On December 18, 2003, Mark Fregia was driving his ex-girlfriend Erin Weaver and her two young children — one, his biological son, Daelen — from the Bay Area suburb of Vallejo to San Francisco, ostensibly to buy them Christmas presents. As they passed the exit to Pinole, still twenty miles from San Francisco, Mark pulled out a soda bottle filled with gasoline and began dousing Erin. Erin screamed in terror as Mark sparked a flame with a lighter, causing the car to explode into flames. After several chaotic seconds, the car came to rest.
Mark and Erin managed to stumble from the car, but they were unable to free the children from the back seat despite their reported attempts. Mark then ran to a car that had pulled over to help. He forced the driver from the car and drove it to the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, where he was arrested later that night.
As the coroners recovered the children’s charred bodies from their car seats, Erin was taken to the hospital with burns on over 85 percent of her body. She spent the next several months in a medically-induced coma, eventually recovering but suffering permanent disfigurement.
Mark was charged with capital murder. The jury declined to put him to death. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole and is now housed in a maximum security prison in California.
“Mark’s life was doomed from even before he was born,” says Mark’s mother, Susan Pittman.
Susan had intended to give Mark up for adoption, but decided at the last moment to turn away the woman who had offered her $10,000 for her baby.
Mark’s father, Darrel Fregia, a basketball star at Stanford who would pursue a career in the Hospital Administration field, was no longer in Susan’s life at the time of Mark’s birth.
Susan grew up in an abusive household, in which her father, Willie, regularly beat her mother, Gladys, often in front of the children.
“I remember when I was eight, it was raining outside, so he wasn’t working. I couldn’t concentrate at school because I thought my father was at home beating my mother,” says Susan.
Willie would yell and repeatedly punch Gladys in the face and body as she cried and cowered. He threatened to kill Gladys. Susan recalls that after one of the beatings, she found her mother lying in a bathtub full of blood. Gladys had been beaten up so badly that she had suffered a miscarriage.
Susan battled depression through early childhood, and raising a child on her own proved beyond her capabilities, so the responsibility for raising Mark fell to her parents. Willie’s abuse of Gladys continued after Mark was born and often took place while Mark was home or even in the same room. Susan believes Mark’s grandfather planted the seeds of anger and violence in Mark.
“Mark was just a little boy. He defended Willie. He’d say, ‘There’s nothing wrong with Daddy (which is what he called Willie). Don’t say nothin’ about him. Don’t talk about him,’” says Susan, “I didn’t realize that it was going to affect him.”
Mark’s parents were each largely absent from his life. Darrel had married and moved to Seattle. Although Mark would visit Darrel for a few days every year, Darrel made no sustained effort to help guide Mark as a young man. Susan was also frequently absent. She was often away from home, working as a flight attendant. Even when she was physically present, she was unable to provide steady maternal support to Mark due to her own emotional instability.
Twice, during Mark’s childhood, Susan attempted suicide. In addition, she moved out of her parents’ house for years at a time to live with boyfriends. For about six years during Mark’s early childhood, she dated a man named Bernard.
“When I met Bernard, I’d disappear from Mark’s life. I’d spend all my time at Bernard’s house. It was selfish,” she admits. Her boyfriends wanted nothing to do with Mark. Susan would return home with gifts for Mark, but the gifts did little to nurture him. Mark was essentially alone as a child.
“I took his childhood away,” says Susan who feels that Mark took care of her more than she him. “I was selfish,” she reiterates, “I just looked out for myself and didn’t attend to Mark’s needs as I should have. Mark was always taking care of me. He became more of a parent than a son. He was my little husband. I wasn’t a parent to him.”
Susan recalls that Mark was always trying to get her to quit smoking cigarettes. One time, when Mark was only seven or eight years old, Susan was on her way to the airport, and Mark had come along for the ride. During the ride, Mark went into her purse and tore up all of her cigarettes. She didn’t realize what he had done until she was on the plane.
As Mark was growing up, Susan maintains, she thought Mark was fine. She says she didn’t realize how disturbed he was until much later.
“Mark didn’t tell me what was going on because he didn’t want me to worry about him.”
Susan knew that Mark’s dream was to become a professional football player. He excelled on the football field, extending his hopes for an NFL career late into high school, but he failed to draw the interest of an NCAA Division I football program. Although he had been experimenting with drugs and alcohol since the beginning of high school, his usage dramatically escalated at around the time his dream of professional football was fading. Soon Mark was regularly using crack cocaine. Susan believes that Mark used crack to self-medicate.
From an early point, Mark’s relationships with women bore the signs of his early exposure to domestic violence. He tended to devote himself entirely to his girlfriends, seeing them essentially as quasi-mother figures. The moment a woman walked away from him, a rage erupted in him, likely informed by his mother’s abandonment of him. He often lashed out violently towards these women. One of those violent incidents — in which Mark punched his girlfriend in the face as she was holding her infant son in her arms — wound him up in state prison. Until he was charged for that beating, Susan was unaware that Mark mistreated women.
“I was appalled,” she recalls. “I always conveyed to him the importance of treating a woman with respect. He never hit me. He was never a violent person.”
Some of the blame for her son’s violence toward women, Susan put on the the women themselves.
“He chose women that used him. He tried to please them a lot. He couldn’t deal with their lack of satisfaction. He chose women who he had to help.”
After his release from prison, Mark enrolled in a residential drug treatment program where he met Erin Weaver, a woman struggling with methamphetamine addiction. The two quickly became involved, and Mark took in and cared for Erin’s daughter, treating her as his own. Mark and Erin also had a son together, Daelen Fregia.
For a short time, things were looking up. Mark cherished his son and his new found family. He was working full-time. But then he relapsed repeatedly, binging for days at a time, and any semblance of normalcy quickly unraveled. He and Erin were evicted from their home and Erin began to see other men. Her abandonment of Mark triggered, once again, Mark’s rage. In one incident, Mark interrupted Erin as she and another man were having sex, and he dragged Erin out into the street, nude, and choked her and beat her. He was charged with another serious domestic violent felony offense. It was while he was out on bail with this serious case hanging overhead that he took the steps leading to the deaths of the children.
Susan does not believe Mark bears ultimate responsibility for the way things turned out.
“I don’t blame [Mark] at all; I blame myself.”
She also believes fault lies with her father, Willie, and with the women Mark dated. Susan also blames others whom she believes failed Mark.
“He never got any help. He was always going to jail, and not getting any treatment in the jail, and then coming out the same person . . . When he got out, they should have made him check in with a psychiatrist. He came out of jail and he was worse than he was when he went in.”
Grant Fine is a lawyer and private investigator in the San Francisco Bay Area. He worked for several years as an investigator representing clients facing the death penalty. Laura Epstein-Norris is a professional photographer whose work has appeared in Ms. Magazine and Huffington Post. She has a strong interest in social justice. This is the first in a series of essays sharing the mother’s perspectives on raising sons who committed felonies as adults.
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