Zakieya Avery

Zakieya Avery, 28, was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder after police found two of her children dead and two seriously injured in their Germantown home. (Montgomery County Police Department / January 17, 2014)

Neighbors lit candles and laid stuffed animals Sunday at a makeshift shrine erected at the Germantown home of two toddlers who police say were killed by their mother and another woman as they tried to exorcise spirits from the children's bodies.

"Why would someone do this?" said neighbor Zoe Gill, 62, who walked with her 10-year-old granddaughter Kylie Sunday to take a Mickey Mouse and white votive candles to the Cherry Bend Drive shrine. "I can't think of anything to say to Kylie to help her understand," she said.

Two older siblings, ages 5 and 8, remained hospitalized with stab wounds Sunday, while the women, 28-year-old Zakieya Latrice Avery, the mother, and 21-year-old Monifa Denise Sanford, were held without bail after their arrests Saturday on charges of murder and attempted murder. The older siblings are stable and expected to survive, police said.

Interviews with the two women led police to the conclusion that they believed they had been performing an exorcism, Montgomery County Police Capt. Jim Daly said Sunday.

He said police were looking into reports that the mother had received treatment for mental illness.

Her Facebook page, which had been removed Sunday, contained pictures of the children, as well as postings about God and the devil. A pastor at the Maranatha Brethren Church in Hagerstown told The Washington Post that members of the church drove her to mental health sessions during the time she was living there.

Sylvia Wade, Avery's step-grandmother, told The Post that Avery loved her children and appeared to take good care of them. She recalled attending a birthday party for 8-year-old Martello at a Chuck E. Cheese a few years ago.

"I cried until I can't cry anymore," Wade said "Some people are calling what she did evil. She is humble and meek. ... To me, it takes a sick person to kill something you brought into the world."

Wade added: "I don't know what triggered it. She wasn't herself. When a person is not of themselves, they are not responsible for what they are doing. They are in another zone."

Officers first went to the house in the Germantown townhouse community Thursday night, after a neighbor reported an unattended child in a car. By the time police arrived, the women had confronted the man and retrieved the child, police said. They did not answer the door when officers knocked and police said they did not have enough reason to enter without permission.

Police asked Montgomery County Child Protective Services to visit the house Friday, but "unfortunately we got called there first," Daly said.

A neighbor called 911 Friday morning to report seeing an open car door and a knife. When officers entered the home, they found the two women, along with the two younger children, ages 1 and 2, already dead, and their siblings seriously injured, police said.

Police said the mother, who was close to one of the older children, attempted to flee out the back door before being caught. She and Sanford, who received treatment at a hospital for injuries, were charged Saturday.

Had the neighbor not called Saturday morning when he did, the older children "might not have survived either," Montgomery County Police Capt. Marcus Jones, commander of the county's major crimes unit, told The Post on Saturday.

Neighbors said little stood out about the family, which had moved into the townhouse community within the past year. The children were seen playing outside the house or being ferried to and from the car.

"They seemed loving," said neighbor Pedro Sanchez, 33, who said he only knew the family by sight. "They never yelled."

One of the smaller children was afraid of the dogs, said Gill, who saw the family when she walked her dogs around the neighborhood.

"They were just kids," Gill said.

nsherman@baltsun.com