A vicious massacre shattered the calm of California's beautiful wine country 20 years ago. Ramon Salcido, a 28-year-old vineyard worker, went on a killing spree that crossed Sonoma County -- ambushing co-workers, murdering his wife, slashing his in-laws, cutting the throats of his three young daughters and leaving them for dead in a garbage dump.
"I had been a part of well over 100 homicide investigations in my career, but I had never seen the level of viciousness," said Mike Brown, former detective with the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department.
Seven people died that day, but Salcido's tiny 3-year-old daughter, Carmina, managed to survive 36 hours in the garbage dump before she was rescued. Her two sisters were not so lucky.
"I look over at my sister Sofia, and she has this look of terror on her face. She knows something's terribly wrong. The atmosphere is just thick," Carmina told 20/20. "I'm looking up at him, [and said] 'Papa, please don't cut me.'"
Carmina Tells Her Story of Survival Exclusively to "20/20" Friday at 10 p.m. ET
Sonoma County detectives traced the trail of the murderer across 30 miles of wine country. For 20 years, Brown -- at the time a sergeant detective supervising the investigation -- has been haunted by nightmares, visions and smells from the horrific scenes of April 14, 1989. He told "20/20" it all began with news that someone in the Sonoma Valley area had been the victim of a gunshot wound.
Detectives Trace Trail of Killer
At the Kunde Estate Vineyards, winery supervisor Ken Butti had been shot in the shoulder, though not fatally.
"We came out here to talk to him. ... He told us that the man who shot him was Ramon Salcido," Brown said.
Salcido was known as a hard-working, hard-drinking and hot-tempered vineyard employee. His young wife, Angela Salcido, came from a local staunch Catholic family, and may have been drawn to the "wild" side of the handsome Mexican immigrant. Soon after their wedding in December 1984, three daughters came in quick succession: Sofia, Carmina and Teresa.
"Sofia was a very quiet, reserved child -- very thoughtful, very quiet, very smart. She was the oldest," Carmina said. "Then, it was me who was crazy -- always into stuff, you know, climbing up the drapes and smiling big for the camera, getting into trouble, running off. And maybe Teresa was sort of the in between of both of us."
But bright memories of her sisters and mother fade to black when Carmina recalls her father.
"I was very intimidated and scared of my dad. He would come home, and you know, be drunk, obliterated," she said. "And I remember fights going on between him and my mom ... probably a week before everything went crazy, or maybe even, it might have been the night before. And he just started, you know, slapping and punching her. Sofia was holding baby Teresa in the hallway, just terrified watching this. We just all stand back there with you know big eyes and just watch, terrified."
CLICK HERE to read an excerpt of Carmina's book, "Not Lost Forever."
Before Brown had finished at the scene of the vineyard shooting, he received word that another winery supervisor, Tracey Toovey, had been ambushed less than two miles from the first site, killed by a shot to the head as he arrived for work at another vineyard.
"The lower portion of his body was in the car. But the upper portion of his body had fallen out of the car and was lying on the dirt road," Brown said.
Did Jealousy Drive Salcido to Murder?
With two victims and two crime scenes before 9 a.m., detectives began to identify a common thread: both victims were supervisors of Ramon Salcido.
Co-workers told authorities that Salcido followed orders but frequently mocked his bosses. They said he'd been mixing booze and cocaine.
And at home, tensions brewed with wife Angela, who had begun taking modeling classes in hopes of boosting the family income with a career in the fashion industry.
"She photographed beautifully. And she had such a demeanor to her that she would get along with any kind of director or photographer," said Patricia Rile, a modeling agent at the time. "She said that they needed the money. And she thought this would be a good way to make money."
But Salcido was jealous and became convinced that his wife was cheating on him. "He drove back and forth in front of their house several times a day," Brown told "20/20." "He thought that his wife was having an affair."
In the days before the shooting, Angela learned that Salcido had fathered a child with another woman, whom he was still legally married to. Making matters worse, a court had recently ordered him to pay child support -- more than $500 a month. But the Salcidos were already in financial distress -- barely scraping by on Ramon's paycheck from the vineyards.
The tensions between Angela and Salcido needed only a spark to explode and Salcido found it when a DNA test confirmed his suspicions that 4-year-old daughter Sofia was not his child. It seemed that Angela's only choice was to run away and start anew.
"People were saying, 'It's not safe for you anymore.' You know -- the fights, the drinking, all of this kind of stuff," Carmina said. "I think she really did want to get away from him. ... She was studying to be a model. And, she actually had an interview, a photo shoot to do that day."
April 14 was to be the first day of the young mother's new life. But the hopeful model never made it to the photo shoot.
