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Mystery of deaths of 2 children, wounding of third and mother

by THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
| Friday, November 21, 2014 9:36 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA — The 911 call was made at 9:16 a.m. Thursday.

Four people shot in Tabernacle, N.J. Unknown number dead.

State police cruisers hurried into a neighborhood of towering pine trees and two-story homes, where the biggest commotion usually is caused by deer that block the driveways.

The cruisers, lights flashing but no sirens blaring, stopped at the home with blue window panes, a faded American flag, and three sedans out front.

The officers climbed the few steps toward the door.

What they found inside was something Capt. Stephen Jones needed only four words to describe: “A really horrific scene.”

Three children were shot, two of them dead. The third, a boy, had barely survived. So had the mother, Jeaninne LePage, 44, who had a gunshot in her head.

All were in the same room.

Paramedics rushed LePage and her son past the woods onto Route 70, aiming for the roundabout ahead. There, from an adjacent field, a helicopter airlifted the two to Cooper University Hospital in Camden.

Police called the shootings — for which first responders were offered counseling — homicides. Investigators declined to call them an attempted murder-suicide, but they said they are not seeking a suspect.

The children, not named by state police, were described by neighbors as of elementary age — kids who invited others to jump on the trampoline in their backyard.

Two houses down, as sunlight competed with flashing lights in the afternoon, Caleb Rodriguez, 12, came home from school with his siblings, 5 and 9, and grandmother.

The police tape hanging from tree to tree and an endless stream of detectives could have tipped them off, but Caleb already knew what had happened.

He used to ride scooters with LePage’s children and jump on the trampoline.

“They were very happy, they didn’t look depressed or anything,” Caleb said, perplexed as anyone. “They had a fun time over here. I don’t know why this happened.”

Nine people, all related, lived in LePage’s home, state police said. One of them called 911, authorities said. The five not wounded — some of them also children — were in the house during the shooting, but did not hear shots, police said. Investigators were still trying to figure out why.

Adding to the mystery, a precise time for the shooting remained unknown. Investigators guessed it to be overnight or early Thursday.

Authorities did, however, find the source: A handgun, which they said was used to shoot all four.

The Tabernacle School District that LePage’s children attend has only 780 students, split between the elementary school and Kenneth R. Olson Middle School. The schools sit across the street from each other.

At both schools Thursday (the high school is in another district), parent-teacher conferences were canceled. Counselors arrived.

“We’re all shocked and in disbelief about the incident,” Superintendent George Rafferty said outside the middle school doors at 3 p.m., as teachers milled around the hallways even with students long gone. “It’s very tragic. We’re a very close-knit community.”

Amid the news vans that flooded the streets in Tabernacle on Thursday, there was still the sense of charming isolation that has brought nearly 7,000 residents to the township just north of Wharton State Forest.

In the backyard of the LePage house, a blue aboveground pool was next to a grill, its hatch still open, and a half-full black trash bag hung from a pole.

No one on the street heard the gunshots.

“This is really a shocker, I’m telling you,” said Joe Barry, 58, an 11-year resident, holding his sleepy shih tzu, Zeik, near the police tape.

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