She insisted she was fine — that her breakdown was behind her and that she was taking good care of her 3-year-old son.
Just weeks before sheriff’s deputies found Romechia Simms pushing her dead preschooler on a park swing in Southern Maryland, she argued in D.C. Superior Court documents obtained by The Washington Post that she was a better, more capable parent than her former boyfriend, James “Donnell” Lee, who’d filed for full custody of Ji’Aire.
Lee, 29, told the court he was concerned about Simms’s mental stability after episodes of erratic behavior, including jumping from a moving cab, led to her hospitalization.
“I do not believe she can safely care for our son,” he wrote in his March custody petition. “I am concerned about my child’s safety and well being. I want to make sure that our son is safe.”
In her response, Simms, 24, who was living with her homeless mother in a motel in LaPlata, Md., attributed her breakdown to “an extreme amount of stress weighing heavy on me,” but she said she’d recovered.
“I am now in a much better productive space,” she wrote in April. She also stated, “I have done everything in my power since moving from D.C. to ensure that my son has the best life that he can have.”
On May 22 — 11 days after Lee reluctantly agreed in court to limit his custody of his son to weekends — the chubby-cheeked boy nicknamed “Sumo” was found dead at Wills Memorial Park at 7 a.m. The Charles County Sheriff’s Office said his mother had been pushing him in a swing for hours, possibly since the previous afternoon. The temperature had fallen to about 51 degrees overnight, according to National Weather Service data.
Ji’Aire’s cause of death is unknown, but his body showed no signs of trauma, authorities said. No charges have been filed.
Simms was released from the hospital Friday, said her mother, Vontasha Simms. Romechia suffers from depression and bipolar disorder but would never intentionally hurt her son, Vontasha said.
She described Romechia as devastated and grieving for Ji’Aire, who loved McDonald’s french fries and who’d had his first haircut at the St. Charles mall in March. He is bright-eyed and smiling in a photo taken with his mother that day.
“She knows he’s dead,” Vontasha said. “She doesn’t know how it happened.”
Romechia’s older sister, Rancia Simms, said Ji’Aire meant everything to her. “She has always been a good mom,” said Rancia, 32, a paralegal who lives near Upper Marlboro, Md. “He was her Number One.”
As authorities continue to investigate the preschooler’s death, dueling portraits of Ji’Aire’s parents have emerged, along with bitter recriminations between his father and his maternal grandmother.
Vontasha, 47, blamed Romechia’s problems on Lee, accusing him of being “mentally and emotionally abusive.” She was especially angry about his allegation that Romechia smoked Scooby, synthetic marijuana, before her breakdown in February — a charge he made in his custody petition and again in television interviews.
“My daughter doesn’t do Scooby,” Vontasha said. “She had a urinalysis test and blood test in February. They were both clean.”
But Lee, who still lives in the Southeast Washington apartment he once shared with Romechia and Ji’Aire, said Vontasha has been the source of her daughter’s issues.
“She needed to get away from her mother,” he said. “She’ll never be able to be happy around Vontasha.”
Mother and daughter have clashed in the past. Two years ago, Vontasha filed a protection petition in Maryland District Court, accusing Romechia of threatening her after she asked her daughter to clean up after Ji’Aire. Instead, she wrote, Romechia began shouting obscenities at her.
“She said that she was going to hurt me. She was very angry and out of control,” wrote Vontasha, who asked her daughter to leave the house that night. “But she refused. . . . I felt threatened for my safety.”
Sitting on his bed, a few feet from a pair of size 1 LeBron James sneakers that Ji’Aire never got to wear, Lee scrolled through photos of his son on his phone.
He’d taken Ji’Aire to Disney World. They watched “Austin Powers” DVDs together — “Oh behave!” the 3-year-old would declare — and read his favorite Dr. Seuss books, “Green Eggs and Ham” and “Horton Hears a Who.”
Lee met Ji’Aire’s mother in 2008 at a basketball game at Verizon Center, where he was working as a security guard, and he was instantly attracted to her.
“I gave her the eye,” he said, “and she walked past and stopped to talk. The rest is history.”
At the time, Lee already had a son with another woman. When Lee and Simms learned they were having a son in 2011, the timing was not ideal, he said. She was living in Southern Maryland with her mother, and he had a roommate in the District. But he said he tried making things work.
Ji’Aire was born Aug. 22, 2011. His father said he picked his name and cut the umbilical cord.
“She had a natural birth, and it was amazing to see that,” said Lee, who now works nights at the National Institutes of Health as a floor tech engineer.
