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From the moment they entered Erika Peters’ apartment on the afternoon of March 21, police and fire officials realized this was no routine call.
“We have a male child on the floor by the door bleeding!” a firefighter screamed, according to a police account of the incident. The firefighter had just forced his way through the apartment door. The victim would later be identified as 10-year-old Dakota Peters.
Medical personnel were called to the scene, located at 2000 Maryland Ave. NE, Apt. 104, in the Carver Terrace complex.
Two officers proceeded to “clear” the apartment. They walked to the rear and found Erika Peters, 37, lying unresponsive in the hallway, with stab wounds to her chest and head. A small piece of metal, possibly the tip of a knife blade, was embedded in the back of her skull.
Farther back, an officer encountered a locked door and kicked it open. Inside, he found Peters’ live-in boyfriend, Joseph Randolph Mays, lying facedown on the floor “attempting to appear unconscious,” the document states. There were superficial—allegedly self-inflicted—knife wounds on his chest. The officer seized on a large hunting knife atop a small dresser nearby. Also in the room was Ashleigh—Mays’ and Peters’ 2-year-old daughter—crying. There wasn’t a scratch on her.
Then the officer went to the next room, the bathroom. Erik Harper, 11, was found dead against the back wall, next to the toilet. He had multiple stab wounds to the chest and “one large laceration to the right side” of his head, the police document states.
Both Erika and Erik, her son, were pronounced dead at the scene. Peters’ other son, Dakota, would be rushed to Children’s Hospital; official time of death: 2:40 p.m.
Detectives followed Mays to the hospital, where they interrogated him. When they asked him what happened, he replied: “My girlfriend and her son [Erik] has been fucking with me for the past three days. I was fixing my little girl’s hair.…I told them to stop fucking with me, they would not leave me.”
Mays, 44, would go on to claim that he had “blacked out.” But detectives had recovered the hunting knife. There was blood on the knife. The tip was broken. And the knife rested on top of a handwritten note. “Only parts of the note were legible, including the phrases, ‘I’m sorry…I tried to make it work,’” according to the police account.
Within hours, police detectives had arrested Mays for the murders. “I think in this case, you know everybody did everything they could do,” D.C. Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier told News Channel 8. “By the time we got the call, it was late.”
Lanier may be right. After all, this killing frenzy was nothing if not private—committed behind closed doors, without a gun, in a family setting. According to reports, too, the 911 call was vague.
Yet if “everybody did everything they could do,” the city isn’t too eager to talk about all the good work. A wide swath of the D.C. government is refusing to comment on any aspect of the case. The police won’t release records showing whether officers had made previous visits to Apt. 104. The mayor’s office is also in information-shutdown mode.
Meanwhile, three pressing questions about the case remain unanswered.
No. 1: How long did it take police to get inside the apartment?
Among the few documents released by the city on the murders is a press release from the Police Department. It states that officers responded to the call for Apt. 104 shortly after 1 p.m. The upstairs neighbor tells a different version of events.
The night before the murders, the neighbor heard a series of loud bangs. She could hear the ruckus through her bedroom floor. The thumps were coming from Peters’ home. The walls are thin enough that you can hear the neighbor’s television set or a baby’s shriek.
Eventually, the neighbor stomped on the floor to express her frustration. When the message wasn’t returned with peace and quiet, she decided to go down and knock on the door, she says.
Mays answered the door and listened to the neighbor’s complaints. Then Erika Peters appeared in the doorway and offered an explanation for the racket. In a low rasp, Peters said that she was sick and had been trying to get Mays’ attention.
“Why the fuck you didn’t see what was wrong with her?” the neighbor remembers asking Mays.
Mays, she says, replied that he hadn’t noticed his girlfriend’s banging.
Randy Kittrell, a neighbor who resides across from Peters’ residence, says he happened by the scene that night. He says he was walking out of his apartment to pick up a pizza and caught part of the conversation between Peters and the neighbor. He says he heard Peters say she was sorry.
“The neighbor asked her if everything was OK. [Erika’s] eyes were wide open,” says Kittrell, 27, noting that she looked as if she’d “seen a ghost or something like that. She said, ‘I’m OK.’”
The neighbor says she went back upstairs and left a complaint about the incident with the rental office.
The next morning, the banging from Apt. 104 resumed. The neighbor called 911. She said the time was “like 12.”
The dispatcher told her that police were already on the scene. She said it was 12:10 when she opened her door to check out the situation. She remembered the time because it’s the time her daughter goes to see her mentor.
