example of parenthood.Calero was born in the Philippines, the second youngest of six siblings—four boys and two girls. Like many upper- and middle-class families in the Philippines, the children were cared for by nannies. According to Calero’s younger brother, Miguel, their mother had to pack up the children and flee the country to escape their father’s violent temper. Calero was about nine.
The family settled in Sunnyvale, and Calero’s mother had to go to work. His maternal grandparents sent money from the Philippines to supplement what his mother earned working in department stores. Luckily for the children, one of their nannies from the Philippines moved with them to the Bay Area, says Miguel, who lives in San Jose.
The Caleros eventually moved to Fremont, where Jacob graduated from Mission San Jose High School. He started working as a plumber at Orchard Supply Hardware. His mother moved back to the Philippines, and during a trip to visit her he met his first wife, Maria Cristina.
After a short engagement, the couple married in the Philippines. Photos of Calero show him with a wide, genuine smile. He was happy to be married. He and Cristina waited months for her U.S. immigration paperwork to be approved, and their first son, Joshua, was born in the Philippines in 1995. Once Cristina was allowed to move to the United States, they headed for Northern California, initially landing in Fremont and later moving to Tracy. The Caleros appeared to settle into the typical routine of a suburban family, and in his spare time Calero landscaped his backyard and decorated the interior of his house.
Around the time of their second son’s birth, in 2000, Cristina started having breast pain. Her doctor dismissed it as an infection, but the pain persisted, and she was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, according to Jason’s godmother Erin Stoker. Stoker lives three doors down from where the Caleros lived in Tracy, and she says she and Cristina had become close friends. The doctors gave Cristina only two weeks to live.
Cristina was determined to fight the cancer, and she and Calero moved near Stanford University Medical Center so she could undergo treatment. Friends in Tracy agreed to take in the boys. Stoker, an energetic mother of four, took care of newborn Jason, and Joshua moved in with another neighbor. Stoker says she and the other neighbors loved Cristina and wanted to do whatever they could to help.
For a year and a half, the family was separated. Calero continued working as a plumber while he lived with Cristina near the hospital. On weekends, when the couple drove to Tracy to visit their children, they were often worn out from the physical and emotional toll of cancer, Stoker says.
Daniel Calkins, a brother-in-law of Calero’s, says Calero fought Cristina’s cancer right alongside her.
“[Jacob] was a devoted husband,” says Calkins, who lives in North Carolina. He recounts that Calero shaved his hair as a expression of solidarity when his wife was going through chemotherapy.
The couple moved back to their Tracy home, and in 2003, it became clear that Cristina would not survive. The couple hired a nanny, Laura Li, during the final months of Cristina’s illness. Li, who lives in Tracy, says that when she started working for Calero, he was committed to his family.
“Jacob used to do the laundry, feed the kids, give them baths,” says Li, who exudes an obvious affection for the family. “In Cristina’s final moments, I could see how much Cristina and Jacob loved each other.”
Calero was a devoted husband, but his attachment to fatherhood seems less assured, even before his first wife died. His brother Miguel says that Calero always placed a lot of emphasis on having a mate, not necessarily on having children. But with Cristina, the children were part of the package.
Stoker, who is vying for custody of the boys, says that before Cristina died, she expressed a fear that Calero would neglect the boys after she was gone. (The boys’ maternal grandmother and possibly one of Calero’s two sisters in North Carolina are also reportedly seeking custody.) “Cristina was scared to death about what would happen when she died,” Stoker says. “That’s why she fought so hard to live. I made a promise to her that I would love her babies like a mom until I died.”
Immediately after Cristina’s death in June 2003, Calero was attentive to the boys, Li says. When he wasn’t home, he called her constantly to check on them. Jason was diagnosed with autism at that time, and Calero found a tutor for his son one day a week and enrolled him in a nearby program for autistic children. Jason sometimes cried inconsolably for long periods of time, and Li had to learn how to care for him.
About two months after Cristina died, Calero started dating other women, Li says. Stoker’s assessment of Calero’s eagerness to hook up with a new woman is more dramatic. She told police Calero was engaged weeks after Cristina passed away, and when that fell through he found another woman and got engaged again. More and more, she says, Calero left the boys to go out.
One day in the spring of 2004, Calero went to have work done on his teeth and ran into de la Vega, who is a dentist. The two started dating, and de la Vega, a Filipina with long black hair, seemed polite and friendly whenever she came over, Li remembers. On weekends, Calero and de la Vega sometimes took the boys on outings to the park or to San Francisco.
But over time, the boys were included less frequently when Calero went out with de la Vega. He would call Stoker and ask her to watch the boys the same evening. She says she suspected he would leave them alone if she said no because he’d make comments like “Don’t you think Joshua is old enough?”
Stoker says she thinks Calero was inclined to abandon his responsibilities throughout this time, and de la Vega gave him the push he needed to do so.
