When photographer Sunny Jo got a call from Jeanie Ditty, she sounded like a mother in pain. Her 2-year-old daughter, Macy, had died and she wanted him to create the last picture she would ever have with her child.
He superimposed Macy into photos with her mother — a service he provides for people who want to memorialize the dead loved ones.
“I didn’t have it in my heart to charge a mother who was grieving. I really didn’t,” he said, explaining that he gave Ditty the photographs for free.
But Jo said his stomach “literally dropped” last week when he learned that Ditty was accused of killing her daughter.
Ditty and her boyfriend, Zachary Earl Keefer, have been arrested and charged with first-degree murder and felony child abuse in Macy’s death, according to the Fayetteville Police Department.
Authorities said Ditty, 23, and Keefer, 32, from Spring Lake, N.C., caused “serious bodily injury” to Macy late last year.
The small girl suffered head trauma, bruises over her entire body and internal injuries, including a lacerated liver, according to arrest warrants, and died from her injuries.
Following news of the couple’s arrest late last week, 22-year-old Jo, a photographer from Hazleton, Pa., said he was sickened.
“Doing this was the biggest mistake I’ve made in my career,” he told The Washington Post. “The only good thing was being able to give Macy a voice.”
On Dec. 2, 2015, Fayetteville police responded to Cape Fear Valley Medical Center about an unresponsive child, according to a police statement. Medical personnel had discovered bruises covering Macy’s body and determined that she suffered life-threatening injuries that appeared to be the result of child abuse, police said.
Macy was transported to UNC Hospital at Chapel Hill, about 70 miles away.
Two days later, Macy died from her injuries.
Citing court documents, the Fayetteville Observer reported that Ditty told authorities that her daughter was ill, so she called Keefer, who is a paramedic.
Not long after he arrived, the couple told police, they noticed that Macy was choking on her own vomit and they called 911, according to the newspaper.
Tina Goodwin, Macy’s paternal grandmother, told the Observer that the child’s father, Kevin Ditty, returned from overseas to make the decision to remove the child from life support.
Last week, the medical examiner ruled Macy’s death a homicide, and Jeanie Ditty and Keefer were charged in her slaying.
The Cumberland County District Attorneys Office declined to comment on the case, citing an ongoing investigation.
Bernard Condlin, New Cumberland County chief public defender, called it “a horrible day” for Macy and her family.
“I’m confident in the criminal justice system,” Condlin told The Post, “and we will ensure that Jeanie is treated fairly.”
Ditty is a soldier in the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade based at Fort Bragg, serving as a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist, said Army spokeswoman Maj. Heather Hall.
Ditty first enlisted in the Army from 2011-2012 and then again in 2015, and has received several awards including an Army Service Ribbon, National Defense Service Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Hall said.
Hall said the Army could not comment further due to the ongoing police investigation.
Keefer also served in the military for 12 years, according to the Fayetteville Observer.
After the couple’s arrests last week, Jo, the photographer, said a police detective reached out to him with some shocking news: Ditty, the detective said, had used Jo to make it appear that she was a mother in mourning.
“It was the sickest thing I’ve seen in my entire life,” Jo said.
Since then, the photographer said, “it’s been hell.”
“People have been telling me I made a mockery of a child’s death,” he said. “People are snapping, ‘How can you do this?’ But I didn’t know.”
Jo said he offers a service called “one more time” in which he creates superimposed images to reunite people with lost loved ones. He said he has created more than a thousand images for grieving families.
One photo, posted on his Facebook page, shows what appears to be a young woman standing across from an older woman dressed in a wedding gown. Another shows a deceased man looking down from heaven at a baby.
Indeed, many of Jo’s creations are surreal.
They draw from Medusa, a monster from Greek mythology who had snakes for hair.
One image shows a nude woman covered in cuts and scrapes curled up in a corner, with a hand in the foreground making a cocktail. The caption reads, “It’s not your fault” — seemingly a message to victims of domestic abuse.
Some have called Jo’s creations “creepy” and “in very poor taste.”
On Friday morning, one commenter wrote on Facebook: “Don’t quit your day job.”
Still, others have come to the photographer’s defense, urging him not to question his motivation to help a mother remember her daughter.
“While I definitely understand your anger, as I am stewing mad on your behalf, and utterly baffled by the meanness and lack of conscience displayed by some of those walking this earth,” one wrote on Facebook, “you have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, sir!”
Jo said the response the past week has been “insane.”
“The only thing that allows me to sleep at night is knowing that I didn’t do this for Jeanie,” he said. “I did it for Macy.”
Correction: A previous version of this story included an incorrect date for Jeanie Ditty’s enlistment, based on information originally provided by the Army. This story has been updated.