Prince George’s police investigate double homicide with witness who can’t talk


Prince George's County Police investigate the deaths of James Ferguson and Tina Towler in Laurel. (Matt Zapotosky/The Washington Post)

Jasmine Gilbert — or “Jazzy,” as relatives affectionately call her — cannot walk, cannot talk and is fed through a tube. Born with cerebral palsy, she was initially given three months to live, according to her grandparents. She’s 26 now, having defied seemingly insurmountable odds.

She also is a witness to a terrible crime.

When her mother and her mother’s boyfriend were slain this month in their Laurel apartment, Jazzy was in the room with them, left unharmed by whoever killed the couple. As detectives try to unravel what happened to 45-year-old Tina Towler and 42-year-old James Ferguson, those who know Jazzy best are left wondering what she saw and heard — and what she was able to comprehend.

“She’s just trapped in that body,” said Dana Daniels, a longtime friend of Towler’s, “and she’s not able to talk.”

More than two weeks after the killings, police have not publicly identified any suspects or a motive in the case, and they recently distributed fliers in the neighborhood where the crime occurred, in hopes of generating tips. Lt. William Alexander, a Prince George’s County police spokesman, said that because there were no signs of a break-in, detectives think someone who knew the pair attacked them. Unfortunately, they were “not able to obtain any useful information” from Jazzy about who the attacker might be, Alexander said.


James Ferguson (Courtesy of Prince George's County police)

A nurse checking on Jazzy about 8:15 a.m. May 2 discovered the gruesome scene in the one-bedroom apartment, authorities have said. Towler and her boyfriend were stabbed and beaten at the foot of their bed. Jazzy, officials said, was confined to her medical bed just feet away, physically unharmed.

Joseph Morse, 68, Towler’s father, said Jazzy would have woken up if there was “any amount of noise” and would have at least some understanding of what was happening. He said he has heard her scream or cry if she feels her mother is being harmed, or smile and laugh when she sees people she likes.

“A lot of people don’t know, but Jazzy understands things,” Morse said. “She had cerebral palsy, and she can’t do nothing. . . . She’s not dumb.”

Other relatives say Jazzy has minimal awareness. Aurelia Gilbert, Jazzy’s grandmother on her father’s side, said that from what she knows of Jasmine, the young woman “wouldn’t have an understanding of what happened” – even if she saw it. Still, she said she was pained thinking about the wheelchair-bound woman bearing witness to such horror.

“Once I heard that that was my granddaughter [in the room], I just broke down,” Gilbert said. “I’m still picturing her.”

Family members said that Jazzy — who was taken to a hospital after the incident — is in the custody of the state and that they were still working to determine who will provide her long-term care. Dori Henry, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, declined to comment on the case, citing “privacy issues,” but said state officials generally work with local group homes and other service organizations to provide care and placement. She said that a judge eventually appoints a guardian — based on recommendations from those working with the disabled person — and that family members interested in becoming a guardian should reach out to officials with adult protective services.

Friends and family members said they have done so; Morse said his wife talked to Jazzy by phone on the disabled woman’s 26th birthday this month. They said they also had focused on planning Towler’s funeral Saturday and trying to raise enough money to bury her.

Towler was Jazzy’s primary caregiver, though nurses frequented her apartment as Jazzy got older and her needs grew more complex, friends and family members said. Daniels, 40, who was the maid of honor in Towler’s wedding, said Towler was a loving mother to her disabled daughter and to an adult daughter and son. She said she still fondly recalls taking vacations with Towler — who worked as a sales consultant for Verizon until she took a buyout years ago — or getting together to bake Christmas cookies for their children. “She was just a sweet, kind, giving person,” Daniels said. “She was the neighborhood mom.”

Morse said that while his daughter was not perfect — she battled alcoholism after her 3-year-old son died of cancer more than a decade ago — she “never bothered a soul.”

“It hurts my feelings, and I mean bad,” he said of his daughter’s slaying. “Tina is my baby girl. I got an older daughter, but Tina is my baby girl.”

Ferguson’s relatives similarly described him as a “respectful” man who would invite them over frequently for cookoutsto share shrimp, crabs and beer. Morse said Ferguson and his daughter had moved in together about a year ago.

Morse and other relatives said detectives have remained tight-lipped about the investigation, and they worried the case might be languishing. Daniels said she was hopeful for an arrest soon, not just to provide closure for the family but because “you have a killer out there and nobody knows who it is.”

“I don’t want it to end up being a cold case,” she said, “because it will never get solved.”

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

Matt Zapotosky covers the federal district courthouse in Alexandria, where he tries to break news from a windowless office in which he is not allowed to bring his cell phone.
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