As she looked down through her stairwell, she could see an officer, Sgt. Tyshena Wallace, knocking on Peters’ door. Wallace then stopped her knocking and went upstairs to the neighbor. The neighbor explained what had happened the night before and how she heard the same banging that morning.
“I gave her the rental office number,” the neighbor says.
Wallace asked her where the banging was coming from. The neighbor took her to her bedroom. This time Wallace joined her and pounded on the floor.
Wallace screamed into the floor: “Police! Police!”
It was 12:30. Wallace left.
Kittrell, who had gotten up early and was watching TV in his apartment’s front room—the room closest to the front door and hallway—insists Wallace had arrived on the scene even before noon. “I opened the door,” Kittrell says. “The officer…asked me, ‘You seen the people next door?’”
The accounts of the neighbor and Kittrell raise questions about the police department’s own timeline. Instead of taking roughly an hour to open the door to Apt. 104, the police may have taken at least two hours.
What isn’t in dispute is that Wallace was the first to arrive. According to the police record, she walked up the stairs and knocked on Peters’ door.: “Sgt. Wallace heard a voice from within the apartment saying, ‘no, stop,’”
The record does not say whether the scream came from one of the boys. Dakota would be found later by the front door, suffering from stab wounds to the neck, head, and right ear.
According to the initial incident report, “Officers heard noises but no one answered.”
Wallace called the dispatcher. The dispatcher, the record states, tried calling the apartment but could not get through. Wallace asked what the call was for. The dispatcher gave an off-the-cuff assessment: “A child screaming on the phone, possibly playing.”
Officer Atubakr Karim eventually arrived and tried knocking on the door while Wallace called the apartment’s phone number on her cell phone.
Wallace could hear the phone ringing and ringing inside Apt. 104. At some point, the officers retreated down the stairs. Even though he was not the first officer on the scene, Karim would later write up the initial report. He listed the time of the incident as 1:11 p.m.
Jean Mason, 50, a resident in the building, remembers seeing the two officers. She says she saw them standing at the entrance to the building. Mason, who was leaving the building to visit a friend across town, says it was 1:10 p.m.
The two officers were waiting for Capt. Lamar West. The timing was anything but perfect. West was just coming on his shift and when he arrived, he approved calling the Fire Department to have its personnel force their way inside the Peters apartment, the police document states.
According to Fire Department spokesperson Alan Etter, Truck 7 took the call at 1:44 p.m.
Etter says it took Truck 7 approximately five minutes to arrive. A bar had been propped up against the apartment door creating a crude barricade. Gaining entry proved difficult. “I’m not sure how long it took them,” explained Assistant Police Chief Diane Groomes a few hours after the murders.
Dakota Peters was right there. “I could see his little socks,” recalls Kittrell. “Like they pushed his feet around when they rammed through the door.”
When the medics took Dakota out, Kittrell says, he was bleeding from head to toe. The boy looked like he was still in his pajamas—a white tank-top undershirt and boxer shorts.
In a response to an inquiry on the exact time of the 911 call, D.C. Police Department spokesperson, Traci Hughes, asked: “Why is it relevant?”
Later, Hughes wrote: “The response time is as stated in the press release: approx. 1p. We cannot release anything further due to pending grand jury proceedings.”
Janice Quintana, the director of the Office of Unified Communications (OUC), which handles 911 calls, testified during an oversight hearing before the D.C. Council five days after the murders. At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson brought up the timeline and the dispatcher’s remark that the 911 call may have been a prank.
“This case is still under investigation,” Quintana stated, adding that her agency along with the fire department and the police department are reviewing the incident. “We are looking at the whole aspect of the call.”
Quintana stated that the departments are looking into the 911 call and the response time. She refused to give a time stamp on when the call was made, what time the police and fire department arrived.
“All I’m asking you for is the timeline,” Mendelson replied.
“At this time, I can’t release any of that,” Quintana stated.
Mendelson asked for a reason.
“This is a particular case that is very high profile,” Quintana stated. “It was very fatal.”
Mendelson asked if it was a question of liability.
“No,” Quintana stated. “It’s just under investigation.”
A source at the 911 office says there were multiple calls about a child screaming and that the incident was initially classified as a non-priority call.
When asked what time she arrived at Apt. 104, Wallace responded, “I don’t even know that. And I couldn’t even tell you that.”
