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Making of a Tragedy
The Single Mother's World Included Drugs, Homelessness And Paternity Suits. Her Children Paid the Price.

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.

Two months later, according to a school system spokeswoman, Jacks withdrew, and there is no record of her graduating in Charles.

By her 20th birthday, in 1994, she was a statistic in the nation's underclass -- a single mother, getting by on public assistance. She filed a paternity petition against a Waldorf man that year, asserting that he was Brittany's father, but the case was slow to move through they system. Then, in 1996, with Brittany in kindergarten and the paternity claim still unsettled, Jacks gave birth to Tatianna, her second child, which led to another paternity case in Charles.

Jacks was living with her mother, Mamie Jacks, in Waldorf when she filed a claim in 1997 against Kevin J. Stoddard of College Park, saying he was Tatianna's father, according to court records. Stoddard, who could not be located for comment last week, acknowledged he was the father in a letter to a judge. "I am fully prepared to financially support her," he wrote.

Stoddard was given visitation rights with Tatianna and ordered to pay $342 a month in child support, but quickly fell behind, according to court records. How much money Jacks received is unclear.

Meanwhile, the court dispute over Brittany's paternity dragged on. The defendant, who denied he was the father, submitted a DNA sample, but Jacks initially failed to give samples of her DNA and Brittany's. After she failed to show up for a hearing in the case in 1999, a Charles judge issued a warrant for her apprehension.

On Dec. 11 that year, a few weeks before she turned 25, Jacks was picked up by county sheriff's deputies and jailed for two days. A day later she provided the DNA samples, according to court records. Tests soon proved that the man she had accused was not Brittany's father.

The father eventually turned up. In 2001, when Brittany was 10, Jacks filed a paternity claim against Norman C. Penn Jr. of Suitland, who acknowledged he was the father, court records show. Penn, who could not be reached for comment, was ordered to pay $388 a month in support. He fell behind on payments as well, according to court records. It was unclear how much money Jacks received.

It was about this time that Jacks began a new chapter in her life, enrolling in Aaron's Academy of Beauty, a cosmetology school in Waldorf. Except for breaks she took when her next two children, N'Kiah and Aja, were born, Jacks remained at the school, as a student and hair stylist, until 2005.

Referring to the horrific tale that unfolded in the District, Stacy Lynch, the academy's director, said: "Sometimes when you hear things like that, you think, 'She must have been troubled forever.' That certainly wasn't the case here. . . . The Banita we know is certainly not that Banita."

As Jacks's former cosmetology classmates absorbed news accounts of the tragedy last week, seeing photos of Jacks and her four daughters, they were aghast, Lynch said. They knew Jacks as a cheerful woman, a serious student and a caring mother.

A stylist's success depends as much on her rapport with customers as her ability to cut hair, Lynch said. "In this industry, it's all about personality." And Jacks had the right touch, Lynch said. Many clients came to the school to have Jacks style their hair.

Among them was Nathaniel Fogle Jr., who liked the way Jacks fashioned his cornrows, a relative of Fogle's recalled last week, speaking on the condition of anonymity for privacy reasons. Court records in the District show that Fogle was sentenced to two to six years in prison in the early 1990s after pleading guilty to possessing cocaine with intent to sell. He later worked in the home improvement business, the relative said.

Not long after he and Jacks met at the beauty academy, they moved in together. Their daughter N'Kiah was born in 2002, and Aja arrived a year later.

Jacks brought both newborns to the school to show them off. "Just like a mom," Lynch said. "She loved those kids." And it seemed that whenever Lynch ran into Jacks away from the academy, Jacks had her daughters with her. "We used to joke with her: 'You're going to have a whole cheerleading squad,' " he said.

After taking a break from school while she was pregnant with N'Kiah, and then again with Aja, Jacks returned, Lynch said, and obtained a cosmetology license after graduating in 2005.

"For someone to come back twice," Lynch said, "that says she was determined."

But her prospects soon dimmed, before extinguishing entirely.