“Jacob is selfish,” she says. “[De la Vega] just enhanced the selfishness.”
De la Vega could not be reached for comment, but after the couple’s arrest, a sister-in-law told the San Jose Mercury News that she is “a kind person who loves children.” Theresa Bernardo-de la Vega, who is with the Filipino American Chamber of Commerce of Santa Clara County, said that de la Vega had won an award for her work with a children’s fair and was a Sunday school teacher back in the Philippines.
In the summer of 2004, de la Vega went into cosmetic dentistry, launching her own business, called Genesis Aesthetic Dentistry, in Santa Clara. She told the South Bay’s The Wave Magazine that she was inspired by television shows like Extreme Makeover.
“I wanted to be an interior designer but changed to dentistry because it’s also an art,” de la Vega is quoted as saying in the magazine. “[I] went to all these classes with all these big-shots—dentists that you see on Extreme Makeover.”
The demands of the business pulled both Calero and de la Vega away from the boys, Li says. Stoker says that sometimes the couple left the children in the car while they spent hours in de la Vega’s Santa Clara office. She says Joshua was allowed to walk with Jason to places like the library, but they were not permitted to go into the office.
According to the police report taken after Calero’s arrest, when police asked him whether he had ever heard de la Vega refer to the boys as “liabilities,” he answered that yes, he had. He said that de la Vega is a great wife but more like an aunt to the boys. He also said that before he married de la Vega, he signed a prenuptial agreement stating that she was not responsible for his children.
Just before the wedding in April 2005, Li began to worry about the boys, particularly Jason. One day, Calero left the garage door open, she says, and Jason wandered out. Li couldn’t find him and called Calero in a panic, and he told her he was busy with a job and to call him back when she found the boy. Luckily, Li found Jason in a nearby park 10 minutes later.
Li knew that Calero was planning to move the family to San Ramon after the wedding and told him she was concerned about how Jason would weather the transition to a new home, new school, and new stepmother. Calero reassured her that the children would be OK because they were going to have a new mom and be a family again.
But after the wedding, it became clear that Calero’s promise of a happy family was empty. The newlyweds moved to their new townhouse in San Ramon but left the boys behind in Tracy. During May and June, Li says, Calero rarely saw his children.
About once a week, Calero appeared late at night to pick up Li’s grocery list and returned with the food. On weekends, the boys were usually with Stoker or their maternal grandmother, Liberata Holden, who lives in Manteca. Holden did not respond to requests for an interview.
Calero had invited Li and her husband to move with the family so that she could continue working as their nanny. But the new location was too far from Li’s husband’s job. So about a month after the wedding, Calero hired a new nanny, Silvia Garcia, to watch the boys when they moved to San Ramon. Li trained Garcia for a month to teach her how to work with Jason.
In July 2005, the boys moved to the home in San Ramon with the new nanny, who worked for the family 24 hours a day, Monday through Friday. But the distance from friends in Tracy left the boys more stranded than ever on weekends.
On Monday mornings when Garcia arrived for work, the boys were often the only ones home, she later told police. The house was a mess, and it was clear to her that the boys had been alone all weekend and that Joshua had been cooking. Stoker says she was no longer called to babysit because she and Calero had argued, and she had said she didn’t approve of Calero’s relationship with de la Vega because the boys were being neglected. She had, in fact, declined an invitation to their wedding.
When Calero and de la Vega went to New York for five days in early October, Garcia felt overwhelmed trying to care for the boys, she later told police. Jason would cry and scream for hours at a time, according to the police report, and he was going through a phase in which he played with his feces and smeared it on the walls. “[Jason] needed constant care, and it was very hard work,” Garcia told police. She quit in the middle of October.
When Garcia sent her son to pick up her last paycheck from Calero, Joshua answered the door and handed over the check. Garcia’s son asked Joshua where his parents were, and he said they were away again in New York.
After police found the boys on New Year’s Eve, they asked Joshua if he and his brother had been left alone during that second trip to New York, and he didn’t answer. Then he said he thought their nanny was still there while his parents were gone. Stoker told police that she “believed Jacob had put so much pressure on [Joshua] that he would probably try to cover for his dad.”
Police later asked Calero about this trip, and he told them the boys might think he hadn’t been home because he often got home after they went to sleep and left again before they got up. Asked why Joshua was absent from school at the beginning of November, Calero said he couldn’t find day care and had Joshua stay home from school to take care of his younger brother.
It was also after Garcia quit that Joshua and Jason were out at a park by themselves, and Jason fell from a play structure. Adults at the park called an ambulance, the Contra Costa deputy district attorney told the Contra Costa Times, and Jason was taken to an emergency room, where he was treated and released the same day.
In the middle of December, Calero called Li and offered her more money to come and work for him again, but Li had already started working for another family. She says she reluctantly told him she could not do it.
