Thelma Steele, a 92-year-old neighborhood matriarch, and William Fitts, a teenager who lived across the street, were like grandmother and grandson, family members said. She would buy him toys and gadgets for Christmas and his birthday; he would often stop by her house with fruit baskets, cookies and tea.
That’s what makes the case so mystifying.
One day late last week — after Steele welcomed Fitts into her Forestville home — the 15-year-old boy bludgeoned her with her walking cane and stabbed her with a knife, law enforcement sources said. Police did not discover her body until Monday, when Fitts’s family became concerned that mail was piling up at their elderly neighbor’s house.
The killing has left two families struggling to comprehend what happened at Steele’s modest brick house.
“She must have felt horribly betrayed,” said Wendy Tucker, Steele’s granddaughter. “We have no understanding here. . . . They helped care for my grandmother.”
Steele, a secretary at a D.C. bank who had retired long ago, watched Fitts grow up from the window of her home on East Avenue, family members said. The boy was adopted from a family in Brazil when he was 3 weeks old and he has lived in the house across the street from Steele’s ever since, family members said.
“She never forgot his birthday, Christmas,” said Alice Fitts, Fitts’s mother. “She was like a grandmother.”
Police said that they don’t know what sparked such a brutal attack, but that Steele’s home was ransacked and robbery may have been part of the motive. Prince George’s County homicide detectives considered Fitts a suspect after someone at a house in his neighborhood tried to use Steele’s credit card on Wednesday to buy synthetic marijuana online, said law enforcement sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Fitts was one of five people from the house who were brought in for questioning, and he soon admitted that he was involved in the killing, according to police and court papers. He said a knife found in his home was the murder weapon, police said.
Fitts was charged as an adult with first-degree murder. After a brief hearing Thursday, Prince George’s District Judge Thurman H. Rhodes ordered that he be held without bond before an Aug. 31 preliminary hearing.
Alice Fitts said she “can’t believe” that her son — who was going into the 9th grade and likes skateboarding, bicycling and basketball — would have killed Steele. “He’s always been a good kid, except normal teenage stuff,” she said. “We’ve never had any problems with him.”
Alice Fitts and her daughter were the ones who contacted Steele’s daughter Monday after they noticed that their neighbor hadn’t collected her mail, and Steele’s daughter called police. Fitts said her son had not been acting unusually.
Appearing via closed-circuit TV from the Upper Marlboro jail for Thursday’s court hearing, William Fitts spoke too softly for court spectators to hear him. When a judge asked family members whether they had anything to say, his brother, Warren Fitts, 42, said: “William, we know you didn’t do this. We know you’re protecting someone.”
Warren Fitts said in an interview after the hearing that his brother is a “caring and helpful person” who, if anything, had fallen in with the wrong crowd in the neighborhood. He said that his brother “knows something, there’s no question about that,” but that he does not think he is responsible for killing Steele.
In court papers, authorities said William Fitts “confessed to the murder.”
Warren Fitts said his brother and Steele were fond of each other. He said that in the winter, William would shovel Steele’s driveway, and Steele once gave the boy decorative lights for his bicycle.
“It seemed like she really thought the world of William and vice versa,” Warren Fitts said.
Warren Fitts said that his brother had gone to Martin Barr Seventh-day Adventist School in Gambrills but that in the winter he began attending Miracle Meadows School in West Virginia, which bills itself as a school for at-risk children. Warren Fitts said the move was precautionary: His brother took money from his parents and occasionally lied, but he had never been in any serious trouble.
“They knew that he was hanging out with the wrong crowd here, and they wanted him to get away from that at least until he was a little older [and] could make some better decisions,” Fitts said. “This isn’t the face of a murderer. This isn’t the countenance of a murderer.”
Tucker, Steele’s granddaughter, said she, too, found it “hard to believe” that William would kill her grandmother, but she could think of no other explanation because there were few other people Steele would have let in her house. Steele had lived alone for decades — never remarrying after her husband died of a heart attack. Several months ago, someone broke in and crept into the bedroom, taking jewelry while she pretended to sleep, Tucker said. Her grandmother lived cautiously, especially after that.
“She wouldn’t open the door for [just] anybody,” Tucker said. “Even if there is anyone else involved, he was certainly the ticket into the house.”
Tucker said her grandmother lived mostly independently, taking cabs or a bus service to and from the grocery store. She said Steele enjoyed talking to friends on the phone and sewing, although in recent years she had become too frail to lift the sewing machine onto her dining room table.
And Steele was close with the Fitts family, Tucker said. She said that after news of Williams Fitts’s arrest broke, her mother — Steele’s daughter — even contacted them to say, “We don’t blame you personally.”
Staff writer Victor Zapana and staff researchers Jennifer Jenkins and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.