By Matt Zapotosky and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 23, 2009; B01
For years, family members feared that Erika Peters's volatile relationship with her live-in boyfriend would end in tragedy, her sister said. The family was so worried that they developed a code with Peters's oldest son so he could surreptitiously communicate with them.
On Saturday, Peters's sister Kimberly Trimble said, Erik used the code, telling his grandmother, "The sky is blue," to alert her that something was amiss. Hours later, police broke into his family's apartment in the 2000 block of Maryland Avenue NE to find him, his brother and his mother with stab wounds, police sources said. Peters, 37, and her younger son were dead. Erik died a short time later.
Police announced yesterday that they had charged Peters's boyfriend, 44-year-old Joseph Randolph Mays, with the triple slaying. To family members, the announcement came as little surprise.
"We knew about him beating the kids, but she wouldn't leave," Trimble said. "I don't know if she's scared of him or what the case may be." Trimble said she did not think that Peters ever sought a protective order.
Police provided few new details about the homicides yesterday, saying the investigation is ongoing. They confirmed that the slayings stemmed from a domestic dispute but declined to specify the nature of that dispute. They also declined to formally identify the children or say how they died.
"All this is part of the investigation," said Officer Helen Andrews, a police spokeswoman.
Family members identified the slain children as Erik Harper, 11, and Dakota Peters, 10. Police said a third child was in the apartment at the time but was not harmed. Trimble said yesterday that she was taking care of that child, a 2-year-old girl who was the only one of her sister's children fathered by Mays.
Mays also was in the apartment when police arrived shortly after 1 p.m. Saturday, with superficial wounds to his chest, police sources said. He was treated and released to homicide detectives, authorities said.
According to Trimble, 41, police gave her this account of the crime: After Peters and Mays began fighting, Dakota ran and hid in the bathroom. Enraged, Mays broke down the door and attacked him. Trying to escape, Erik ran to the front door but couldn't get the safety bar undone in time.
Trimble, of Upper Marlboro, said detectives also told her that Mays's wounds were self-inflicted.
Trimble said that about two years ago, she contacted the District's Child and Family Services Agency to report that Mays had shaken his daughter. A year after that, she said, she warned the principal at Holy Redeemer Catholic School to look out for marks on her sister's children. She said she did not remember what became of either warning.
The Washington Post could not determine yesterday who was representing Mays, nor could a reporter locate his relatives. Through a spokeswoman, D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles confirmed that CFSA received a tip about the family in 2006. He said the department took "appropriate steps" to resolve the problems, and in 2007, the case was closed. He said the department received no further reports about the family.
The principal at Holy Redeemer could not be reached.
Peters, who had impaired hearing, was active in a ministry catering to deaf people at Northeast Washington's Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church, friends and family members said. Rodney Cole, a deacon there, said her work helped "bring the word of God to people" who could not hear it.
Peters also loved dancing, said her father, Bobby Harper. He said his daughter competed at an amateur night at the Apollo Theater and danced at an inaugural event for President Obama.
"She really wanted to go places with dance," Harper said. "She has been dancing since she was a child."
Trimble said she remembered her sister for her "sweet personality" and willingness to help others. But in the three years Peters lived with Mays, Trimble said, her life became defined by violence.
Family members would constantly notice bumps and bruises on Peters and her sons, but when they would ask about the marks, the boys and their mother would fall silent, Trimble said. She said relatives long ago banned Mays from family functions. Trimble said Mays recently lost his job with the U.S. Postal Service, so the household was being supported by Peters's disability checks.
Trimble said that Erik and Dakota were scheduled to spend Saturday with the grandmother and that the relatives planned to ask Erik then why he had used the code. The boys never arrived, she said.