Friends and neighbors say Dawn Brown appeared to be a good mom with an intense interest in her two young sons -- happy, active children who liked to ride bikes, play sports and help fix cars with their dad.
But an arrest last year on a welfare fraud charge was "ground zero" for her life unraveling, a friend said.
"Everything was great until the arrest," said William Lavold, a friend of Brown and her husband, Murphy Brown. "I call it ground zero. Up until then, everything was perfect. She had a great life planned ahead of her."
Those plans never materialized.
Early this morning, Murphy Brown, 36, returned to his home at 2015 Sidney St. in unincorporated Clearwater, deputies, say and found his wife and two sons, ages 9 and 5, dead. He then called 911, said Sgt. David DiSano, a spokesman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
Deputies say Dawn Brown, 34, killed the children, and used an electrical cord attached to a bedroom ceiling fan to hang herself in a bedroom. Deputies would not say how the children died, why authorities suspect Dawn Brown killed them or if there was a suicide note.
The causes of the children's deaths will be released after an autopsy, sheriff's officials said.
Deputies won't name the children, but Lavold said they are Zander, 9, and Zayden, 5.
Murphy Brown, who has struggled to make a living by repairing cars, was devastated, said Lavold, who described himself as a close friend of Murphy Brown's.
"I got a text message from Murphy at about 3 a.m.," Lavold said. "It basically said that his wife killed his children and he needed my help."
Lavold said he didn't notice the message until about 6 a.m., and once he did, he drove from his home in Tampa to the crime scene.
It was several hours earlier than he had anticipated visiting the home.
"They were all supposed to go out on my boat today," Lavold said. "I was like a godfather to the kids. I never saw anything that would lead me to believe she could do this."
Lavold said deputies allowed him to go inside the house.
"It didn't look like a crazy crime scene," he said. "There wasn't blood everywhere."
In the daylight, the house is a snapshot of happier moments frozen in time.
A couple of soccer balls and a basketball were on the lawn, along with bicycles, including a red Huffy Rockit belonging to Zayden and a Rampage Thrust 2.0 belonging to Zander, Lavold said. Another bike, he said, recently was left by a person who stole Dawn Brown's bicycle and replaced it with a less valuable one. There is a basketball hoop, and tools were strewn about the driveway, along with a red Sienna XLE minivan and a dark green Honda Prelude.
There also was a black grill, which the family was using the day before to roast marshmallows, Lavold said.
Nichole Bell this morning stood outside a house three doors down. Her son Bradley, 8, was one of Zander Brown's best friends.
"Dawn was one of about four parents," Bell said, who attended a recent open house at McMullen Booth Elementary School, which her son and the elder Brown boy attended.
"She kept asking questions," Bell said. "She was very interested in her kids' education. She didn't seem like a mom who would hurt her kids."
Bell said her son was deeply affected by the deaths of his friends.
On Friday morning, she said, Zander Brown and her son got into a fight at the school bus stop and, upon arriving at McMullen Booth Elementary, were taken to a guidance counselor. After learning that his friends were dead, Bradley Bell wondered if the fight had something to do with Zander's death, his mom said.
"He is trying to understand what happened," she said.
Bell and Lavold said the Browns were struggling financially.
"But I never thought anything like this was possible," Bell said.
The family's home had no electricity in recent days and the Browns were relying on a neighbor supplying electricity with an extension cord, Bell and Lavold said.
People were willing to help the family, said Lavold, because Murphy Brown was "such a great guy."
Murphy Brown recently began volunteering at Bay Pines VA Healthcare System, said Lavold, 36, a Navy veteran who receives treatment there.
"He would take all the neighborhood kids out… to a local park, to Dunedin Beach," said Lavold. "If someone in the neighborhood needed their car fixed, he would do it for the price of the parts."
Though neighbors said Murphy Brown worked hard, the family struggled to get by. Court records show the home has been in foreclosure proceedings at least three times since 2002, with the most recent case filed in February. A certificate of compliance in that case was filed Sept. 10.
But the family's biggest challenge, according to Lavold, took place last year.
On June 8, 2011, Brown, under her maiden name Dawn Michelle Barylski, was arrested on a charge of welfare fraud. She was released from jail the following day without being required to post bail. Court records show she entered a written plea of not guilty on Sept. 12 – a little more than a week before deputies say she killed her children and took her own life.
Details of that arrest were not available Saturday.
Sometime after her arrest, Brown stopped taking classes to become a teacher and decided to be a housewife, Lavold said.
"She changed," he said, before leaving the house with a carload of Murphy Brown's clothing and his children's pillows.
"I am bringing them to him in case he wants to sleep with the pillows, as a reminder," said Lavold.
By this evening an impromptu memorial had begun to form on the lawn outside the family's house.
There were flowers.
A teddy bear and a Tigger doll.
And a note, with two hand-drawn butterflies.
"God bless," it read, "and Fly free in heaven."