Did a scorned woman murder her children just to spite her exes?
As 16-year-old David Nieves took to the stand, he glanced at the woman he used to look up to.
His mother Sandi Nieves, then 36, was on trial for the most unforgivable crime.
She was accused of murdering David’s four younger sisters and attempting to kill him
Nikolet, 12, Rashel, 11, Jaqlene, 7, and Kristl, 5, had all died from smoke inhalation during a house fire.
And now their own mother stood accused of starting the blaze deliberately.
But why would Nieves want her own children dead? And what had pushed her to carry out such a heinous crime?
It was reported that Nieves was born and raised in a dysfunctional environment.
She was married twice. First to Fernando Nieves, with whom she had David, Nikolet and Rashel.
After a three-year marriage, the couple divorced and Nieves had custody of their three children.
In the years that followed, Nieves married her second husband, David Folden. It was reported he was also her former stepdad.
He adopted her children, then the couple went on to have Jaqlene and Kristl.
But Nieves’ second marriage didn’t last, either.
After splitting from Folden after eight years, she reportedly started dating a much younger man.
But, again, things didn’t work out and he left her.
Around the same time, Sandi Nieves was fighting hard to hang onto her kids in an ugly child-support battle with Folden.
That, coupled with the string of failed relationships, made Nieves a bitter and angry woman.
Scorned, she wanted to hurt her exes. And she decided the best way to do that was through their children.
So, in July 1998, Nieves gathered the kids in the kitchen and told them they were having a slumber party.
The kitchen had a TV and video player. The kids had never slept in there before, and found the idea exciting.
They watched films, then nodded off in sleeping bags.
While they slept, Nieves poured petrol on the carpets and set them alight.
When the children began waking up gagging from the smoke, Nieves ordered them to stay where they were.
By the time firefighters responded to a call at the house, the four girls were tucked up in sleeping bags, dead.
Nieves and David were rushed to hospital for treatment for smoke inhalation. Both survived.
But poor David was now an only child. And his own twisted mother was to blame.
It seemed she’d killed her children for no other reason than to hurt her exes.
While David mourned his four lost sisters, Nieves was arrested by police.
In 2000, she appeared at Los Angeles Superior Court charged with four counts of first-degree murder, the attempted murder of David, and arson causing great bodily injuries.
Nieves’ defence was quick to argue it was all one big accident.
They claimed she was in an unconscious, sleep-walking-like state at the time of the fire.
It was apparently induced by a combination of hormonal imbalance, stress and an adverse reaction to some prescription drugs.
Nieves, who testified in her own defence, said she had a flashback of holding a lighter in her hand, but otherwise had no idea what had happened.
Defenders portrayed her as a loving mum who cared for her children single-handedly. They claimed she regularly drove her kids to piano lessons, athletics and church activities.
According to them, Nieves had never meant to intentionally harm her children. And, they believed, the only reason her eldest son was testifying against her was because she was a strict parent and he resented her.
But prosecutors painted a very different picture.
They believed Nieves wanted to take revenge on the men in her life.They portrayed her as financially desperate, angry and vengeful.
And when David took to the stand, he recounted what had happened that fateful night.
He claimed he woke with his eyes burning, and throat aching from the smoke.
He asked his mother if he and his sisters could leave the house, but she refused.
‘She told me to stay inside because the smoke could be coming from the outside,’ David recalled.
Asked why he didn’t get out of the house, he replied, ‘I did what my mother did, did what she told me to do.’
According to David, his sisters were coughing from the smoke, and one asked to go to the bathroom to throw up.
But Nieves told her to throw up on the kitchen floor instead.
David also testified that in the weeks leading up to the fire, his mother had been acting strangely.
She’d allowed her children to bleach their hair, and even got a tattoo of a cat on her chest.
Had she allowed her kids some freedom, knowing their lives would soon be cut short?
In July 2000, Sandi Nieves was found guilty of four counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder, and arson.
She hid her face behind paper during the hearing.
When asked if she had anything to say, she responded, ‘If I could take back time…if I was smarter…if I had time before everyone passed out, we would have gotten out of that house.’
She was sentenced to death, making her the 12th woman on California’s death row.
She reportedly broke down crying after being led from court. But her sorry tears were too little, too late.
For the mother who murdered her own children to spite her exes, many agreed, death was the least she deserved.