In 2013, Simms and Ji’Aire finally moved into his two-
bedroom apartment near the Fort Dupont Ice Arena. But the couple began drifting apart in late 2014, around the time he said she was fired from her job at a candy shop in Chinatown.
Then one day in February, she called him while he was at work. She sounded incoherent.
“She was telling me that someone tried to kill me when I got home from work the other day, and that someone had been hiding out in the bushes and shot at me, but the gun was jammed,” Lee said. “I was completely lost. She was hallucinating with fear and anxiety.”
Vontasha picked her daughter and grandson up that day.
Romechia, who once attended Bowie State University in hopes of becoming a teacher, appeared to be very upset, her mother said. “She wasn’t herself,” Vontasha said. “She feared someone would harm her.”
Not long after Romechia had been treated at MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center, Vontasha called him, Lee said. She and her daughter had just gotten into an argument at the motel room they were sharing. Vontasha had been without a permanent place to live for several months. (“I don’t like to say homeless,” she said. “We are just in between homes.”)
Now, Romechia was trying to leave with Ji’Aire and take a cab to Lee’s apartment in Washington. It made Lee nervous. “I didn’t feel safe with her taking him in her state of mind,” he said.
Simms got a cab, he said, but in the middle of the ride, she jumped out of the car with their son. Lee said he eventually found her and Ji’Aire walking on the side of Branch Avenue in Southern Maryland well past midnight.
“He was walking with no socks, jacket open in his pajamas. She left her diaper bag two blocks away,” Lee said. “I asked her, ‘What are you doing?’ She gave me a look like she didn’t know who I was.”
That night, Lee said he took Simms to the hospital, where she stayed for a week.
On March 16, Lee filed an expedited motion for custody in D.C. Superior Court. He wrote that he hadn’t seen his son in a month and that Simms hadn’t taken his calls or replied to his text messages.
The next month, Simms filed her response, arguing that Lee hardly spent time with the boy and gave her only $40 or $60 at a time to support him. She said that with Lee working until 11 p.m., he couldn’t look after their son.
“Ji’Aire staying with his mother would be in the best interest for him because I will always ensure that he is put first and properly cared for,” she wrote.
At a court hearing May 11, she and Lee agreed to share legal custody. She’d get primary physical custody, and he’d have Ji’Aire on the weekends and any other day he wasn’t working.
Lee said he agreed to the arrangement only because he felt that D.C. Superior Court Judge Peter A. Krauthamer didn’t acknowledge his concerns about Simms’s behavior and mental state.
“I thought he’d look at what I was saying and say, ‘Let’s dissect this piece by piece,’ ” Lee said. “He didn’t pay attention to anything that I said.”
But Lee didn’t press his case, he said, because he worried about antagonizing the judge. “He asked if there was any reason we couldn’t co-parent,” Lee recalled. “I said, ‘If that’s all I can get, I don’t have a problem co-parenting.’ ”
The hearing was the last time he saw his son, who sat with him during the proceeding. “He ran to me and gave me a real big kiss,” Lee said. “He said, ‘I want to sit by my daddy.’ ”
Ji’Aire was coughing the night of May 20, his grandmother said. Romechia got some Vicks VapoRub for him, and he was feeling better the next day.
They went to the Dollar Store and Burger King, and that evening, they were off to Wills Park. Romechia held Ji’Aire’s hand as they walked along Crain Highway. The boy, nicknamed“Sumo” because he was chunky and resembled a Japanese wrestler, was wearing a black jacket, a white and blue shirt, black and red Michael Jordan shoes and a blue pair of shorts.
When they didn’t come back, Vontasha said she grew worried. At about 12:30 a.m. Friday morning, Vontasha called her daughter.
“She answered the phone. I said where are you, Ro? She said, ‘We’re fine. We are on our way back,’ ” Vontasha said. “I said okay. But she didn’t show up.
“I never thought they were still at the park.”
Lee learned his son was dead as he was headed out to drop a friend at work that morning. It was Vontasha who called him. “I just lost it and said, ‘I am on my way.’ ”
He headed to the Deluxe Inn, where Vontasha had been sharing a one-room efficiency with a kitchen, a bathroom and two queen beds with her daughter and grandson.
Detectives told Lee that they’d found Ji’Aire unconscious on the swing after being called by someone who had seen Romechia “pushing him for a crazy amount of time, probably from the night before,” he said.
Now he and his family are raising money to bury Ji’Aire.
“It still seems so unreal to me,” Lee said, though he doesn’t think Romechia should be charged because he believes whatever happened was unintentional. “I want her to get help. She’s not a bad mother. She’s a great mom. But in this situation, she was unfit.”