Mary Jean Pearle knew her husband was capable of violence, but she never thought he would turn his rage on their two little girls. She was wrong.
He shot them dead — while Pearle listened on the telephone — and he now faces the death penalty for the crime.
Pearle shares her horrifying story with ABCNEWS' Deborah Roberts for the sake, she says, of other families like hers, who may be in more danger than they realize.
Doting Father, Abusive Husband
To outsiders, Pearle's life had appeared as picture-perfect as her home. She was from a well-to-do family and worked as an antiques dealer; her husband John Battaglia was an accountant. Their first daughter, Faith, was born in 1992; their second, Liberty, came three years later.
"John was very charming, and giving and fun, and he was just wonderful," says Pearle of her former husband. "Everybody loved John."
But though Pearle had two beautiful girls, three dogs and a home in one of Dallas' wealthiest neighborhoods, she was also married to a man with a violent past.
"He did tell me before we married that he had gotten into an argument and hit his ex-wife," she says. "He didn't tell me that he'd broken her nose."
Nor did he mention that he'd brutally beaten and kicked his former wife in front of her daughter's elementary school.
Pearle noticed his temper for herself for the first time on their wedding night. "He snapped at me about something," she remembers. "That didn't seem quite right."
Soon, there would be more flickers of a violent temper and verbal abuse. "Every name in the book you can think of," says Pearle.
Though he had become abusive to his wife, she says he was a doting father.
"He never spanked the children. He never raised his voice to the children. He never grabbed their arm," says Pearle. "He did nothing but was loving to them."
Pearle says she wanted to "keep the family together," so she endured a private hell for years. "John could be very fun and loving and he had a lot of good points," she says. Her friends and family, too, suggested that John could get counseling and they could work things out.
But, she says, Battaglia refused counseling, and over the years, her marriage became an emotional endurance test, with violent tirades lasting 20 minutes at a time.
One day, a small argument nearly escalated to a physical attack.
"He got real close, and his eyes were bulging out, and veins, and the whole thing, and he said, 'I'll knock your f***ing head off, bitch,'" remembers Pearle. "And I said, 'John, you need to step back.' And he got about an inch closer. So he's about an inch from my face and he screamed it again at me, and so I stood up and I turned to the bathroom, and I walked in there, picked up the phone, called 911."
After seven years of torture often witnessed by her daughters, Pearle had had enough. She filed for divorce, hoping, she says, that her husband would get help and pull the marriage together. Meanwhile, the Dallas County family court allowed John to see the girls, but not to enter their home.
'I Never Thought He'd Hurt the Children'
But on Christmas day in 1999, Pearle let him in to see the girls. An argument erupted.
"I saw him coming, and so I just grabbed my head and I fell on to Liberty's mattress, and I covered my head," says Pearle. "He was just pounding on me as hard as a man can pound on, on the back of my head. And I'm screaming 'Call 911! Call 911!'"
The paramedics came, says Pearle, but she didn't go to the hospital because she wanted to prepare Christmas dinner for her family. "I wanted to try to let them know everything was OK," she says.
Battaglia was charged with misdemeanor assault and pleaded guilty. He got two years' probation, was forbidden contact with Pearle, and denied visits with his daughters for 30 days.
After 30 days, visitations began again.
"Of course I was worried, at first," says Pearle. "But I really thought it was only directed at me. I never thought he'd hurt the children.
By August of 2000, after nine years of marriage, Pearle and Battaglia got divorced. But the abuse continued. Battaglia left a threatening phone message for his ex-wife — a violation of his parole. He also tested positive for marijuana — another violation.
According to assistant district attorney Cindy Dyer, a motion was filed "to revoke his probation based upon the violations of the conditions." But, she explains, judges very often allow abusers who don't commit another physical assault to stay out of jail.
And at the time, even Pearle did not want to see her abusive ex-husband go to jail. "I wanted him to continue to be a CPA, make a nice life for himself, be a good daddy to the kids," she says. "I didn't want to take his career away. I felt like that would be devastating to him."
One Last Visitation
But after another angry phone message, Pearle says she feared for her life. She called the police, and wanted Battaglia arrested.
"I thought that he might kill me," she says. "I was very fearful that he would kill me."
But she never suspected he would be a danger to the girls, so Faith and Liberty continued their visits with Battaglia.
One Wednesday night last spring, Pearle drove the girls to their usual drop-off point: a parking lot at a local shopping center. The girls got into their father's pick-up truck, and Battaglia drove them to his apartment near downtown Dallas.
Pearle — who did not know that Battaglia was tipped off about her wanting him arrested — had an eerie feeling. She cancelled her plans and drove to a friend's home. On the way there, she was told by her mother that the girls wanted to speak with her.
"'Mommy, why do you want daddy to have to go to jail?'" she says one of the girls asked her. Then, she says, she heard Faith yelling, "'No daddy, no daddy. Please don't do it.'"
She heard gunshots — and then silence.
She drove to Battaglia's apartment, where detectives told her that the two girls were dead.
"It's the most empty feeling you can ever have in your life," says Pearle, "that everything, all your hopes, your dreams, your everything, is just gone."
Sentenced to Death
At first, Battaglia was nowhere to be found. He had fled to a bar to place one last spine-chilling phone call to his daughters.
"Goodnight my little babies," he said. "I hope you're resting in a different place. I love you, and I wish that you had nothing to do with your mother. She was evil and vicious and stupid. I love you dearly."
Then, in another bizarre twist, he stopped at a tattoo parlor and had two roses tattooed on his arm: one for each girl. Police captured him outside the parlor at 2 a.m.
It took a year for Battaglia to get to trial, but less than 20 minutes for jurors to find him guilty. He was sentenced to death, but he plans to appeal.
With her daughters gone, Pearle insists the system must have failed somewhere. The courts and the experts, she says, should have spotted the dangers she never did.
But Dyer says, "The problem was, and the problem is, that it is almost impossible to prevent a crime that no one — not even the victim — suspects will ever happen."
Pearle, who has since remarried, says she has forgiven herself.
"I don't beat myself up. I lived every day with those children like it was our last," she says. "We had a wonderful life. Every day here in this house was a good one. This was just bigger than me."
She keeps the girls' room intact, and goes in there every night. "I tell them how much I love them," she says. "And I'm so sorry."