Sarah Hardy talks about her cousin Rodney Todd, who was killed along with his seven children in Princess Anne, Md., due to carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a generator in the home. (Linda Davidson and Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

He was still trying to keep the lights on when his children all died in their beds.

Rodney Todd, a 36-year-old man with a troubled and sometimes violent past, had been relying on a generator since Delmarva Power discovered what it described as a “stolen electric meter” attached to his rented Eastern Shore home and removed it on March 25.

That apparently prompted Todd to find an alternative to power the 1,056-square-foot yellow ranch house, where he was raising his five daughters and two sons alone in this tough-times town. It was the carbon monoxide the generator produced, investigators said, that killed all of them, including Todd, as they slept.

On Tuesday, Delmarva spokesman Matt Likovich said that the company discovered two weeks ago that an electric meter had been stolen from a vacant house and attached to the rental, enabling a connection to an adjacent power line. Likovich said that Delmarva does not know who stole the meter or installed it.

“That meter did not belong at that house and was removed,” Likovich said. “The utility investigator who removed the stolen meter tells us no one responded to us being out there as we were removing it or after it was disconnected.”

The home is owned by Gilkerson Properties. When reached by phone, Christopher S. Gilkerson said he had been advised by his attorney not to comment.

Makayla Collins Jackson, 6 and sister Adriahna Collins Jackson, 8, lay flowers on the doorstep of the Todd family after Rodney Todd and his seven children were found dead in their home. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

The discovery of the bodies on Monday stunned and horrified the family’s loved ones, several of whom said Todd had become a devoted, loving father. Free from jail for about two years, he got a job last summer earning $10 an hour in dining services at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore to support the children, who ranged in age from 6 to 15. In rural Somerset County, where more than one in three children live in poverty, he learned to braid his girls’ hair, and he sometimes skipped meals so his kids could always eat. He boasted about them on Facebook and acquired an SUV big enough to tote the whole family.

“My blessin,” he wrote of his children.

At Christmas, he posted a photo of a glowing tree surrounded by presents. “This what my kids Christmas look like this year,” he wrote. He posted a photo in early January of a man holding his child along with this message: “real MEN take care of their CHILDREN.”

Just six weeks before his death, he implored his friends to cherish the time they have: “life is never promise[d] no matter how you look at it.”

On Tuesday morning, a memorial was growing in front of the houses’s brown front door. Behind the rancher, a pair of battery-operated toy convertibles, one pink and one purple, were parked in the grass. Nearby, a pink bicycle lay on its side.

As night fell, a Boy Scout troop carrying white crosses marched down Antioch Avenue to the house where the family died. They lifted the police tape and leaned the crosses against the yellow siding, then placed stuffed animals along the foundation of the house.

No one had seen the family since the last weekend in March, investigators said. After one of Todd’s co-workers reported him missing, officers entered the house and found the bodies, said Princess Anne Police Chief Scott Keller. The power was off, and the generator had run out of gas.

Tykira Todd, 12, Tybria Todd, 6, Tyania Todd, 9, Tybree Todd, 10 and in front, Zycheim Todd, 7 and two other older siblings and father, Rodney Todd were found dead in Princess Anne, Md. (Photo courtesy Sarah Hardy)

The news devastated the children’s mother, Tyisha “Taisha” Chambers, 36, who lives in Denton, Md., her sister said. Chambers could not be reached to comment. Her oldest son, Rodney Todd Jr., 17, who is named for his stepfather, mourned his siblings on Facebook while assuring his friends that he is still alive.

Court documents, family members and friends identified the boys as Cameron Todd, 13 and ZhiHeem Todd, 7; and the girls as Tyjuziana,15, Ty’Keria,12, Ty’Nijuzia,11, Ty’Niah, 9, and Tybreyia Todd, 6.

Five of the seven children attended Princess Anne Elementary School, Keller said, who added that grief counselors were sent Tuesday to the elementary school, Somerset Intermediate School and Washington High School.

