The Montgomery County mother accused of stabbing her four young children during a bloody exorcism — killing two of them — believed that demonic spirits were jumping from one child to the next and that she had to keep attacking them, a Montgomery County prosecutor said in court Tuesday.
The suspect, Zakieya Avery, 28, started the mayhem by going after her youngest child, 1-year-old Norell, Montgomery State’s Attorney John McCarthy said.
“She tried to snap his neck,” McCarthy told District Judge Gary G. Everngam, urging him to order that Avery have a psychiatric evaluation. “Then she began to choke him.”
When that failed, Avery directed a friend — 21-year-old Monifa Sanford — to get a knife from the kitchen of their Germantown home. Both stabbed Norell, McCarthy said. Then, believing that they had to follow the demonic spirits, the women killed Avery’s 2-year-old daughter, Zyana, and attacked her two older children — Taniya, 5 and Martello, 8.
During the stabbings, the women would later tell detectives, they saw the children’s eyes turn black and a black cloud over at least one of the children. At one point, they said, the spirits jumped inside of Sanford — and Sanford had to be attacked.
The women appear to have washed the bodies of the youngest two children before wrapping them in blankets, believing that they needed to be clean when they reached heaven and saw God, McCarthy said. He added that both women claimed to be part of a four-person group called the “Demon Assassins,” with Avery having the title of “commander” and Sanford “sergeant.”
It was the first court appearance for the women, who were arrested over the weekend and charged with two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first-degree murder. Both appeared via closed-circuit monitors from the Montgomery jail. Neither said much, and they spoke softly when answering basic questions by Everngam.
Everngam ordered a psychiatric evaluation for Avery. He postponed acting on a similar request for Sanford because it wasn’t clear whom her defense attorneys would be. Sanford’s case is expected to be heard again in court Friday.
The hearings for each woman underscored how the case appears to be a jumble of belief in demonic possession laced with some level of mental illness. McCarthy noted that Avery had been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility in the past and that Sanford told officials she twice tried to commit suicide.
At issue, legally, is whether each woman understands enough of her surroundings to participate in her legal defense. If they are deemed competent, their attorneys could assert that the women are not criminally responsible by reason of insanity.
According to police officials, nothing has surfaced that would have predicted the women might have been capable of this kind of violence. Sanford, who stands 4-feet-8, spoke in a voice that sounded like a little girl’s.
“Monifa has always been a very meek, very mild, very obedient person,” Dana Jones-Oliver, a lawyer who has spoken with Sanford’s family and might represent Sanford, said after the hearing.
Jones-Oliver said that Sanford’s family is stunned. “Obviously, the reports that they hear in the media are not of the person that they knew their entire lives. She’s always been known as a very nurturing, affectionate caregiver. So this is shocking. It shocks the conscience.”
Brian Shefferman, an attorney for Avery, declined to comment after the hearing. But Avery’s step-grandmother, Sylvia Wade, had said earlier that she knows Avery as a caring mother, someone who had a birthday party for her oldest son at a Chuck E. Cheese’s a few years ago. Wade said that Avery was separated from her husband, Martin Harris. Police officials have said that many friends and family members of both women have said they’d never heard the suspects speak of exorcisms and demonic cleansings.
Avery and Sanford met at Exousia Ministries, a Germantown church that meets in a local elementary school on Sundays, said Capt. Marcus Jones, commander of the police department's Major Crimes Unit. While there, Avery was part of a dance group and started calling herself a demon assassin, he said. But it didn’t set off any alarms because she didn’t talk about violence.
“She was basically saying that her job — as of lover of Christ — was that she was going to keep demons away from her,” Jones said. “That was part of her and Ms. Sanford’s goal.”
Detectives spoke to the pastor of the church, asking him if he had any concerns about the name. “He thought it was a little bit eccentric,” Jones said, “a little bit over the top.” But he didn’t think there was anything violent. There weren’t “any spoken words about exorcisms that would occur,” Jones said.
The pastor of the church declined to comment Sunday. Detectives are trying to track down the other purported members of the “Demon Assassins” but don’t believe that either is a threat, police said.
Avery and Sanford stopped going to the church two or three months ago. Their belief in the need for exorcisms appeared to grow. They told detectives that they had done previous exorcisms but that none involved violence or knives.
Thursday night, prosecutors said, a friend named Troy was apparently supposed to go to Avery’s townhouse, where Sanford also lived, for an exorcism. Details of that proposed event — aired in court Tuesday — helped fill in some gaps in the story as it related to neighbors’ concerns that night.
Avery and Sanford apparently wanted the children to leave the townhouse during the exorcism. At one point, they placed at least one of the children in parked car for as long as an hour. But Troy never showed up, McCarthy said, so that exorcism was not done.
By Friday morning, though, Avery and Sanford had become convinced that an exorcism was needed for the youngest child, prosecutors said. The violence began with him and progressed toward each of the children, from youngest to oldest.
Longtime law enforcement officials have been stunned at the case — its brutality and bizarreness and the complete innocence of victims that young. And detectives have had trouble getting a firm handle on how and why the suspects came to see killings as part their beliefs.
“They were hard to read,” Jones said.
Asked if Avery, the children’s mother, felt bad about what she is accused of doing, Jones said it was difficult to tell.
“She acknowledged what she did was bad,” Jones said. “I don’t know if — when she talks about it — there is just out-and-out remorse like you think any mother probably would show.”
Magda Jean-Louis, Jennifer Jenkins, Donna St. George and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.