Family Questions Police Delay in March Slayings of Woman and Sons

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The family of Erika Peters, the Northeast Washington woman who was slain in March along with her two sons in an alleged domestic disturbance, has hired a lawyer after learning that a police officer was outside her apartment for at least 30 minutes before trying to break in.

The officer even heard a child call out "No, stop," on March 21, the day that Peters and her boys were stabbed, court records show. Joseph R. Mays, 44, Peters's live-in boyfriend, who was caught inside the apartment, has been charged with murder in the case.

Had police acted faster, the family contends, perhaps someone would have survived the attack -- maybe 10-year-old Dakota Peters, who was found dying on the other side of the front door. D.C. police officials said officers did all they could.

At issue is what happened after Erik Harper, 11, desperately called 911 at 1:06 p.m. to report trouble in the second-story apartment in the 2000 block of Maryland Avenue NE. According to police logs and court records, here is what took place:

The 911 operator told the responding officer to investigate "a child screaming on the phone, possibly playing." A D.C. police officer arrived seven minutes later, at 1:13 p.m. The officer heard "the faint sounds of a child saying no, stop" but did not immediately go inside, court documents show.

The officer knocked on the door and called the home phone, got no answer and waited for a supervisor to decide what to do next.

During the next 30 minutes, a second officer arrived, along with a supervisor who gave permission to break down the door. But the officers were unable to get inside because the door was barricaded from inside with a metal rod, and they called the D.C. fire department for help. At 1:55 p.m., a fire department crew arrived and helped break open the door.

On the floor by the front door, police found Dakota suffering from head wounds. Authorities said Dakota apparently was the child whom the officer heard. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.

Erik's body was in the bathroom with stab wounds to the chest and head. Peters, 37, was in a hallway. She was stabbed repeatedly in the chest and around her face and hands.

Police found Mays in the den, along with the couple's daughter, Ashleigh. The girl, who recently turned 3, was unharmed. Mays had superficial wounds.

"They were right there. They heard calls for help coming from the other side of the door," said Peters's sister, Kimberly Trimble.

Donald B. Terrell, an attorney working with the family, questioned why police did not try to break inside sooner. "Had they had tried breaking in earlier, they may have diverted [Mays's] attention long enough to where he may have stopped his rampage and maybe at least one would have survived. Now we'll never know," he said.

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