She saw the devil possessing her four children, turning their eyes black, leaping from child to child, prosecutors said. So to try to exorcise the demon, Zakieya L. Avery, along with another woman who lived with her, attacked the little children.
Avery stabbed them, killing her 1-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. Thinking the devil inhabited the bodies of her older children, she attacked the other two — one 5, the other 8 — prosecutors said.
Avery, 28, and her roommate Monifa D. Sanford, 21, call themselves the “Demon Assassins” and each faces two counts of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder. They appeared in court via closed-circuit television Tuesday at a bail review hearing, where Montgomery County District Judge Gary G. Everngam ordered the two women remain in custody without bail. Avery must undergo a psychiatric evaluation by health officials. Sanford’s hearing was postponed to Friday.
Officials say once the psychiatric evaluations are completed, both women will likely be transferred to a maximum security psychiatric hospital to receive further evaluation and care.
If convicted, they face a maximum penalty of life in prison.
At the hearing, prosecutors revealed the unimaginable details of Friday morning. Police had received a call from a woman who told them she had spotted a blue Toyota with its door open as well as a bloody knife lying nearby.
Responding officers grabbed a key from inside the car and let themselves into Avery’s home on Cherry Bend Drive, and discovered a hellish scene inside — Avery’s two toddlers who had been stabbed to death, and her two other young children suffering from stab wounds.
Avery told investigators she had been once been involuntarily committed for psychiatric reasons. Sanford told police she had tried to kill herself two times before.
Avery was the self-described commander of the Demon Assassins, which had performed other exorcisms before Friday, Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said. Sanford was a “sergeant.”
Police have identified the two other members of the group and are trying to find them to interview them about the slayings, according to Montgomery County Police Capt. Marcus Jones.
In court, McCarthy, who is prosecuting the case, said the women believed in the devil. They had been planning an exorcism on another Demon Assassin named “Troy,” he said. The man had not arrived as scheduled for the exorcism that night, and the attacks began around 5 a.m. Friday.
The women believed the devil had inhabited the body of the youngest child, 1-year-old Norell N. Harris, and then leaped from body to body of the different children, McCarthy said in district court, as Avery, dressed in a sleeveless prison gown, watched through a video monitor from jail.
The two women told police that as the devil inhabited the bodies of the children, it turned their eyes black, McCarthy said. But the two women believed the demon leaped to her 2-year-old daughter, Zyana Harris, and they tried to exorcise it from her, he said.
The same process occurred with the children’s siblings, a 5-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy, whom The Gazette is not identifying because they are juvenile crime victims. McCarthy said that during the exorcism, the demon had jumped into Avery’s body and caused her to attack Sanford. Before charging Sanford, police had to take her to a local hospital to receive treatment for stab wounds and a slice to her neck.
After police entered the house, they found Avery walking down the stairs of the home. She walked past officers with the 8-year-old, then tried to flee out the back, along with Sanford. Officers tackled Avery outside, and soon discovered the boy’s stab wounds.
Jones, head of the Major Crimes Unit, said investigators found two knives they believe were used in the attacks — one about the size of a paring knife, and a second a butcher’s knife.
Upstairs, they found Norell and Zyana on their mother’s bed. Their bodies had been washed and wrapped in blankets.
“They had washed them to prepare so that when they got to heaven, they would see God and not have blood on them,” McCarthy said.
Police also found the 5-year-old nearby and realized that she had been seriously stabbed.
Officials “initially thought she was not going to survive,” he said, explaining that she is in critical condition but she has improved.
The 8-year-old had not only been stabbed, but also saw his mother kill his little brother, McCarthy said.
The horrific details elicited a sob from family members who had come to the hearing.
In a brief hearing for Sanford, David Felsen, her defense attorney, asked that the woman’s bail hearing be postponed because her family members had hired private attorneys who had not been able to speak to her yet. Her bail review was postponed until Friday.
After the hearing, Edward Leyden, one of Sanford’s private attorneys, said that he and co-counsel Dana Jones-Oliver were “still trying to get a handle on what happened.”
“However you cut this, this was an enormous tragedy,” he said.
If the defendants are deemed to be “competent,” or able to understand their present situation and participate in their defense, court proceedings can continue toward trial, McCarthy said. In that case, a lawyer would still be able to argue the women were “not criminally responsible,” or insane, as a defense.
The findings from that initial report will be presented to Everngam on Tuesday.
A neighbor called 911 the night before the children were killed, saying one of the women “seems to be responding to internal stimuli,” and was talking to herself. The caller told dispatchers that a woman in the house had left a baby in her blue Toyota outside for about an hour. The caller said the women had told him “something was going on, and they didn’t want the baby to be endangered in the house.”
When police arrived, the women had taken the children inside and refused to answer the door.
Police filed a report with Child Protective Services, who were planning to follow up with the case Friday morning, Jones said.
“There were no warning signs this was going to happen,” Jones said at a news conference after Tuesday’s hearing, later explaining that officers did not have enough cause to enter the house that night.
Friday morning, police received the call about the bloody knife, prompting the grisly discovery.
How much the women understood of their alleged crimes is still unclear at this point.
“They were hard to read,” Jones said, later adding, “We didn’t get the typical type of response [you would get] when a child is harmed in that kind of way.”
Investigators spoke to the pastor of the church Avery attended, Exousia Ministries in Germantown, Jones said.
“This is not being ordered, not part of their religion, not what is being preached,” Jones said.
Police “want to see what else [other church members] can provide to show what this group was all about,” he said, though they do not believe the other members are a danger to the public.