The last time Sheila Caceres appeared in Sacramento Superior Court, a former friend and client confronted her in the marble hallway mother-to-mother.
"Baby killer!" the woman shrieked, cradling a newborn as Caceres' black high heels clicked rapidly toward the nearest exit.
It has been a long journey for Sacramento's one-time "family child care provider of the year," whose fancy day care home became the toast of the suburbs until her arrest in October.
Caceres, 32, returns to court Wednesday to face criminal charges in the February 2011 death of 2-month-old Avin Rominger.
The burst of courthouse drama with Avin's mother last month offered a glimpse into the fractured worlds of families, friends, former clients and neighbors, who are splitting up and taking sides over the tragedy.
The baby's mysterious death also has challenged law enforcement officials, who cannot say exactly how the boy died. But they contend Caceres initially lied about what happened and failed to give the baby prompt medical attention, and they want to see her punished.
The complex criminal case resumes Wednesday after Caceres recently rejected a plea agreement. She faces a preliminary hearing into whether there is enough evidence to try her in Avin's death.
Caceres has pleaded not guilty to a felony charge of child endangerment and misdemeanor violation of fire safety regulations. If convicted, the woman who once advertised her "safe, loving environment for children" faces up to 6½ years in prison.
Caceres has declined Bee requests for an interview. Her attorney, Joe Welch, said commenting at length would be "inappropriate" before the hearing.
However, Welch did say: "My client did everything to help the child and nothing to hurt him."
Outside the courtroom, the child's death has altered the lives of the Caceres family and especially of Avin's parents, Rachelle and Dave Rominger, and their 6-year-old daughter, Savannah. In January, Rachelle gave birth to a daughter, Axtin.
"Every single day is harder than the last," said Rachelle Rominger, whose courthouse confrontations with Caceres last month drew notice from the bailiff and a security detail. "I'm grateful for the family I have, but it's an indescribable loss.
"It's just an endless circle of misery she's inflicted on our family for years to come."
For the Romingers, the sanctity of home changed overnight in their tidy Mather neighborhood south of Highway 50, brimming with young families and children. The couple say they have been ostracized by some residents and by other former day care parents who have stood by Caceres.
The Romingers say their daughter, Savannah, who attended Caceres' popular "Sheila's Garden Daycare" for nearly four years, found herself off the invite list to birthday parties and play dates with former pals.
Rachelle Rominger said two parents at the day care center sent her text messages after her son's death, berating her for ruining things over an "unfortunate tragedy" and urging her to "get on with life."
The couple now refuse to allow either of their children to be placed in child care, staggering work schedules so one of them can be home. Rachelle Rominger, 35, is a 911 dispatcher for the California Highway Patrol. Dave Rominger, 34, works at Mather for the National Guard.
"We will never use day care, ever," said Rachelle Rominger.
Caceres was forced last year to close her day care business, which had been honored in 2008 by the Sacramento Child Care Coalition. Rachelle Rominger had frequently volunteered there, attracted by the stimulating activities and colorful educational toys inside the 2,800-square-foot home.
But state licensing authorities discovered something else.
Under action last fall by the California Department of Social Services, Caceres was accused of numerous violations, including operating over capacity, failing to report a wandering child, and leaving chemicals and medications within children's reach. The state also alleged that "on more than one occasion" in 2009 and 2010, she had taken a day care child to another home and "engaged in sexual activity in the presence of the child."
Caceres agreed to a lifetime ban on running or working in a day care home, and now awaits the outcome of her criminal court case.
The Romingers say they are the ones who feel they've been "sentenced." Rachelle Rominger said she recently spotted a former day care mom who does not live in the isolated neighborhood driving slowly by their home.
"If anybody's on house arrest, we're on house arrest," said Dave Rominger. "We don't do anything in our neighborhood."
To avoid confrontations, the couple say, they now shop at a Target 11 miles away in Citrus Heights. The Romingers have moved Savannah out of the school district, rather than attend school just a few blocks away.
'Justice for my son'
The couple's lives unraveled on the afternoon of Feb. 23, 2011, when Dave Rominger arrived at Caceres' day care home around 4:55 p.m. to pick up his son. According to court records and investigative documents, Caceres went upstairs acting as if everything were fine then frantically returned, saying she had discovered Avin in distress and began CPR.
Sheriff's detectives sought charges against Caceres after they say she gave conflicting stories.
In court documents, investigators allege Caceres actually found Avin unresponsive in a car seat before his father arrived. Instead of calling 911, she allegedly placed him in a portable playpen, patted his back and left him on the second floor of her home, a violation of state codes.
The allegation that Caceres did not immediately call 911 is a key element of the case. Following an autopsy, the Coroner's Office could not find a specific medical reason for Avin's death and ruled the cause of death to be "sudden unexpected infant death with delayed medical intervention."
"The time delay is a factor of concern since it is unknown if he could have been revived from whatever event that caused his death," according to the coroner's report.
Today, Rachelle Rominger can barely contain her contempt for Caceres and the legal machinations that have dragged the case out for 15 months.
At an April 6 hearing at which Rominger expected Caceres to accept a plea deal, bailiffs escorted Caceres into a holding room after Rominger, carrying Axtin in a baby sling, confronted her in the courtroom.
Her reaction was sparked when Savannah walked up the courtroom aisle and Caceres appeared to bend down to hug her. Rominger exploded, demanding a restraining order and protesting until she was led into the hall to cool down.
At the time, the Romingers believed Caceres would accept a deal calling for a seven-month sentence, and both had prepared statements to read in court.
With Caceres' not guilty plea, however, they must prepare for the possibility of a trial.
"We can't even begin to heal until I feel like there's some sort of justice for my son," said Rachelle Rominger. "I handed my son to her. I have this terrible, terrible guilt I have to deal with every day. And until this is all finished, we can't even begin to heal."