West had a more succinct response to inquiries over the timeline issues: “I’m not going to get into all this.”
City officials have a powerful motive to stonewall: They were working a situation in which every second was precious. If the cops had managed to barge into the apartment sooner, perhaps they could have saved some lives. It’s hard to fault Wallace and Karim for their actions; they appeared to have worked aggressively in investigating the situation that led to the 911 call, whenever it was made.
However, the bureaucratic space between the cops and the fire department warrants a look by whatever authorities are now investigating this incident. In even the most charitable versions of this emergency timeline, authorities lost 45 minutes to SOP—a phone call that a police official had to make to the fire department, just to get the equipment to break into a potential crime scene. In what other major city must the police wait for the firefighters before busting down a door? “I think the reason is because [the fire department has] the equipment. Usually, it’s an equipment issue. A lot of these doors in some of these buildings, good or bad, are built to withstand a lot,” says Kristopher Baumann, head of D.C.’s police union.
No. 2: What was the involvement of the Child And Family Services Agency with the Peters family?
Within hours of the murders, city officials were dialing up CFSA to see if the troubled department had a history with Peters’ family. Since the Banita Jacks case broke in January 2008, any domestic violence incident involving children merits a call to the agency.
By the following night came confirmation that CFSA had a file on the family.
Attorney General Peter Nickles issued a prepared statement:
“After receiving a hotline tip [in] 2006, the Department of Child and Family Services took appropriate steps to resolve issues,” Nickles wrote. “In 2007, after the necessary measures were taken, the case was closed, with no subsequent reports.”
Kimberly Trimble, Erika Peters’ sister, had contacted authorities to report that Mays had shaken his daughter. “I called Child Protective Services,” she says. “I think they were telling him to go to a class. I think they recommended him go to a parenting class. They never followed up with me.”
Bobby Harper, Peters’ father, says of social services’ involvement: “They were in counseling for a year and a half. I don’t know if social service ever checked up on them.”
In an interview, Nickles elaborated somewhat on his statement. “The family engaged CFSA in treatment,” he said. “In 2007, a little more than a year after, the view was on behalf of the agency [that] the family was stable.”
“Since that time, there has been no call, no indication” that there were problems in Peters’ home, Nickles added.
Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, who oversees CFSA as chairman of the Committee on Human Services, isn’t so sure about Nickles’ claims.
“I don’t think the case was closed,” Wells says. “I do think they were working closely with the family.” He adds CFSA had a plan that included accommodations for Erika Peters and her family at the House of Ruth shelter.
Christel Nichols, House of Ruth’s executive director, says Wells is not correct. “Unfortunately, we have not been involved with [Erika Peters] for the last 10 years,” Nichols explains. “We don’t take CFSA referrals. We don’t have that kind of working relationship with them.”
Nichols says her shelter last worked with Peters in 1999. She says that since the murders she has not received a call from Wells
or CFSA. “He needs to get his story straight,” Nichols says of Wells. “That’s not good for anybody.”
A CFSA source says there was a more banal end to the agency’s involvement with the Peters family. This source, who has reviewed the Peters file, says a social worker closed out the case in the beginning of 2008. The reason listed would prove to be an error.
“Apparently, the assigned worker learned from some source that the family moved to Maryland and justified closing the case,” the source says.
Nickles insists that the story about Maryland is off-base. “The reason why the case was closed [is] as previously stated.…The family was thought to be stable,” says Nickles.
No. 3: What Did The Police Know About Joseph Randolph Mays?
Six days after the murders, Mays’ sister, Tammy Tolley, visited the District for the first time in her life. She rented a car in their hometown of Roanoke, Va., and made the four-hour drive to see her brother in the D.C. Jail.
When they were younger, Tolley used to call her brother Grape Nuts on account of his love for the cereal. Now, he had an inmate number and a jail uniform. They had to talk through thick glass on the jail’s telephones. When she took her seat across from him, she cried.
Mays cried, too.
“He feels sorry about it,” Tolley says. “The only thing he mentioned was the letter—that he wrote the letter.”
Mays would tell Tolley, and later in a phone call to his father, that he knows he will be behind bars for a long time. But his real concern was for the daughter he left unharmed.
“He missed her,” Tolley recalls. “He knows she won’t be able to see him.…He said he was sorry. He said he was doing Ashleigh’s hair and the boys were doing something and Erika—he said she just kept annoying him. He said, ‘Tammy, I tried. I really tried.’”
