In a moving homage, Peta Rostirola paid tribute to Maria Lutz, 43, and her children Elisa, 12, and Martin, 11 at the inquest into their deaths.
All three were found dead in their beds at their home in Davidson on Sydney’s upper north shore in late October 2016. Tequila, the family’s dog, was lying beside Martin, also dead.
But there was one name Ms Rostirola refused to utter in her tribute — that of Maria’s husband Fernando Manrique, 44, who is suspected of murdering his family by flooding the house with toxic gas as they slept in on the night of 17 October that year.
An inquest is taking place into the circumstances of the family’s death and how Manrique was able to procure deadly amounts of carbon monoxide, a highly dangerous substance, and have it delivered to a residential address.
The inquest heard Manrique was in financial “dire straits”, his marriage had broken down and he had a 17-year-old girlfriend in the Philippines that he had met during frequent business trips to the country. Despite having only $6 in his family trust account, he wired more than $3000 to his teenage lover shortly before the family died.
Ms Rostirola, whose children attended the same school as Maria’s, welled up as she remembered her friend on Wednesday.
“Maria faced the challenge of two young children with autism with fire, grace and an enduring sense of humour,” she said.
“She knew being a mother of children with disability was hard but also the most meaningful, beautiful and inspiring experience.
“Every day she faced challenges that would have made most ordinary men or women sink under the nearest rock.
“Maria didn’t not enjoy the constant battles; she would say it’s a fight we probably won’t win. But if we don’t win, we can make an impression that might soften it for the next person.”
Just before her death, Maria found out she had been allocated $25,000 in funding from the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) to help in supporting Elisa.
Approval for a further $25,000 in NDIS support for Martin was in the process of being signed off.
“She knew Elisa and Martin loved her and that made her love them harder and try harder. Life loving Elisa and Martin was all she needed,” Ms Rostirola said.
Elisa was cheeky, inquisitive and loved Katy Perry and Jason Derulo, the family friend recalled, while Martin was more of a “Old Macdonald kind of guy” who had a “gentle, precious soul”.
Both produced “exquisite artworks” she said. For Martin, it was his way of communicating with the world. Elisa was so talented, her mum dreamt of her one day becoming a graphic designer.
Ms Rostirola, along with other friends of the family that attended, wore silk scarfs printed with an example of Elisa’s artwork.
“The loss of Maria, Elisa and Martin has left a gaping hole in so many lives that will never be filled,” she said.
“We will never give up living our lives to the full because that’s what Maria would have wanted us to do.”
Not once did she refer to Manrique, even in passing.
Both children were born after the couple, childhood sweethearts from Bogota in Colombia, emigrated to Australia. Both were diagnosed with autism.
Despite the challenges the care of the children posed, Judge Elaine Truscott said there was no indication Maria was involved in her children’s deaths.
“The impression the friends of Maria have given the court is to make it very clear Maria loved her life and had every intention of continuing a loving and productive life with her children,” Judge Truscott said.
“There’s no suggestion in any of the evidence the deaths were merciful at all. She didn’t require mercy, she provided her two children with the utmost,” the judge said.
While there was little doubt Manrique had planned the murders, counsel assisting the coroner Adam Casselden had raised a question about whether Manrique intended to kill himself. He was found face down in the hall; he had a suitcase packed elsewhere in the house.
However, he had also locked all the doors and would have been aware of the toxicity of carbon monoxide, suggesting he meant to remain in the house.
There have been calls at the inquest for the regulations surrounding carbon monoxide to be tightened to make it more difficult for the gas to be delivered to residential addresses and to put more checks and balances in place to ensure its proper use.
The inquest continues.