North Stonington — Brenda Perry made mini-cupcakes for her son Alton's second birthday and delivered them and her two children to their day care program Tuesday.
She made arrangements for her mother, Debra Denison, to pick up Alton and his 6-month-old brother, Ashton, early so that Alton wouldn't have to spend his entire special day at day care.
But when Denison picked up her grandsons, police said, she drove them to a remote location near the North Stonington/Preston border, shot the two boys and then killed herself.
Donna Connors, the boys' paternal grandmother, said Denison had bipolar disorder and had attempted to commit suicide in the past. But Connors said Perry told her that for the past several months her mother had appeared to be fine.
"I just feel if she wanted to do herself in, why did she have to take two innocent babies with her?" Connors asked Wednesday.
At about 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, a person who had seen an Amber Alert state police had issued for the three called 911 after finding a white 2002 Chrysler Town and Country van with three bodies inside parked near the state's Lake of Isles Boat Launch.
A revolver was recovered at the scene, police said. The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner will conduct a post-mortem examination to determine the manner and cause of the deaths.
Connors said the boys' parents, Jeremy and Brenda Perry, are devastated.
At the Perrys' home Wednesday, a man who answered the door said the couple was too upset to talk.
On Brenda Perry's Facebook page, she posted Wednesday, "Thank you for the prayers." She said her mother was "sick" and "my boys are in an amazing place."
No signs at day care
Denison picked up the children up from Kidds & Co. day care in North Stonington at around 2:30 p.m. At around 4 p.m., the boys' mother contacted state police to report the three missing. Police later issued the Amber Alert.
Christine Hare, owner of Kidds & Co., said Brenda Perry had notified them that her mother would be picking the boys up.
Both Hare, and Nikki Salaun, director of the center, said there was no inkling that Denison was "off" or upset when she arrived.
"Everyone keeps going over and over in their head, if there was something that was said or something that we could have done that was different, and the answer is just, 'No,'" Hare said.
A visitor to the day care center must push an intercom and identify themselves before being allowed inside. Parents are given a code, which they punch in to gain access.
Denison presented her identification at the front desk and was escorted to her grandchildren's classrooms.
Both Hare and Salaun cried as they recalled that it would be the last time they would ever see the boys.
Salaun said Alton was a "greeter," noting that he would come up to people and "just give them the biggest smile."
Ashton, she said, was a happy baby. She said affectionately that his arms looked like "sausage links" because he was so big and chunky.
"They were just beautiful boys," Salaun said.
Hare said Brenda Perry had worked at the center for about a year several years ago. She said Brenda and her husband, Jeremy, were committed to their family and adored the boys.
As news of the Amber Alert spread, Hare and Salaun said staff members went back to the center Tuesday night to await news of the boys' safe return, but that never happened.
"We were all just devastated," said Salaun. "We stayed here until about midnight, consoling each other."
Hare said the thought that Denison was in possession of a gun when she picked up the children terrifies her.
"What if something had set her off and she decide to take out her plan here? We could have had a mini-Sandy Hook," she said. "I just can't go there. I'm heartbroken."
Hare said the North Stonington school district made a counselor available to talk to staff and to the school-aged children who get dropped off by the school bus.
"I told the staff if they've got to cry, go ahead and cry," Hare said. "We are going to get through this together."
Both women said they have spoken to Brenda Perry, who was distraught. Salaun said Brenda wanted to pick up Alton's artwork and hold onto it as a keepsake.
"I'm so mad at her (Denison)," Salaun said. Added Hare, "She took our babies."
'It's so sad'
At Denison's home at 12 Sherwood Drive in Stonington Wednesday morning, a man who partially opened the front door said he had no comment.
A birthday balloon could be seen in the living room window, and pieces of children's playground equipment dotted the yard of the blue raised ranch, which Denison owned with her husband Jance. The family has owned the house since 1995.
Neighbor Melanie Lewis said her son plays with the Denisons' 13-year-old son. She said it was unusual Tuesday afternoon when no one met the boy at the bus stop. A short while later, she said, the boy left on his bike, and her husband saw him in the parking lot of the day care center, about 2 miles away along Route 184. They assumed he was looking for his mother.
"It's so sad," she said. "The kid doesn't deserve all of this."
Stonington police declined to discuss any previous interactions they may have had with Denison because of the pending investigation by state police.
At Mystic Middle School, where the 13-year-old is a student, there was a staff meeting before school began Wednesday to inform employees of the incident. Counselors and social workers were available to help students and staff.
"We're trying to be sensitive and caring and help people through this," Superintendent of Schools Van Riley said.
History of troubles
Denison's older son, Christopher Allen, was sentenced exactly three years ago to 32 years in prison for felony murder in the stabbing death of Kyle Sheets on a boat in Mystic in 2008.
As he was led out of the courtroom by correction officers, Denison cried and told her son, "I love you," according to The Day's report at the time.
Denison had been married three times. In March 1996, she was arrested by Groton police for making a false statement and reporting a false incident after she accused Allen's father, Findley Allen, of raping her. A disposition of that case was not available Wednesday.
She paid a $100 fine in 2003 for reckless driving.
Denison also appeared on The Montel Williams Show in May 1997 as part of a show about thanking people who do good things for others. She wanted to thank her current husband, Jance, who helped her win custody of two daughters from a previous marriage. The show gave them a seven-day trip to Jamaica.
Records in Stonington Town Hall show that 14 judgments and tax liens have been placed on the Denisons' Sherwood Drive home since 1997. Several are on behalf of Lawrence + Memorial and The William W. Backus hospitals, and one is for $668 in 2007 from Connecticut Behavioral Health Associates of New London.