By Allison Klein, Keith L. Alexander and Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 11, 2008
A Southeast Washington woman accused of killing her four daughters told police that they were "possessed by demons" and that they had been dead for at least four months before marshals found their bodies, according to police and charging papers filed yesterday.
Authorities said they believe the girls, ages 5, 6, 11 and 17, could have been killed as early as May, noting that the bodies were in an advanced stage of decomposition when discovered Wednesday by marshals serving eviction papers at the two-story brick rowhouse. The mother, Banita Jacks, lived a hermitic existence with the bodies upstairs, in a house that had its electricity cut off in September.
Authorities said that Jacks has denied killing the children and said they died in their sleep. Prosecutors said evidence shows otherwise. Brittany Jacks, 17, had three puncture wounds consistent with a stabbing near the neck, they said. Tatianna Jacks, 11, and N'Kiah Fogle, 6, had marks suggesting they were strangled. Aja Fogle, 5, had less-pronounced marks consistent with strangling and signs of blunt-force trauma to the back of her head, prosecutors said.
Jacks, 33, was charged yesterday with murder. While she was being ordered jailed without bond by a judge in D.C. Superior Court, city officials were investigating how government agencies failed to identify a family in trouble. Among the questions: How could Jacks's children disappear for so long without school officials, police or social workers noticing and stepping in to help? Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) promised some answers today.
Some who knew the family said that troubles spiraled in February when Nathaniel Fogle Jr., the father of two of the girls, died of cancer. Soon after his death, Jacks cleared the first floor of furniture, and she grew increasingly distant, they said. At one point, she put an Xbox game system in the front yard of the home, in the 4200 block of Sixth Street SE, and invited neighbors to take it.
Several relatives stopped by the house to visit or to deliver child support checks, but Jacks didn't answer the door. Jacks sometimes telephoned after the visits and reported that everything was under control, they said.
"Sometimes she wouldn't answer the door," recalled Tywana Richardson, godmother to the two youngest girls, who said she tried to stay in touch with the family after Fogle's death. "No one would answer the door. That happened a lot. . . . When I kept going and she wasn't there, I figured she had upped and moved."
The last time Richardson saw Jacks was sometime in July, she said. She handed her the mail through the door; Jacks did not invite her in. "They could have been dead while I was over there; I don't know," Richardson said.
D.C. Child and Family Services received a report about the family in April, but officials have not divulged the nature of the notice. Mindy Good, an agency spokeswoman, said yesterday that investigators went to the residence three times, once accompanied by D.C. police. Good said D.C. police also went to the home once on their own. But no one was able to locate the family.
In June, D.C. officials contacted their counterparts in Charles County, where Jacks has relatives, saying they had information that the family was moving there. But Charles social service workers were unable to find them, officials said.
School officials apparently detected no problems. The oldest girl, a student at Booker T. Washington Public Charter School, stopped attending classes months ago. The other girls attended Meridian Public Charter School in Northwest Washington until March, when Jacks withdrew them, saying she planned to home-school them.
Nona Mitchell Richardson, spokeswoman for the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said it has no policy governing what should happen when a charter school student is withdrawn for home schooling. She said neither the board nor the schools tracked the students after the mother pulled them out of school.
"If parents opt to home-school a student, there "is no way of following" them, she said.
Neighbors were unsure exactly when the family moved into the home. The eviction came after a mortgage loan company bought the home through a foreclosure sale. No one responded to notices to move, and a judge ordered the evictions in October. Three marshals showed up at the home at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday to clear out the house.
Once inside, marshals found religious writings on the walls, authorities said. Prosecutors said that Jacks sat on the steps and initially blocked their path upstairs. She was taken into custody once the bodies were found and was then interviewed by homicide investigators.
According to charging documents, Jacks told police that her oldest daughter, Brittany, died in her sleep.
"She said that the children began dying in their sleep, one at a time, all within a seven- to 10-day period," the charging documents stated. "She said that as the first three younger children died, she placed them side by side in the room in which they died."
Prosecutors also quoted Jacks as saying that she had not fed the children for a substantial period of time before they died.
Jacks, who attended the hearing in D.C. Superior Court wearing a white prison jumpsuit, did not speak other than to give her name. Family members filled three rows of the courtroom behind her but declined to comment after the proceedings.
Her attorney, Peter Krauthamer, a public defender, argued at the hearing that nothing connected the children's deaths to Jacks. She has previous arrests for traffic offenses but no criminal history. According to Krauthamer, she should be released while awaiting trial because she posed no threat to anyone.
Prosecutor Deborah Sines countered: "How many bodies do you need?" Magistrate Judge Karen Howze agreed that evidence warranted keeping Jacks locked up, pending a hearing Feb. 11.
Outside the courthouse, Tawana Crump, 45, who said she spent the day with Jacks in a cellblock area, told reporters that other prisoners asked Jacks if she had killed the children, and she told them yes.
"She kept talking about her kids had demons in them," said Crump, who was locked up on a drug charge but let go after authorities declined to prosecute her. She said Jacks "smelled like death," an odor so strong that Crump and other prisoners asked for masks.
"The woman is crazy," Crump said.
City officials, and those who knew the family, view the situation as much more complex.
Fenty and other D.C. government leaders were looking to see whether they missed opportunities to help. City Administrator Dan Tangherlini and acting Attorney General Peter Nickles met yesterday with the heads of several city agencies, including the public schools, to review the government's interaction with the family and determine whether the city failed to properly see to the children's well-being.
D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chair of the Committee on Human Services, is holding a hearing Tuesday to figure out what went wrong and which city agencies could have done more to prevent the deaths.
Family members and friends were looking for answers, too. Richardson, the godmother, who was close friends with Fogle, said that Jacks depended heavily on him and was devastated when he died.
"He was more of a breadwinner in the house. He made sure they had food on their table and clothes on their backs. He did home improvement. He worked at McDonald's. Any job he could get to support his family, he did," Richardson said. "I think she couldn't handle things without him. She couldn't accept the fact that he was gone. I don't think she could get it together after he passed."
Richardson's thoughts turned to the children. Her godchildren, N'Kiah and Aja, were "full of energy," she said, adding, "They would just cling to you."
Tatiana was "full of joy" and enjoyed playing with the two young girls, Richardson said. She described Brittany, 17, as "a normal teenager. She hung out with her friends."
Richardson said that Fogle wanted her to help look after the family and that she tried. She said she repeatedly told Jacks to contact her if she needed help. But Jacks always insisted she was doing all right.
"I just wish as I was coming over to give her her mail, I just wish she had opened up to me and just talked, because I believe those girls would be alive," Richardson said.
Staff writers Paul Duggan, Petula Dvorak, Megan Greenwell, V. Dion Haynes, Theola Labb¿, Dan Morse, David Nakamura and Debbi Wilgoren and staff researchers Eddy Palanzo, Magda Jean-Louis and Rena Kirsch contributed to this report.