Falling Into Downward Spiral

Tywana Richardson of District Heights, godmother to N'Kiah and Aja, said that Jacks, despite having a cosmetology license, did not go to work, and relied on Fogle for support. "She wasn't the type of person who hung around with a lot of people," said Richardson, a longtime friend of Fogle's. "I know she had friends and family, but she was more of a homebody. She was not out on the streets or anything."

By 2005, Jacks withdrew Brittany and Tatianna from Charles schools and moved to the District with Fogle. On Dec. 6, 2005, listing Fogle as her spouse and an address on Third Street NW as their home, Jacks applied for housing assistance.

A week later, though, the family apparently had no home. City officials said Jacks, Fogle and the four girls moved into the D.C. General Hospital's hypothermia shelter Dec. 14, 2005, and stayed for four months. While there, the couple applied for public assistance and enrolled the older children in District schools -- Brittany at Eastern High, Tatianna at Watkins Elementary.

At a news conference Friday, officials said that five D.C. government agencies had contact with Banita Jacks while she and her daughters lived a chaotic, often squalid existence in the city. But the agencies failed to aggressively follow up and turn matters around.

In July 2006, three months after the family left the shelter, officials said, a nurse at George Washington University Hospital phoned the city's Child and Family Services Agency and spoke with a hotline call-taker. Fogle, a patient at the hospital, had checked himself out, and the nurse was concerned that Fogle and Jacks had substance abuse problems. Jacks also told the Pretrial Services Agency last week that she had used drugs; no details were provided, and it is unclear how far back any drug history goes.

The nurse told the call-taker that the family was living in a van, officials said. Fogle at the time was suffering from nasal cancer that had spread to other parts of his body.

The downward spiral continued in the fall of 2006, as the city terminated the family's food stamp benefits for "failure to provide requested information," officials said.

By then, Brittany had been moved to Booker T. Washington Public Charter School for Technical Arts, and Tatianna, N'Kiah and Aja were enrolled in Meridian Public Charter School. Eventually the family moved into the rowhouse on Sixth Street.

At Meridian, Tatianna was in the fifth grade, N'Kiah in kindergarten and Aja in preschool. "They came to school together and walked each other to class," said Vincent Blount, an assistant principal. "They were very loving kids," he said, with "no behavior issues."

But they didn't stay long. Fogle died Feb. 19, 2007, at 37. A month later, Jacks showed up at Meridian to withdraw the girls. "She was going to home-school them," Blount said.

Fogle's death devastated Jacks, Richardson said. And it appears to have accelerated her alleged homicidal descent.

The rowhouse used to be filled with furniture, Richardson said. But when she visited Jacks not long after the funeral, "the bottom floor was empty." She said Jacks told her that insects had infested the furniture and that she had thrown it out.

"I thought that was kind of strange," Richardson said. But otherwise, "she didn't seem any different. She never really said, 'I need help, can you do this, can you do that?' She was quiet, she kept a lot inside." Richardson periodically stopped by the rowhouse to see Jacks and the girls, but no one answered the door. She eventually assumed they had moved.

The relative of Fogle's who spoke on the condition of anonymity said she and other family members also had trouble getting in touch with Jacks after Fogle's death. One time when she stopped by the rowhouse, the relative said, "there on the doorstep was a big, gray cat -- dead. It was decomposing." She said she knocked on the door but no one answered.

Later, the relative said, Jacks telephoned her, demanding: "What you doing at my house?" The relative said she told Jacks that she was worried about the girls, and Jacks assured her they were okay.

The relative said other family members had similar experiences. One cousin said they had $700 in child support checks from Brittany's father, but could not get in touch with Jacks to deliver them. Another relative, visiting the rowhouse, noticed piles of smashed furniture in the yard.

Looking inside, the relative saw a disquieting message written on a downstairs wall.

"We're all going to heaven," someone had scribbled.

Staff writers Keith L. Alexander, Petula Dvorak, V. Dion Haynes and Sue Anne Pressley Montes contributed to this report.

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