Silence blanketed a Montgomery County District courtroom Tuesday as prosecutors vividly described an attempted exorcism that left two toddlers dead and their two older siblings critically injured.
The children's mother, Zakieya Avery, 28, and Avery's close friend Monifa Sanford, 21, are facing two counts of first degree murder, and two counts of first degree attempted murder.
Around 9:30 a.m. Friday, police arrived at the horrifyingly bizarre and heartbreaking crime scene in the 19000 block of Cherry Bend Drive in Germantown. Inside the modest two-story townhome, officers located the lifeless bodies of one-year-old Norell Harris and his two-year-old sister Zyana Harris. Both were lying in their mother's bed. Five-year-old Taniya Harris was barely clinging to life in an adjacent bedroom, curled in the fetal position with multiple stab wounds.
"As police entered the house, Zakieya Avery was coming down the stairs with her oldest son [Martello Harris, eight] when Avery fled out the back door," Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy said while addressing the court.
Members of ExouSia Ministries, a small Christian congregation which worships at a Germantown elementary school, Avery and Sanford told investigators they'd recently created a side-car clan they called the Demon Assassins. The four-member group maintained a rank and order, with Avery positioned as "commander" and Sanford, "sergeant."
According to comments made in court, Avery and Sanford had scheduled an in-home exorcism Thursday evening for a group member named Troy. Only problem, Troy never arrived for his appointment. Then around 5 a.m. Friday, both women reportedly became convinced a demonic spirit had invaded the soul's of all four children, turning their young eyes dark black.
"It began with an attempt to break the neck of the youngest child, it proceeded into strangulation and ultimately graduated into stabbing," McCarthy said.
Despite deeply penetrating stab wounds, three of the four children weren't covered in blood when officers arrived, but instead wrapped in wet blankets.
"The women, after the attack, showered together to wash the blood off themselves, cleaned-up the crime scene and then prepared the children to see God," McCarthy added. "It was to be an everlasting life in heaven."
In court, the prosecution disclosed Avery's record of involuntary commitments for psychiatric delusions, and Sanford's history of suicide attempts. Consequently, Judge Gary Everngam ordered jailers will transfer both women to the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, a maximum security psychiatric facility located in Jessup. There the church friends turned accused criminals will undergo extensive mental health testing to see if either is equipped to stand trial.
"We believe that she knew she did something wrong. However, neither woman appears outwardly remorseful for what they did," Montgomery County Police Department Capt. Marcus Jones remarked.
Capt. Jones, who spent hours combing through the unparalleled crime scene, says despite Hollywood's portrayal of exorcisms and witchcraft, Avery's townhome was remarkably normal.
"There were no candles, documents, or literature, nothing indicating a ritual had been held," Capt. Jones added.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Avery had enlisted district public defender Brian Shefferman, while Sanford's family had hired private defense attorneys Edward Leyden and Dana Jones-Oliver.
"She's always been known as a very nurturing, affectionate caregiver, so this is shocking," Jones-Oliver remarked. "It shocks the conscious of not only people watching television or reading the newspaper, but also her [Sanford's] family as well."
Police say Sanford, who was enrolled at Montgomery College, met Avery about eight months ago. Despite the brutal nature of their alleged crimes, both women spoke quietly and maintained meek outer appearances during their bond hearings Tuesday. The close friends will remain behind bars without bond, pending their psychiatric evaluations.
Martello Harris, 8, and Taniya Harris, 5, continue to recover from their critical stab wounds. Martello, police say, could be released from an area hospital later this week.
"It's just an unbelievable story that I hope I never have to witness again in my career, or anybody else for that matter," Capt. Jones concluded.
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