'Exorcism' attempt alleged in death of two children

Two women have been charged in the recent stabbing deaths of two young children at a Germantown townhouse — in what Montgomery County police said was an attempt at an exorcism.

Police on Saturday said Monifa Denise Sanford, 21, of Germantown was charged with first degree murder and attempted murder after being released from a hospital. Police had charged the children's mother, Zakieya Latrice Avery, 28, with first degree murder and attempted murder on Friday. Both women are being held without bond.

The Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said 1-year-old Norell N. Harris and 2-year-old Zyana Z. Harris suffered multiple stab wounds in Friday's incident. Two other children, Taniya Harris, 5, and Martello Harris, 8, remained hospitalized, police said.

"Cases like this are heartbreaking," county police chief Tom Manger said in a statement. "Our thoughts are with the family and friends of the victims along with the 911 operators, police officers, evidence technicians, and fire and EMS personnel that responded."

“This was all about what was in their minds,” said Capt. Marcus Jones, commander of the county’s major crimes unit. “They felt like there was something bad going on with the children, and they were trying to release it.”

The story that detectives were trying to piece together began at least the night before, when other officers were called to the townhouse on 19000 block of Cherry Bend Drive in Germantown but didn't go inside.

That time, about 9:45 p.m., a 911 caller reported seeing a child alone in a car. As the man stood outside talking to the dispatcher, it was clear that he suddenly was having a conversation with someone else. The man could be heard saying something to the effect that he was making the situation his business because there was an unattended child, according to a law enforcement official familiar with a recording of the call.

Two women had come out of the townhouse, confronted the man and taken the child inside, police said.

Officers who went to the townhouse knocked on the door, but there was no answer and they didn't see or hear anything suspicious, Daly said. One police commander said they spent more than 40 minutes at the scene. But the officers didn't find enough probable cause to force their way inside, he said.

The officers called the county's Children's Protective Services agency, which said it would follow up Friday morning, police said. Then they left. "The officers had no choice but to clear the scene," Daly said.

A spokeswoman for Montgomery's Health and Human Services Department would not say whether Children's Protective Services has had any interactions with the children, citing privacy laws.

At least twice during the night, neighbors heard noises and disturbances coming from the townhouse, but nothing that alarmed them enough to call 911, police said.

About 9:30 a.m., a 911 caller reported having "noticed a vehicle with the door open and a knife laying outside the vehicle," police said in a statement.

After the arriving officers grabbed the keys from the car, they approached the townhouse door.

Once inside, officers spotted the 28-year-old mother with a child — either holding or near the youngster (reports weren't immediately clear). She bolted out the back door, but officers chased her and quickly caught her.

No lawyer was listed for either woman in court records.



The Washington Post and Reuters contributed to this article.

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