Todd had a troubled history with the law, including a number of alleged altercations with his now ex-wife, court records show. In 2011, Chambers accused him of stabbing her in the face. He was later convicted of second-degree assault and spent a year in jail and 18 months on probation.

Although Todd’s friends say that Chambers was largely absent from the children’s lives over the past two years, she often spoke to them on the phone, even when she briefly left for the West Coast, her sister said.

“It wasn’t like she left them and didn’t care,” Latoya Baltimore said. “At the end of the day, I don’t care how far away, she never stopped being their mom.”

Karen Wells and David Phillips, friends of Rodney Todd, lay flowers at his doorstep after he and his seven children were found dead in their home in Princess Anne, Md. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Chambers filed for divorce from Todd in February 2012 after the assault conviction. “I just want nothing else from or to do with him,” she wrote in black ink on the complaint. The divorce was finalized last year.

“He had an anger problem,” said Angela Collins, a family friend. “But he was all about taking care of his kids.”

Family members said that when Todd got out of jail a couple of years ago, he took custody of his children.

“He did a 100 percent turnaround,” his mother, Bonnie Edwards, said Monday night. “He told the girls to be young ladies. He taught the boys to be men. If he didn’t know something, he would call me. He’d say, ‘Mom.’ ”

She stopped. Standing in front of the house where her son and grandchildren died, Edwards burst into tears.

Collins, who was a teaching assistant in Zhi’Heem’s class, offered tiny biographies of each child.

Tyjuziana was a popular ninth-grader, she said: “She was a girly girl. . . . She was a good student. She had a lot of friends. Everybody liked her.”

Cameron, an eighth-grader who had already grown to 6-foot-3, played basketball and football.

Ty’Keria, 12, went by Kayla. “She was a diva,” Collins said. “She had to have her hair done. Kayla would not leave the house until her hair was done.”

Photo of Tynijuiza Todd, 15 and brother Cameron Todd, 13. (Photo courtesy Sarah Hardy)

Ty’Nijuzia, 11: “They called her Eyes because she had big eyes,” she said. “Eyes was my favorite. She was the sweetest.”

Ty’Niah, 9: “They called her Duker. Duker was bossy,” Collins remembered. “She ran everything.”

Zhi’Heem was in first grade: “They called him Bart. He was sneaky,” his classroom aide said. “He was always up to something. Always somewhere lurking behind the couch.”

Tybreyia, the youngest of the brood: “She was the baby,” Collins said. “I can see her with her thumb in her mouth.”

Todd had requested help with utility bills in the past, according to local nonprofit group Shore Up. But he had not asked for support in nearly a year.

On March 25, Delmarva officials discovered that electricity was being used at a home in Todd’s neighborhood where power had been shut off. A utility worker went to the home and discovered that the meter had vanished.

Company investigators then tracked it to Todd’s home, where service had been disconnected in October by the customer of record at that time, the company said. Todd’s family moved in the same month, but no one requested that power be restored.

Maryland utility regulations say that service can be terminated without notice for a “customer’s unauthorized use of service by any method, including diversion of gas or electricity around a meter,” and that applies even during extreme temperatures, said Paula Carmody of Maryland’s Office of People’s Counsel, which advocates for consumers.

On Monday, police found power cords throughout Todd’s rental house that led to the generator.

His stepfather, Lloyd Edwards, said he didn’t think that Todd knew he had to ventilate the house when using the machine. Carbon monoxide is a deadly, colorless and odorless gas. Running a generator produces the gas, and warnings are issued routinely against using them indoors.

“That is what killed them,” Edwards said. “It’s like putting a hose to a car.”

Keller said the kids were found in their beds: “It was like the children fell asleep and never woke up.”

On Saturday, the youngest,
Tybreyia, would have turned 6.

Lynh Bui, Jennifer Jenkins, Jenna Johnson, Julie Tate, Martin Weil and Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.