JEROME, Idaho (AP) -- On a bone-chilling Christmas Day, a single father set out to drive his two young children to their mother's home, but the trip came to an abrupt halt when his car got stuck in a snowdrift. Then, prosecutors say, the man did the unthinkable: He sent the pair to walk the remaining 10 miles to their mother's alone, leaving them to trudge through the desolate countryside in frigid temperatures. Hours later, his 11-year-old daughter was dead from hypothermia. And the man's 12-year-old son narrowly survived after growing delirious from the bitter cold. Now Robert Aragon, a 55-year-old laborer, is jailed on charges of second-degree murder and felony injury to a child. And many of the 8,000 people who live in this small dairy community are questioning who should be held accountable. Some are reluctant to believe a parent could knowingly send his children into such dangerous conditions. "Who knows what went through his mind? It's just so sad," said Ron Choate, who owns a diner in Jerome. "Sure, the dad was dumb to let them walk, but he probably didn't think something bad was going to happen." Others are less forgiving. On that day, temperatures ranged from 27 degrees to minus 5, and winds were blowing up to 25 mph with snow and ice -- conditions that florist Dalene Buckman said felt "like razor blades on your skin." "I am sure that the jail cell Mr. Aragon is now occupying is much warmer at night than the snow bank he provided for his daughter," Pat Brownfield of nearby Twin Falls wrote in a letter to the local newspaper. Aragon lived with the children in a small house and earned $12 an hour spreading manure. His boss said the two children often came to work with him in the summer when school was out. Sometime after the children began walking, Aragon was able to free his car from the snowdrift and drive back to Jerome, a town about 100 miles southeast of Boise where the largest employers are cheese and milk processing plants. Then the children's mother called to say the kids never arrived. When authorities found Aragon about 10 p.m., he was searching for the children at the site where the car had become stranded. Early the next morning, a search dog found Sage Aragon's body covered in snow, wearing a down coat, shirt, pink pajama pants and snow boots. "She had a hard life. She's in a better place," said Thomas Luper, who grew up in Jerome and went to high school with the children's mother. "God, it's just so horrible." Aragon's son, Bear, was found in a deserted, single-stall rest stop more than 4 miles from where the children started walking. The boy had become delusional from hypothermia, discarding his jacket, jeans and tennis shoes and stripping to his long underwear. The snow at the site measured 4 feet deep in some places, and deputies had to crawl over the drifts to rescue the boy. Aragon, who is jailed on $500,000 bond, cried during a Dec. 29 initial court appearance where a judge told him he faced up to life in prison. Two days later, deputies escorted him to a funeral home to mourn his daughter. He is scheduled to return to court Jan. 23 for a preliminary hearing. Also in the car that night was Aragon's cousin, 29-year-old Kenneth Quintana, a man the children called uncle. He now faces the same charges. The Associated Press left messages seeking comment with public defenders representing both men, but a judge has issued a gag order in the case, barring attorneys and authorities from talking with reporters. About 300 relatives, friends and others attended a memorial service for the girl. Darrell Tendoy, a great-uncle to the children and uncle to their mother, urged mourners to forgive Aragon. "It's hurtful for him to be incarcerated and not be able to care for his child. A jail sentence is too harsh," Tendoy told The Associated Press after the service. Randy Adams employed Aragon and Quintana on his farm. He said Aragon was a hard worker who put in 12-hour days. "I don't believe he would drive off not thinking those kids were OK. He would not do that," Adams said. "There's another side of this we don't know anything about." The children had lived with their mother, 32-year-old JoLeta Jenks, until a few years ago, when they moved in with their father, said Luper, Jenks' former classmate. Aragon was convicted in February of misdemeanor drug possession. "He was a nice guy as far as I knew. He loved those kids," Luper said. "I do feel sorry for him. He's going to pay tremendously in his heart."
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