MARYSVILLE — For months, a father fought to protect his kids.
Early this year, Erik Denton told police and child welfare agencies that the mother of his children, Liliana Carrillo, appeared to be experiencing “psychosis.” She had been exhibiting signs of postpartum depression since the birth of the second of their three children, the Los Angeles Times first reported.
He and his cousin, Teri Miller, an emergency room physician, used what they believed were the appropriate avenues to report the mother’s worrisome behavior. They said they asked everyone they could think of for help. But no one seemed able to do anything.
“I mean it was just — we were kind of desperate,” Miller said earlier this month. “Erik was just beside himself out of worry for his kids.”
Today, a bumper sticker tells drivers there are angels on board Denton’s black Jeep.
“What needs to change? The system,” said Kim Miller, Denton’s aunt. “I don’t know. Just to do their jobs, basically. Do their jobs.”
Teri Miller wrote an essay describing the excruciating months preceding their deaths.
“On April 10 of this year, my cousin Erik called me with the worst imaginable news,” she wrote. “As horrific as the call was, it was not entirely unexpected. For nearly two months, Erik and I had been desperately worried about the children’s safety, and we had tried every way we could think of to get them removed from their mother’s custody.”
Again and again, Denton has had to recount the events that led to his children’s deaths — to investigators, to family members, to reporters.
He’ll have to keep revisiting those events as the mother of his children faces trial for murder.
“It’s just not gonna be fun,” he said. “I promised myself and my kids I’d go to every single court date. … I chose to go through the whole trial process and see it all the way through to the end.”
During a drive-thru toy drive in their honor last weekend, hearts made from flowers hung above and toys sat below the portraits of Denton’s three slain children — Joanna, 3, Terry, 2, and Sierra, 6 months.
The photos were taken during Denton’s last visit with his kids.
“It was exciting to watch them play … to wrangle them up for a photo,” he said. “I had a blast, and then that’s when I gave them back to their mom. And it was the last time I saw them alive.”
Denton’s mother, Tracy Jellison, said the toy drive was a welcome opportunity for the family to focus on something positive.
The storm slated to pound the region paused, and the sun peeked out from the clouds as farm trucks, classic cars and vans full of toys continued to pour through the Grove Church parking lot where Denton, his cousins, parents and friends loaded box after box of toys for Marysville Food Bank’s Toy Store into a box truck.
With only 30 minutes left of the event, the food bank’s truck was nearly full of boxes, each loaded to the brim with new John Deere tractors, stuffed Baby Yoda dolls and bouncy balls.
“All the toys they’re bringing — they’re gonna be distributed back into this community,” Denton said. “To have them come because of the kids — that means a lot.”
There was an awkwardness — a rush to not hold up the long procession of cars — while members of the community tried to express their condolences in a few sentences.
Some hit their brakes to take photos or take pause to admire the children’s portraits.
Among those driving through were Denton’s friends, who would often get out of their cars and pull him in for long, tight hugs. They talked, longer than Denton’s talked to most people since the tragedy, Jellison said.
“I can’t focus on something for too long a time or I lose track of what’s going on or what I need to do,” Denton said. “I’ve been lost since April.”
Denton helped pack boxes into the food bank’s truck. He wore a camouflage hat with his children’s names sewn in white, and a hoodie with an image of his three children printed on the front.
The toy drive was the first thing he thought to do in honor of his kids. It was also a way to deflect.
“I don’t want all the attention just on myself,” he said. “I want to give back to families who are struggling or might be struggling in the future.”
These days Denton is learning how to be “Erik.” How to start over.
“I had a family and then also had an apartment,” he said. “I chose to give away everything and go from having a life and a family to having to restart.”
Denton gave his central California apartment to an immigrant family in need of a place to stay. He paid their first month’s rent and deposit.
This is not the first time Denton has had to start fresh. When he had kids, “dad” became his new identity.
As an outgoing kid in Marysville schools, Denton would always find trouble, or trouble would find him, his cousin said.
