Making of a Tragedy

By Dan Morse and Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 13, 2008

The only one alive, Banita Jacks opened the door of the two-story rowhouse Wednesday, and a team of deputy U.S. marshals stepped inside, there to carry out an eviction. Jacks demanded to see the court order. A deputy handed her the writ, then told her to get dressed, that she'd have to leave.

Being put out, it's called, a depressingly common occurrence in the poorer parts of the city.

In the old brick rowhouse at 4249 Sixth St. SE, however, a nightmare awaited: Four girls, ages 5 to 17, all killed, authorities say, by Jacks, their mother. They had been dead for months, their bodies decayed beyond recognition.

"The defendant denied killing her children and maintained that the children were possessed by demons," a homicide detective wrote in a court affidavit.

If she did what she is accused of, then what possessed her?

Charged with murder, Jacks, 33, has pleaded not guilty and is being held without bail. From public records and interviews with people who know her, a woefully familiar story emerges of teen pregnancy and lost opportunity.

A single parent at 16, eventually dependent on public assistance, she spent years tangled in court cases, seeking financial support from the fathers of two of her girls. She lifted herself up for a time -- learned a skill, cosmetology. With a new boyfriend, and two more daughters, she seemed happy, doting on her girls. Then she plunged into poverty and homelessness.

After her boyfriend succumbed to cancer last winter, acquaintances said, she lost her grip entirely.

Brittany Jacks, 17, appeared to have been stabbed, authorities said. Tatianna Jacks, 11, N'Kiah Fogle, 6, and Aja Fogle, 5, may have been strangled. Aja also appeared to have suffered a blow to her head. Investigators said it's possible that the girls had been dead since May.

Police said Jacks told them that her daughters died in their sleep, one by one. She said they had been dead at least since September, when her electricity was shut off, but that she was afraid to call for help. So she stayed in the house, the only one alive, her daughters' bodies decomposing in two bedrooms at the top of the stairs.

Flickers of Hope in Troubling Start

Jacks, who spent at least some of her childhood in the Waldorf area, entered the Charles County school system in 1985 as a sixth-grader at John Hanson Middle School.

Records indicate that she did not advance at a normal pace with her classmates. Although Jacks told the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency last week that she has only a sixth-grade education, Charles records show that in January 1991 -- when she gave birth to Brittany, her first child -- Jacks was a freshman at La Plata High School.

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