About this time Calero had a “heart-to-heart talk with [Joshua] … and told him he needed him to really step up and help out,” according to the police report. The report describes Calero as telling Joshua “he knew [Joshua] didn’t like being left alone, but that was the best he could do right now.” The report says Calero also told Joshua that he should “keep the house clean, get good grades, and help out.”
On Friday, December 30, Calero left his home at 5 a.m. with the couple’s dogs to head to Las Vegas. He and de la Vega had arranged for her mother to take care of Snow White and two puppies they had given each other for Christmas. De la Vega was not with him because she had spent the night at her mother’s house, Calero told police.
The boys’ grandmother suspected the boys might be fending for themselves again because Calero had asked her to babysit, and she had told him she could not help out because she had to work. De la Vega had also called Holden, pleading that she and Calero were newlyweds and needed a vacation. When Holden refused, according to what she told police, de la Vega hung up on her.
On the morning of December 31, Holden called Joshua and discovered that the boys were home alone, according to the police report. It wasn’t until evening that Holden called Stoker asking what to do, and Stoker says she urged her to call the police immediately. Stoker jumped into her car and drove the 35 miles to San Ramon.
Meanwhile, the police arrived at the Caleros’ house and spoke to a neighbor who said that earlier in the evening, she had heard a child yelling “help me,” and found Jason in the Caleros’ open garage. No one was in the house, so she left a note in the kitchen saying she was taking Jason to her house. About an hour later, Joshua came to pick him up.
When police knocked at the Caleros’ house later that evening, no one answered, so they used a ladder to climb to the second-floor balcony and enter the house, where they found the boys alone. When Stoker arrived awhile later, the children were still asleep, near an empty popcorn bowl and two deflated juice drink boxes.
Police called Calero’s cell phone. According to the police report, Calero said he played the message while he was on the Las Vegas strip, but he did not respond. Nor did he respond to a later call from the county’s Child Protective Services at 5:30 a.m., he said, explaining that he had stayed up until 3 a.m. playing poker and was not awake enough to answer.
Calero did call the county child welfare agency later that morning, the police report says, but he didn’t call police until Monday, after a friend whom police had contacted urged him to get in touch with them. Calero told police that “the whole thing was just a mix-up.” He said that the boys’ grandmother was supposed to watch them for the weekend and claimed he didn’t learn that the boys were alone until he was already in Las Vegas.
But the final page of the police report reveals a different story. When Sgt. Brian Kalinowski told Calero that he didn’t feel the police were hearing the truth, Calero admitted that he’d hoped the boys’ grandmother would get the children once she discovered they were alone. He said he was angry with Holden because she wasn’t helping, although he also mentioned that the boys were at Holden’s house the weekend before Christmas and then over Christmas weekend. He thought she would go get the boys because she had done that before. He then said he did not realize what a mistake he’d made until it was too late.
The ongoing custody proceedings will most likely determine whether the children should be permanently reunited with Calero—at the time of his sentencing, his lawyer told reporters Calero planned to take parenting classes and “jump through hoops” to get his boys back—or should live with one of the other parties vying for custody.
The progression of events suggests that Calero lacked sound judgment at best and was heartlessly selfish at worst, although his relatives still defend him. They portray a father who was struggling to find child care while meeting the demands of his job and new wife.
“He loved his children and always thought he’d have someone to help him,” says Miguel Calero. “But he chose to live like a newlywed, made some bad decisions, and ended up going to jail. But he’s not a bad guy who deserves a felony. He’s being lumped in with child abusers.”
Stoker, who cares deeply for Calero’s boys, is far less likely to see their father as a victim. She paused to hold back tears as she remembered how she found them alone on New Year’s Eve and spoke lovingly of Jason and Joshua.
She says Joshua, who has longish black hair and big dark eyes, has his mother’s quick wit, adding that he is wise beyond his years and speaks like an adult. She even calls him “brilliant,” explaining that he is able to do her daughter’s high school–level math homework. Li says that when she was Joshua’s nanny, he would sit with her for hours each week, teaching her how to speak English. When she used a word wrong, he patiently corrected her.
In early February, Stoker babysat Jason, who is staying with Joshua at their grandmother’s house. Stoker spent the time playing and relaxing with him. Jason, who doesn’t talk much because of his autism, sat close by her side, and they laughed together whenever she pretended to bite his finger—a game they’ve played since he was an infant.
Stoker says she has seen a big change in the boys since they were taken away on New Year’s Eve. She says Jason has recently made progress in expressing his needs with words. And when the boys were at her house after police found them abandoned, friends flooded her home to check in on them, which Joshua in particular loved.
“Joshua is the happiest I’ve seen him since before his mom got sick,” Stoker says. “He is smiling. He’s back to glowing. He’s fed, loved, and people are listening to him.”