In August, Hallock Street neighbors Michele and Jimmy Peavey attended a birthday party for Robert Rodriguez and Heather Kowalczik's 9-year-old son, Robert Jr., in the couple's backyard.
That's where State Police on Friday night dug up remains believed to be those of Kowalczik's third son, 17-month-old Justin, who they say had been buried there since July 2010.
"This is a total shocker," said Takiera McCormick, 32, Michele Peavey's daughter, who was friends with Kowalczik and took her children to the birthday party. "We were over there -- my kids were playing in the backyard."
As state troopers swarmed the two-family Farmingdale house Saturday, where the family lived on the ground floor, neighbors, friends and relatives were reeling.
They said Kowalczik seemed to be a good mom but appeared nervous and depressed, and described her relationship with Rodriguez as strained.
"It seemed like she had a lot on her mind," McCormick said, adding that Rodriguez came by occasionally. "If he was there, she was over here. She never wanted to be over there with him."
"She was very scared of him," Michele Peavey said. "You could tell she was scared of him."
Relatives upstate in Middletown, where Kowalczik lived before moving to Long Island two years ago, said she called them often. Her uncle, Sigmund Kowalczik, said she would say she "wanted out of Long Island" and to be back near her family, "where she felt safer."
Her aunt, Debra Kowalczik, said she last saw Justin before the family moved to Long Island, and called him a "chubby, healthy baby."
"She loved her kids," Debra Kowalczik said. "She was just a good mom."
Those who knew her in Farmingdale painted a bleaker picture. They never saw a third child, and said Kowalczik never mentioned one.
Clarissa Thompson, a friend of Kowalczik's, said: "I felt like something was wrong. She's such a nice girl, but I know she was kind of troubled."
Workers at Frankie's East Side Gourmet Restaurant on Main Street, where Kowalczik briefly worked as a waitress, said she seemed sad and, at times, distracted.
At around 9 a.m. Friday, Michele and Jimmy Peavey said, Kowalczik came to their house alone, crying. "She said, 'I need to talk,' " McCormick said. "She sat here from 9 to 10:30 and nothing ever came up about this."
When Kowalczik left that morning, McCormick said she kissed Jimmy Peavey on the cheek and said, " 'I'll be over later.' And later never came."
With Scott Eidler, Mackenzie Issler and Sarah Armaghan