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Violence Intersects Lives of Promise

'With or Without Him'

Two hours from Columbia, Madonna Stewart has had 2 1/2 years to think about her pregnant niece's killing outside Richmond one bleak night in April 2002. She has come to believe that maternal homicide is not an unusual crime but rather another form of the domestic violence that has harmed millions of women.

Her niece, Ceeatta Stewart-McKinnie, did not intend to get pregnant, Stewart recalled, but grew very attached to the idea of having the baby once she did. She had had abortions and decided not to do it again. But prosecutors say this put her at odds with the baby's father -- a long-standing but on-again, off-again boyfriend.

Shirlita Colon's mother, Tawana Colon, right, and sister, Tysha Colon, talk with Catina Edwards, left, at court in the District while awaiting the sentencing of Donte Allen in Shirlita's killing. (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

_____About This Series_____

The Toll: Researchers are just beginning to discover what has been a hidden risk of pregnancy: Pregnant women and new mothers are more likely to be victims of homicide than to die of any single natural cause, several statewide studies have shown.

The Victims: As public health experts focus new attention on homicide during pregnancy, the Washington region has become a focal point. Research rarely casts light on the lives of those who were slain or how violence entered their lives at such a pivotal time.

The Legacy: The tragedy of maternal homicide lingers in the lives of children left behind, some of them born as their mothers were dying. Older siblings sometimes witnessed the violence. The children often must be raised by their grandparents.

Video: Recovering at Ceeatta's House
Photo Gallery: The Missing Stories
Photo Gallery: Caring for a Lost Daughter's Son
Maternal Homicide in D.C. Area
_____From The Post_____
Mending Shattered Childhoods (The Washington Post, Dec 21, 2004)
Bittersweet Childhoods of Love and Loss (The Washington Post, Dec 21, 2004)
States Add Penalties For Death of Unborn (The Washington Post, Dec 20, 2004)
Many New or Expectant Mothers Die Violent Deaths (The Washington Post, Dec 19, 2004)
Researchers Stunned By Scope of Slayings (The Washington Post, Dec 19, 2004)
How the Series Was Reported (The Washington Post, Dec 19, 2004)
_____For Information or Help_____
National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE
D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 202-299-1181
Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, 301-352-4574
Virginians Against Domestic Violence, 804-377-0335
_____Message Boards_____
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"She just said she was doing it with or without him," her aunt remembered.

By then, Stewart-McKinnie was a junior in college, planning on a journalism career and working as a nurse's assistant to support herself. She liked poetry, once thought of herself as a budding actress and had gone to college determined to make good after a rough childhood. At 23, she felt she could manage motherhood.

On the first day of an advanced journalism class in early 2002, she threw her arms up in the air when her name was called and announced: "I'm pregnant!" Her professor, Wilma Wirt, who was leading the class that day at Virginia Commonwealth University, recalled, "I've never seen anybody that wanted something as much."

But Wirt and several classmates grew concerned whenever Stewart-McKinnie talked about her boyfriend. Her descriptions seemed to suggest that he had another life. "There was something that just didn't feel right about it," Wirt recalled.

Still, Stewart-McKinnie reveled in the pregnancy, sang the baby lullabies and by five months along had chosen a name for the girl she was expecting -- Amarea Kimae. She bought dresses and sleepers and diapers. After her second ultrasound, she made it clear that she would be expecting child support, police say.

Her boyfriend, Willis E. Anderson, 27, was married. He had met Stewart-McKinnie years earlier, growing up in the same rough Richmond neighborhood. They had been intimate on and off. But now he had a schoolteacher wife, a young son, a college degree, a comfortable house in the suburbs and a good job as an accountant in state government.

On the evening of April 10, 2002, prosecutors said, Anderson arranged to have Stewart-McKinnie meet him about a mile from her Richmond apartment. She parked her car and climbed into his Chevrolet Suburban. It is unclear where she thought they were going.

In a wooded area, prosecutors said, Stewart-McKinnie understood her peril, jumped out and tried to flee. But it was completely dark, and as she ran -- wearing a sundress and a jean jacket -- she lost her shoes and her glasses.

Turkey hunters happened upon her body three days later. She had been struck at least 25 times with a heavy tool or hammer.

"He was worried [the pregnancy] was going to interfere with his lifestyle," prosecutor Michael V. Gerrard said. "She was going to have this baby. She was going to hit him for child support. It was definitely going to interrupt his way of life."

After listening to the evidence, a jury voted to convict Anderson, who is serving a 50-year term. In an interview from a prison in southern Virginia, he continued to maintain his innocence -- and said Stewart-McKinnie never told him the baby was his. "If it were mine, I would have to own up to it and tell my wife I was cheating . . .," he said. "I'm going to take care of my responsibilities. I'm not going to kill anybody."

Stewart-McKinnie's death came with such horror and pain that her aunt said she has now turned her own life around, opening five homes to help shelter women in need. She calls her program "Ceeatta's House."

"People need to know," Stewart said, reflecting on how violence sometimes gets handed down in a family, repeated and suffered again and again. "I think it's generational," she said, "and I believe you need to break the cycle."

Stewart pointed to a jagged scar on her upper arm. She has more on her abdomen -- cruel reminders of the day, 17 years ago, when she was attacked in a domestic clash.

"I was stabbed seven times while I was pregnant," Stewart said, remembering how she held her own intestine as she was rushed to a hospital. "The only difference between me and my niece is that I lived and she died."

'Still a Lot of Hatred'

The killing of Ceeatta Stewart-McKinnie was one of at least 48 maternal homicides in Virginia since 1990, according to The Post's analysis. Identities of the dead could be pieced together for 45 cases. The cases were then researched in detail to understand more about how and why they happened.

Spread across the state, slightly fewer than half the homicides happened in cities such as Richmond. That's where Gwendolyn Thomas, 17, grew up. She was killed in 1992 by a youth minister she had admired at her church. He had fathered the child she was expecting and did not want the baby's paternity to be known, prosecutors said.

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