By Pam Lambert
Updated April 07, 1997 12:00 PM

JOSE GARZA WAS MAKING LOVE TO HIS WIFE WHEN he first heard the dogs. Until then, the moonlit night of Sept. 25 seemed like so many others in the two years since he and Nicole had moved to the quiet Los Angeles suburb of Sylmar: dinner, TV, 8 o’clock bedtime for the kids and then, later, a vigorous session of what the couple liked to call “playtime.” The two usually made love every evening. But this night, just before 11, Polly and Rocky, their German shorthaired pointer and their malamute, began baying in the backyard.

Garza, a prosecutor for the city of Los Angeles, was spooked. Not as much as he would have been, though, had he known what the barking signified—that he was about to be thrust into a bizarre, terrifying series of events that would leave one woman dead, send his adored wife to prison and shatter his own life unalterably. As soon as the dogs quieted a few moments later, he turned his attention back to Nicole, 32, his attractive, auburn-haired spouse of 4½ years. “She looked stunning,” says Garza, 51, wistfully recalling that evening.

When their lovemaking was finished, Garza remembers telling Nicole he was hungry. Did she want an ice cream, too? “No,” said Nicole. “I’d rather have a Snack Well’s.” That would mean a trip to the garage for Jose, since Nicole’s low-fat treats were kept in the big freezer there. Still edgy from the dogs’ barking, Garza, a gun collector and avid hunter, decided to take one of the two licensed .45-caliber handguns he kept loaded in the bedroom closet.

Down the dark hallway Garza padded barefoot, past the rooms of the couple’s sleeping children—Richard, 15 months, Matthew, 3, and Emily, who would turn 4 the next day. Entering the cluttered two-car garage, he flipped on the lights and went to the freezer. He took out two SnackWell’s, but instead of returning to the house directly, Garza stepped to the front of the garage to check the doors. Suddenly he heard several loud pops and looked down at his gun, thinking it might have gone off. But out of the corner of his eye he spotted a hooded figure with tinted goggles standing about 10 feet away on the other side of a Ping-Pong table, pointing a shiny .38 Special at him. “It looked like the Unabomber,” he says. “It scared the living daylights out of me.”

Garza screamed so loudly that neighbors along the quiet street of $250,000 homes reported hearing his howl. He dropped the SnackWell’s, planted his arms on the Ping-Pong table and fired all five of his rounds. He heard the attacker grunt. The figure slumped. Out of ammunition, Garza ran back into the house, locking the door behind him. “Oh, my God!” Nicole was screaming outside their bedroom. “Call 911!” Garza yelled. “I’ve just shot someone in the garage.” Hearing the uproar, little Emily poked her head out of her room. “Mommy?” she whispered timidly.

At this point Garza—who as a prosecutor had seen his share of criminal cases—might have thought the worst was behind him. But it was only beginning. After a 3-hour interrogation, LAPD detectives told him the identity of the attacker one of his shots had hit in the abdomen, and who would die 12 days later from internal bleeding. She was Lynette LaFontaine-Trujillo—Nicole’s older sister.

Garza knew that Lynette, 34, a divorced waitress and mother of four, had had her share of problems. They included jealousy toward her more successful sister, a lawyer, and lengthy battles with bulimia and drugs that were a large part of the reason her children were being cared for by their fathers. (Ryan, 10, Spencer, 9, and Travis, 6, live with Lynette’s ex-husband, and Cody, 3, stayed with her ex-boyfriend.) But, Jose wondered, why would she want to kill him? He was still trying to figure that out two days later when a half-dozen police officers showed up at his house. “You are under arrest,” one began as they surrounded Nicole and cuffed her.