Mays had met Peters four years ago while working at the Brentwood Post Office. Mays had a job as a technician working on the sorting machines. Peters joined on as a seasonal worker. After Peters became pregnant with his daughter, they moved in together. Mays’ father says it was the first serious relationship he can remember his son ever having.
Peters had grown up just off East Capitol Street near the Shrimp Boat. She had some hearing impairment and was involved in the deaf community. She loved her church, where she’d often praise-dance. “She was one of the sweetest children,” Harper says of his daughter.
Mays was very controlling, as Harper recalls. The kids had codes to let their grandmother know what was going on. If the “sky is blue,” it meant Mays was within earshot or things weren’t right. Whenever Harper would call, Mays would insist that the call be placed on speakerphone. “Every conversation,” Harper says, “he’d be in the background.”
KeAndre Trimble, a first cousin, remembers that Mays posted a sign on the boys’ bedroom door. The sign listed a number of orders Mays had typed up and printed out: “Your mom is not your slave. You will respect me.”
Those orders have a complicated background. While Mays was in high school, his parents separated and divorced. His mother had a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized for weeks. Mays’ family says she has never been the same.
After he graduated, Mays sought escape and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He completed basic training in December 1982.
On a leave, Mays made arrangements to see his mother. But when he arrived, she refused to see him. “She never would open the door for him,” says his father, Joseph Mays Jr. “He came back to the apartment in tears. It wasn’t anything I could do.”
Tolley says their mother has refused any significant relationship with her or her brother. “Every time he went to see her, she won’t answer the door,” Tolley explains. “She won’t talk to nobody except her cat.”
Mays still had the Marines. According to an autobiography he posted on classmates.com, he became a loadmaster, radio operator, and “observer” on a KC-130 aircraft based in Cherry Point, N.C. He writes of his experiences:
“I have flown to all fifty states and Puerto Rico. I have been to Guam, Iwo Jima, Singapore, Casablanca (Morocco), Japan and England to name a few. I enjoyed it. Some places I didn’t get to stay too long, but at least I was able to go there. Cozumel, Mexico in February 1990 was the best time with four days there and nothing to do. The water is breathtaking with fish swimming in unison underwater. The water is so clear you can see for at least 100 feet underwater. Beautiful! I WILL go back.”
Mays goes on to write that he left the Marines in 1990. He came home to Roanoke, got an apartment, and started work delivering mail for a small company. Four years later, he moved to D.C. and caught on with the Postal Service.
Mays proved a reliable employee until the October 2001 anthrax attacks left two of his co-workers dead. He knew both Joseph Curseen Jr. and Thomas Morris Jr. His family says he took their deaths hard. During meetings among postal officials, Mays spoke out about how safety and clean-up protocols had been ignored.
Dena Briscoe, a former co-worker, organized a support group called Brentwood Exposed that celebrated the memories of their fallen employees and helped spur an investigation into the anthrax case. She says Mays was an early supporter of the cause.
He found a purpose for his anger, becoming an expert on policies and procedures, employee handbooks—the stuff no one reads. He’d come to the meetings brandishing safety manuals.
“He was highly disturbed about how the postal officials handled the anthrax,” Briscoe says. “Before it closed and after it closed, postal officials had talks to share what was going on. He spoke out against some of their procedures.…He was an asset to Brentwood Exposed.” Mays also created a Web site dedicated to his fallen friends called Brentwood United.
But after awhile, Mays faded away from the group. He became depressed and suffered side effects from the medication he had to take. “He just was off,” says one former co-worker. “For instance, he had a little daughter. When he came back after Erika had the baby, he would never show people pictures of his daughter.”
In the year after the anthrax deaths, Mays told his father that he hardly came to work at all. Some days, he just didn’t feel like going in. About two years ago, he was fired, according to Briscoe.
Debt collectors started sending notices to the Carver Terrace apartment. After his father agreed to co-sign a loan to pay off several collection agencies his son stopped communicating with him. In the past year, he says his phone calls and e-mails went unreturned.
“I sent him a letter with a self-addressed envelope and a sheet of paper with a note [attached]—‘please let me know if you are OK,’” the senior Mays says. “That was it. I never got a response to that.”
By then, Mays had a hard time communicating even with his new family. He would often lock himself in a room and sit in front of his computer. The boys would have to slip notes under the door in order to get his attention, Harper remembers.