Safety of Three Little Girls Haunts Detective
Eight miles from the second crime scene, police arrived at the Salcido residence, where Brown saw blood on the front door and three tricycles by the front steps.
"I brought my .45 up and looked. Made a quick sweep of the house. I could see blood on an interior wall. I popped back down," he said. "Television was on. There were blood spatters on the front of the television. Blood spatters on that door back there. We could see a body that was [lying] in the hallway."
Angela Salcido had been shot in the head three times, and the couple's three daughters were missing.
"I was even more convinced at this point that one man was responsible for all of these shootings. But for the moment, my main concern was, where are those kids? And -- are they safe?" Brown recalled.
But the killer was moving faster than either the cops or the press could comprehend. Twenty miles from where the terror began, officers found the bodies of Angela's mother, Marion Richards and her two young sisters, 12-year-old Maria and 9-year-old Ruth in their Cotai home. The two girls appeared to have been sexually molested and their throats slashed.
"Victim Ruth Richards, she was lying on the floor on her stomach with her feet almost against the oven," said Detective Randy Biehler, who was called to the crime scene. "Maria Richards was lying in the doorway to the master bedroom on her back with her head in the hallway and her feet in the master bedroom. She had her nightgown pushed up near her waist."
Officers learn that Angela's mother Marion was attacked first in her garage, then slashed and killed with a 12-inch bread knife when she staggered back inside to defend her daughters.
News of the killing rampage had spread across Sonoma County and local schools had been forced to enter lockdown mode. Police intensified the investigation, using helicopters to search along the coast of California into Mexico for Salcido.
Salcido Flees to Mexico
At 7 p.m., Salcido's car was found abandoned -- 25 miles from the murder scenes. Inside was a knife, an empty bottle of cheap champagne, photographs of Ramon, Angela and their girls, and a note written in Spanish, asking for forgiveness.
"The note said, 'Forgive me, God. But this law made me do it. We could live better, me and my children. But what can I do,'" Brown told "20/20," who suspects "law" refers to the recent court order requiring Salcido to pay $500 a month in child support.
Deeply concerned for the safety of the three girls, Brown said that officers suspected Salcido could have taken the three girls to his mother's home in Los Mochis, Mexico.
"One thought I had was that maybe he's taking them to Mexico. That was hopeful on my part, because if he's taking them to Mexico, maybe they hadn't been harmed," he said. "I asked God to keep his hand on them."
'Daddy Cut Me'
Just 36 hours later, Brown's worst fears were confirmed, when 4-year-old Sofia, 3-year-old Carmina and 2-year-old Teresa were found -- their throats slashed and their bodies dumped near the Stage Gulch Quarry and Dump in nearby Petaluma.
"They were found by a transient who was here, picking up wood or something … and he happened to look over and see what he thought were dolls sitting there, lying there on the ground," said Randi Rossmann, the crime reporter for The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, who followed Brown from one murder scene to the next.
But Carmina, who had been alone in the field for 36 hours, was miraculously alive.
"I hear this jump. I hear, 'Oh my God!' And I believe it's my dad coming back," she told "20/20." "I froze up. I was like, 'if I play dead, he won't have to do anything else to me.'"
As paramedics rushed to the scene, Carmina erased any lingering doubt about who did this: "She said, 'Daddy cut me,'" Brown recalled.
But where was Daddy? He was 800 miles away in Mexico, authorities learned. His five-day reign of terror ended with his capture in Los Mochis, where he admitted to the murders and told reporters he was "not really" remorseful for his actions.
After he was handed over to American authorities, Salcido told Brown: "I went to kill my three daughters first."
"We asked him crime by crime. And, he readily confessed to each one," Brown said.
Salcido went on trial for the murder of seven people in July 1990. After 12 weeks, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Salcido currently sits on death row in the San Quentin prison.
Turning a story of gruesome murder into one of survival, doctors and nurses at the Petaluma Valley Hospital saved Carmina and nurtured her back to health.
"When she arrived there was no question that there was something about her character and grit that allowed her to survive," said Dr. Dennis McLeod, who was in the ER at the Petaluma Valley Hospital. "She shouldn't have survived the injuries that she had."
Now 23, Carmina works as a dog groomer in Sonoma County. Having grown up without her family, Carmina describes herself today as a "solitary soldier" in life, though thoughts of her lost loved ones remain very close to her heart.
She makes frequent visits to the cemetery and the graves of her mother, two sisters, two aunts and grandmother.
"I come to this place when I need to talk to my family ... because it's the closest I can be to my family in this world," she said. "I know they're here. And I know my mom's really proud of me. I really believe it in my heart."
Watch "20/20" Friday at 10 p.m. ET to hear her story of her survival and CLICK HERE to read an excerpt of her book, "Not Lost Forever."