It sounded like a scene from a horror movie.

A middle schooler comes home from playing basketball and finds his parents' bodies.

Both are dead, both mutilated by a chainsaw.

The gruesome murder-suicide in Lower Moreland on Tuesday orphaned the couple's three sons, and shocked a close-knit Montgomery County community that knew Nicole and Christopher Peppelmans as caring and attentive parents.

Nicole Peppelman, 43, had also been choked and stabbed, coroner Walter Hofman said Wednesday. Christopher Peppelman, 48, killed himself, according to autopsy results.

What motivated Christopher Peppelman to kill his ex-wife and himself remained unclear. Those who knew the Peppelmans described them as loving parents whose lives centered on their boys, who are in the third, sixth, and eighth grades.

"This is horribly tragic for the whole family, especially the boys," said Cheryl Young, an attorney who represented Nicole Peppelman in the couple's divorce proceedings.

Kevin Steele, the Montgomery County first assistant district attorney, said a chainsaw and a knife were recovered at the scene. He declined to discuss the investigation or a possible motive.

Hofman cited "gaping sharp-force injuries" to the stomach as a cause of death for both victims, though he wouldn't say if the injuries came from the chainsaw. Christopher Peppelman had a similar wound to his right thigh.

Nicole Peppelman had filed for divorce in 2010, records show, though there was no action on the case between late 2010 and 2013. The divorce was finalized in January.

Records from that case suggest Christopher Peppelman lived at the Country Lane home - in the township's Huntingdon Valley section - where the bodies were found. Nicole Peppelman listed a Jenkintown address in court filings.

Weeks after the divorce was finalized, Nicole Peppelman had been cited for harassment, and a judge ordered her to pay a fine, records show. She was accused of shoving a teenager to prevent a fight between players after her son's hockey game, according to Martin Mullaney, her defense attorney.

Mullaney, who described Nicole Peppelman as "an active, outgoing woman," said she was appealing the citation and that her ex-husband was a witness on her behalf, Mullaney said.

But, the lawyer said, "Nicole always warned me that although Mr. Peppelman was on our side, that things can change on a dime in his world."

Lamar Goodenough, a friend of the couple, described them as friendly and kind. Though they struggled in their relationship with each other, she said, the Peppelmans tried to stay together for their children.

"They were together for the kids and they were both supportive of the kids and came to school events and sporting events," she said. "I know they loved the boys so much and wanted to do everything that they could for the boys."

The sons are in the care of extended family members, said Eric Carswell, pastor of Bryn Athyn Cathedral, where the family attended church. The two younger boys attend Bryn Athyn Church School, Carswell said. The older one is in a Lower Moreland public school.

Hundreds of mourners gathered for a candlelight vigil at the Bryn Athyn Cathedral on Tuesday night, Carswell said. The school held a session for parents Wednesday morning, and addressed how to talk about the deaths with young children and support the Peppelmans' children.

Goodenough described Nicole Peppelman as "just the kind of person that would bend over backwards for you." The two women met during high school, and have children around the same age.

Even after her own sons no longer participated in the Bryn Athyn hockey program, Goodenough said Nicole Peppelman continued volunteering to organizer of the hockey schedule. Her husband was also involved with his sons' activities, Goodenough said, and was a supportive father.

"He would come out skating with the kids," Goodenough said. "He always had a friendly word and a smile."

Since learning of the deaths, the church and school community in Bryn Athyn has been working to find ways to support the three boys and their extended family members.

"The community is really, really, spending a lot of love and attention and energy focusing on how, basically, how we can all raise these kids together," Goodenough said. "I am confident that as a community we really are pulling together for them."

lmccrystal@phillynews.com

610-313-8116 @Lmccrystal