Natasha Wilson always made Wills Memorial Park in the Southern Maryland town of La Plata part of her daily life. The 31-year-old runs a day care right behind the park and walked the children there in the morning so they could fling themselves down one of the big yellow tube slides or play on the swings.
But now one of those swings is missing, its absence so distressing to Wilson that she hasn’t been to the park for six weeks and can’t imagine returning any time soon. Her reason is simple: The missing baby swing is where a 3-year-old boy was found dead May 22 while his mother was pushing him. Police said Thursday that the swing had to be removed because they could not easily extricate the boy’s body from it. He’d been on the swing for nearly two days.
“I haven’t been over there since it happened because it’s just sad to even think about,” Wilson said, standing outside her day care and squinting toward the park. “I don’t want to go back. People on my Facebook page — they won’t go there, either.”
The death of Ji’Aire Donnell Lee, a chubby-cheeked preschooler nicknamed “Sumo,” has gripped much of the Washington area by virtue of its disturbing circumstances. His mother, Romechia Simms, had spent many hours in the park pushing him before someone realized that something was wrong and called police.
Ji’Aire’s death has been ruled a homicide by the medical examiner’s office, the Charles County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday. The boy died of hypothermia and dehydration. Prosecutors are deciding whether to charge Simms, 24, who, according to her mother, suffers from depression and bipolar disorder. She was hospitalized after his death but released in time for his funeral.
If not for Ji’Aire’s death, Wills Memorial Park would seem unremarkable. The public place is surrounded by single-family homes, townhouses and two child-care centers, one called Honeypot Daycare. There are tennis and basketball courts. A three-rail wood fence surrounds the children’s playground. A sign warns people not to smoke and to supervise their dogs.
Residents of Glen Albin Road and St. Mary’s Avenue, the streets bordering Wills Memorial, said they still see the same number of children using the park as before Ji’Aire’s death.
“The kids still go up there and play basketball,” said Heather Swann, a regional recruiter for a dental corporation, who lives adjacent to the playground.
Cheryl Lenier, a waitress who can see the playground from the back of her home on Glen Albin Road, said she and her 8-year-old son, Julius Travis, haven’t been hesitant to return.
“It’s not been a big talk around here anymore,” Lenier said.
“I’m not scared,” said Julius. The boy’s death “is not an everyday thing.”
Still, enough people were reluctant to return to Wills Memorial Park that Zoë Outreach Ministries conducted a prayer vigil June 19 at the playground. Cecelia Watson, the church’s community outreach coordinator, said Honeypot Daycare’s owner had been too uncomfortable to take her children back to the park and wanted to know if there was something the church could do. The church suggested a community-wide vigil.
“As Christians, we believe when something negative like that happens, we need to go back and reclaim the land,” Watson said.
About 50 people, including local law enforcement officials, attended the service, with people carrying candles from one side of the park to the playground. There was a moment of silence. Someone sang “Amazing Grace.”
But Wilson, the owner of the other day care, refuses to go back there with her program’s kids. One reason she struggles so much is that her 14-year-old son, Gregner Keys, said he’d seen Simms push Ji’Aire in the swing two days before the boy was found dead.
When Gregner returned home from school on May 22, he asked his mother why so many police officers were congregating at the park. Wilson told him that a 3-year-old had been found dead in one of the playground swings.
That caught Gregner’s attention: He told his mother that he’d been in the park two days earlier, walking to a friend’s house, and had seen a little boy being put into a swing by his mother against his will.
“The mother was in front of him, and he was trying to get out of the swing, and she was sitting him back down in the swing,” Gregner said in an interview. “She was trying to hold him down.”
As the mother and boy struggled, Gregner said that “the mother had his head in her chest, and she was pushing him into the swing. He was looking at me, crying,” Gregner said. “The mom looked at me while I was walking up, and she stopped what she was doing and started patting him on the back.”
Gregner said he noticed that one of the boy’s legs was in a leg hole of the swing and the other was jammed into the seat. “He was too big for the swing,” he said.
When Wilson heard her son’s account, she immediately called investigators. One of the reasons Wilson said she can’t return to the playground is the missing swing. She didn’t know exactly why it had been removed.
Diane Richards, a spokeswoman for the Charles County Sheriff’s Office, said bolt cutters were used to remove the swing so the boy’s corpse could be handled delicately.
“His body had gone into rigor mortis,” Richardson said. “He’d been dead for at least a couple hours.”