Howard Breuer
August 16, 2012 05:00 PM

The day seemed like any other for the Harper family of seaside Carlsbad, Calif.

On the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 7, Julie Harper, 39, a former real estate agent, gathered her three children in the family’s 2008 Toyota Sienna minivan for a drive to La Costa Coffee Roasting for drinks and sandwiches, then to an indoor playground called PlayWerx – and then to her sister’s house.

That same morning, the cellphone of her husband, Jason Harper, 39, a teacher at a nearby high school, sent a message to his brother reading: “I’m out running errands, tell mom I’ll see her Friday.”

But authorities say this day was far from ordinary. Later that afternoon police – acting on a tip from Julie’s lawyer – found Jason dead from a bullet that pierced his heart.

They later arrested Julie on suspicion of murder. She is being held on $2 million bail; the prosecutor had asked Monday for $5 million, arguing that she took the kids out to the coffee shop after the shooting instead of calling 911.

In a chilling twist, the children may have unknowingly heard their father die. Julie allegedly told the kids that the thump and yell they’d heard from the bedroom that morning was just daddy falling off a chair, according to the prosecutor.

Community Is Stunned

The slaying, in a gated community flanked by a country club and a golf course, has shocked neighbors, who say the Harpers were a typical all-American family who were never seen fighting.

“As far as I knew, they were the nicest people in the world,” Robert Bridge, 68, who lives two doors down from the Harpers, tells PEOPLE.

The Harpers' home

He says he frequently saw Jason walking with the kids and pushing the youngest child in a stroller. They’d wave to each other. He says the family propped a Styrofoam policeman outside the house, with a sign saying, “Drive slowly, kids at play.”

Now, Bridge laments, the children’s “whole world is upside down. It’s devastating.”

Jason’s colleagues at Carlsbad High School say the popular, 6-foot-9-inch-tall math teacher and former girls’ volleyball coach was known as a “gentle giant,” according to the North County Times.

Signs of Violence at Home

But Julie Harper’s attorney, Paul Pfingst, paints a darker portrait of the couple’s home life.

He says there is a history of Jason being abusive towards his client and that, two days before Thanksgiving, police responded to her 911 call during an argument.

On Aug. 2, she filed for divorce, complaining: “At times, respondent has become violent with me by pushing me, shoving me, grabbing my arm and twisting my wrists.”

Pfingst says the couple’s children heard yelling, insults and other threats every day, according to NBC7 in San Diego.

“People outside the marriage may see one thing, people inside the marriage may see something entirely different,” Pfingst said. “This is one of those marriages.”

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