“He’s always had a really big heart,” Teri Miller said. “People kind of gravitated towards him. But he also got into a lot of trouble, because he got, you know, he just kind of got pulled into things that he should have probably stayed out of.”
His rebellious teenage self made it on the front page of the newspaper for skipping class once.
“Like most of his classmates, Marysville Pilchuck High School student Erik Denton, 15, took the day off,” the undated news clipping states. “But the day wasn’t a total loss. Erik planned to go on a Valentine’s Day date.”
Denton ended up dropping out of high school. In 2014, he left Marysville for contract work with a power company in Southern California, where he would meet the mother of his children.
“When he had kids, I mean, it settled him,” Teri Miller said.
Denton’s smile reaches his eyes when he describes his three kids.
When COVID kept him home, he became a full-time dad.
“It was an adventure every day,” he said. “I’d wake up before everybody. I’d make the coffee and kind of hang out, have my own time. Then they’d slowly wake up and I’d tend to each one. I’d get to hang out with them and go outside. We’d go to parks every day. Pretty much, life is centered around them.”
The toy drive brought a moment of peace, “but the pain will never go away,” he said.
This is something he’s learned through months of working with trauma and grief counselors.
Most recently, Denton spent some time at the Selah Carefarm in Arizona.
“I’ve learned a lot about what I got in store for me in the future as far as going through the grieving process and that sort of thing,” he said. “It’s a day-to-day basis. Some good, some bad. Mostly been bad for for a while but that’s why I’m heading back there.”
The farm, owned and operated by grief counselor and trauma scholar Joanne Cacciatore, connects abused animals with traumatized humans to provide connection, compassion and understanding. Cacciatore, founder of the MISS Foundation, an international nonprofit that serves families whose children have died, has appeared on a mental health expert panel for Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry’s documentary series, and written several books on grief.
“Remembering the lives of these three precious children, Sierra, Terry, and Joanna, with their loving father who misses them more than words can say,” Cacciatore wrote in a Facebook post. “We mourn with you E. This community mourns with you.”
Soon he’ll head back to the farm to continue working through his grief.
Grief is a form of brain injury. Studies have shown that the same regions of the brain are affected by both physical and emotional pain.
For Denton, just finding the right place to begin healing was hard.
After the tragedy, Denton said he packed a suitcase and spent a month at a different trauma facility in Arizona.
He took a brief break from counseling to go on a road trip to New Mexico with cousin Teri Miller and re-entered a trauma treatment center.
But the facility, picked by his health insurance provider, “ended up being 10 miles from where it happened,” Denton said. “I couldn’t handle it. Came back and got my Jeep and just been on the road.”
His children have been along for the ride, in spirit and in the photos and toys he carries in their memory.
“I don’t think that on a whole — as a culture as a society — we do a really great job with embracing people who are grieving,” Miller said. “We kind of tend to feel uncomfortable by it, we don’t really know how to share in that pain.”
As months passed, Jellison said, Denton has returned to some of his favorite activities: camping, fishing and getting out on the water in his pink kayak.
He’s been spending a lot of time in Marysville with family and friends. Being here, he said, feels “unnatural,” but he’s learning how to reconnect.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” Denton said. “To have everyone come from all different directions to give their support.”
Ultimately, Denton and his family hope his story can highlight the importance of acknowledging and addressing mental health issues.
“I mean, if someone says they need help, even if they look fine, you have to believe them,” Kim Miller said.
Denton echoed his aunt’s sentiment.
“If you’re not feeling OK, seek help,” he said. If you’re “feeling depressed or any sort of mental feeling that’s not natural, seek help. Don’t isolate. Reach out.”
Isabella Breda: 425-339-3192; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @BredaIsabella.
If you or someone you know is struggling
Snohomish County Crisis Line: 800-584-3578
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Helpline: 800-662-HELP (4357).
National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine: 800-950-NAMI (6264); or text NAMI to 741-741.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255); or text TALK to 741741.