On the Web, at least, Mays wasn’t a fired postal worker living in a cramped apartment with a lot of cats. His loneliness and desperation found portals like Twitter, where he followed John Mayer, MC Hammer, and Dr. Drew. He published spiritual poems and wrote up spam-like business plans with sites he developed called Eye Earn and Making Money Online Daily, where he would sign off by writing “yours in social networking and prosperity” or “yours in internet success.”
Mays managed at least six blogs and Web sites—not including his MySpace page, his classmates.com page, his Flickr account, or his online store with Amazon. On one of his blogs, he posted a March 8 item about summer. “Summer is coming,” he wrote, “and that means warm weather and all the good things that goes with it. The smell of grilled food wafting through the air. Mmmmmm. Children laughing and playing…”
Mays called himself a lover of nature, NASCAR, and animals. “I believe in helping people so that we may all enjoy life as it was meant to be.”
One of the ways he believed in helping people was in sharing his spiritual poetry. On March 8, he posted a poem called “God Has Kept Me Here for a Reason,” which opens as follows:
“God has kept me here for a reason.
I survived because he has a plan for me.
All my bad supervisors,
the bad management choices,
the death of loved ones,
the back stabbing from my co-workers and church members,
the negative thoughts,
the lack of executive support;
I made it because I am blessed!
The Peters boys were well versed in Mays’ demons. There is a legend going around Carver Terrace that Erik used to jump out of his second-floor window onto the muddy courtyard to escape Mays’ punishments, which were wide-ranging. “He tied the oldest one, pinned his hands behind his back and spanked,” says Kimberly Trimble.
She saw a black eye on Dakota. The boy, says Trimble, reported that “he didn’t know how it happened.” Erika Peters, says Trimble, “would cover up for Randy. She’d make up excuses, she would give the kids a look that they couldn’t say anything else.” After Peters’ family confronted Mays about the abuse, he volunteered to stay away from family gatherings.
He remained, however, a huge presence on Maryland Avenue. Erik and Dakota were fixtures in the grassless courtyard in front of their building, where their every move was monitored by Mays.
Sometimes Mays could be found outside chatting with neighbors. He particularly reached out to Robert Simms, a former assistant football coach at Spingarn and CFSA worker. Simms recalls that Mays confessed that he didn’t know how to handle Erik. He asked if Simms would counsel the boy. Simms says he never got the chance.
Derek, 28, whose mother lives in Apt. 106, recalls the boys being the first to welcome his son to the neighborhood about a year ago. He also remembers seeing Mays snap at the boys and call them “dummy” as they were walking inside the building’s entrance. “He stayed on the kids,” Derek says.
Markita Mason says that the boys would be fine if they were outside in the courtyard playing. But even then, Mays would watch them from an upstairs window. When he would yell for them to come inside, their demeanors would change.
The boys sought shelter in Mason’s apartment. On at least one occasion, they spent the night. “They said they didn’t want to go home,” Mason, 29, says. Mason has daughters around the same ages as the Peters boys. “I let them sleep over a lot of times. I fed them. They said they didn’t eat.”
Mason says she knew the boys were scared of their home. “They said Randy was messing with their mother, treating them like they were in the Army, yelling at them, beating them,” Mason explains.
A lot of times, the boys simply refused to go into details. “That was the scary part,” Mason says. “We tried to get it out of them.” She encouraged them to tell their school about the abuse.
About seven months ago, Mason says that she and two others saw Erika Peters with a black eye.
Mason says she has seen the police make three trips to the Peters home. “I guess [Mays] told them a joke and they went on,” Mason says.
Lt. Judith Anderson, who works the Carver Terrace area, puts a different spin on the relationship: “We’ve had contact with the family, not because there was something wrong. We’ve seen them. We had contact with them. We had positive contact with Ms. Peters and her children.” Multiple requests for police documents that would detail any visits to the residence were unsuccessful.
In the last few weeks, Mays seemed in good spirits to at least one neighbor. “I talked to him,” Simms says. “He told me he had written a book—a book of poems for the kids. He was happy.”
Though his mood may have brightened, his controlling ways remained in force. Any time the Peters kids passed her in the hallway over the past few weeks, says Mason, Mays would run interference. “He would step in front of them to talk so they wouldn’t,” Mason says.
One time, Mason spotted the family in the nearby Safeway. In the vegetable aisle, the boys ducked down and snuck a wave to her.
Two weeks ago, she says, the cops came to Peters’ apartment. “I seen them,” she says. “They were knocking.”