“My whole world came crashing down on me,” recalls Garza. At first he refused to believe his wife wanted him dead. But once police laid out the evidence they had found in Lynette’s car, the prosecutor in him couldn’t reject it. There, on a series of ripped-up hand-written and computer-printed notes, were the chilling instructions Nicole had apparently sent her sister on how to murder Garza—”several shots to the back of the head,” read one—as well as dozens of reasons for doing so. Among them: “daily sexual abuse of your sister”…”wasting children’s resources on fishing/hunting/ham radio stuff”…”I can’t have family over any time I want.” The note concluded, “1½ minutes of terror and a 360° turn-around in your life (I can get you out of debt, get your boobs, get you off the drugs, get you on Prozac, get you into a profession you enjoy…etc.).”

The documents were a “smoking gun” for Dale Cutler, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case. “If we didn’t find that ball of paper, we would never have traced it to Nicole.” But though the paper trail provided the who, it didn’t really supply the why. Police uncovered no evidence suggesting that Garza had mistreated Nicole. And even close relatives of the sisters, who had been raised just miles away in the San Fernando Valley by their divorced mother, characterize Nicole’s accusations as “bizarre fiction.” Which leads them to believe that Nicole and Lynette were living in their own skewed universe, in which killing Jose made sense—but only to them. “We really had no clue that this could ever happen,” says the sisters’ aunt April Murray, a Los Angeles teacher. “So when it did, we were like, ‘Who are these people?’ ”

Certainly the Nicole who emerges from the notes bears little resemblance to the “model kind of mother” neighbor Stella Mendoza remembers making tamales on weekends. And she is nothing like the “nice, warm person” who caught the eye of the twice-divorced Garza in a San Fernando Valley courthouse back in the fall of 1991. “I am still very much in love with the person I met,” says Garza, whose answering machine announces he will accept collect calls from Nicole. (She phones almost daily.) “I can’t hate her.” Struggling to explain how this “complete aberration” happened, he suggests his wife became unbalanced by diet pills she may have taken. She shed 50 pounds six months before trying to kill him.

Others theorize that, behind the model-wife veneer, Nicole—who had rebounded from a brief early marriage to put herself through law school—had much in common with her more overtly troubled older sister. Their mother, Cynthia Berken, a retired elementary school teacher, suggests that her own lengthy illnesses during the girls’ childhood, particularly a bout of colitis that forced her to spend a year in the hospital when Nicole was about 3, had disrupted their development. (During this period the girls were sent to stay with their absentee father.)

Indeed, “children who have to learn how to survive by themselves early on may not develop empathy and concern for others,” says Kathryn Uzunov, a clinical psychologist. “They can be very charming and manipulative. They can even be quite intelligent. But they may lack remorse, or guilt, and just be looking out for themselves.”

In the case of Lynette and Nicole, all this seems likely to remain just so much educated guesswork. Lynette can’t speak for herself, and Nicole won’t. Because the latter chose to plead no contest to reduced charges of voluntary manslaughter and attempted murder in January, before even a preliminary hearing, her side of the story may never be known.

What is certain is that Emily Garza will be 16 before her mother becomes eligible, for parole. Until then, Nicole’s home will be a 6-by-10-foot cell at, the state prison in Chowchilla, Calif., a 5-hour drive from Sylmar. As long as she is there, Jose vows to bring the kids to see her once a month. He describes Nicole as distraught and apologetic, though she has never attempted to explain her behavior. She “has never come out and said, ‘I wanted you dead,’ ” he says. “I tell her three things: ‘The kids love you, I love you, and we will never abandon you,’ ” says Jose. “I am a prisoner with her.”

Making it that much harder for Garza to break free is the fact that he is still living in the Sylmar home where he was nearly murdered; the psychologist the children have been seeing since the shooting recommended that, for continuity’s sake, the family not leave right away. Though a son from his first marriage, Armin, 26, has moved in along with his wife, Lupe, to help Garza, the house remains haunted by memories as visible as the photos of Nicole and Jose still on display all through the home.

It was only in January that Garza finally removed his wedding ring, just before he filed for divorce. “It was very painful to keep it on,” he says tearfully. “And very painful to take it off.”

KEN BAKER in Los Angeles