A puzzling portrait: Mother as homicide suspect Six of her children perished in July fire

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Tonya Lucas sobbed as she walked past the closed caskets of her six children July 13 at Zion Baptist Church in East Baltimore. In a small room near the pulpit, she gave her soul to Christ.

The next day, police charged Ms. Lucas with killing all six children.

In a statement to homicide detectives, a witness -- whom police will not name -- reported that Ms. Lucas set the blaze that swept through the two-story rowhouse at 2424 E. Eager St., according to court records. The fire erupted at about 8 a.m. July 7 -- an hour before Ms. Lucas and her family were to be evicted from the house. The witness said Ms. Lucas, a welfare recipient and the mother of seven, set the blaze so the Red Cross would provide her family with clothing, furniture and new housing.

The witness also told police that he saw smoke coming from the house a short time later.

Michelle Lucas, the suspect's sister, dismisses the allegation that her sister set the fire.

"She loved her children. Why would anybody do anything like that? She didn't work," Ms. Lucas said. "Her kids were her means of support."

On Thursday, a city grand jury indicted Tonya Lucas, 29, for arson, child abuse and six counts of first-degree murder. She is set for arraignment in city Circuit Court on Oct. 2, and her trial date will be scheduled at that time.

Since her arrest, Ms. Lucas has been held without bail at the Baltimore City Detention Center. Her lawyer, Mark A. Van Bavel, would not allow her to be interviewed. Interviews with Ms. Lucas' sister, neighbors and criminal justice officials reveal a puzzling portrait of the woman charged with killing her children and the events leading to the fire. There is also evidence that Ms. Lucas and one of her children were victims of physical abuse.

Ms. Lucas was charged with child abuse because her 2-year-old son, Gregory Rodney Cooke, weighed only 10 pounds at the time of his death and showed signs of broken bones.

His gaunt appearance shocked an emergency room doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital, who told State Medical Examiner John Smialek that the boy looked so emaciated he could have been dead before the fire.

"Gregory was really striking -- he looked abnormal, very wasted," Mr. Smialek recalled.

The autopsy showed that Gregory suffered burns over 60 percent of his body, dehydration and smoke inhalation. The report also noted that his brain was "small for his age" and that he suffered from "emaciation and malnourishment."

The child also had old, healed fractures on his 10th and 11th ribs and in the middle of his left leg, the autopsy revealed.

Ms. Lucas' sister Michelle said that Gregory was "a small child" and that many members of her family were "small people."

"People always teased us about looking like we were malnourished," Michelle Lucas said. "He always was a small child. He didn't like to eat. He would spit his food out."

Gregory was among five children ranging in age from 2 months to 12 years who died the day of the fire. Another child, 3-year-old Deon Dwayne Cooke, lapsed into a coma and died three days later. The only child to survive was 8-year-old Billy Lucas.

The protective services division of the state Department of Social Services performed nine investigations on Tonya Lucas and her family between July 6, 1981 and March 4, 1991, said Sue Fitzsimmons, a department spokeswoman.

Privacy laws prohibit Ms. Fitzsimmons from giving details of the examinations or each report.

Four days before the fire, Ms. Lucas called police and reported that she had been beaten up. A police report states that Ms. Lucas had a "busted lip and busted nose" and that the assailant was Tony Lucas.

"Victim reports that her husband got angry because she wouldn't give him her rent money so he could buy drugs," the report said.

But Michelle Lucas says her sister was not married. Tony Lucas is their brother, she said.

The blaze, believed by firefighters to have been started in the living room, spread quickly through the house. Ms. Lucas jumped out of a second-story window just after the fire started. Afterward, she lay crying on the floor of a rowhouse across the street.

"She was so emotional, she wanted to know what happened to her children," said Marsha Hopkins, the neighbor who comforted Ms. Lucas minutes after the fire.

On July 29, aided by city eviction-prevention officials, Ms. Lucas submitted a handwritten motion to District Court Judge Martin A. Kircher claiming that she had paid landlord George Dangerfield back rent for part of May and June with a money order dated June 17.

Mr. Dangerfield said he never received the $432 money order, and Ms. Lucas asked the judge for a stay of eviction until July 2 to obtain a refund and "pay the landlord again."

Judge Kircher granted the motion. He asked Ms. Lucas to find the money order receipt and bring it back to rent court, which she never did, said Bernadine Simmons, of eviction prevention. Ms. Simmons said she also advised Ms. Lucas that if she were evicted, she could seek emergency shelter.

"I told her to get her priorities straight," Ms. Simmons said. "My concern was for those children. With that many children, I told her she needed to get her rent together and keep it together because protective services could come and get those children."

After the fire, Ms. Lucas received help from the Red Cross. The organization provided clothing for the children's burial and supplied the fried chicken, string beans and salads for the post-funeral dinner.

The children's funeral costs -- almost $6,000 -- were paid by the state Department of Social Services because Ms. Lucas said she had no money to bury her children, said Rosa James, an employee of March Funeral Home-East, which made the arrangements.

The children are buried in four unmarked graves at Arbutus Memorial Park, which donated the plots.

Meanwhile, the trauma of the fire still lingers for the paramedics who were dispatched to the blaze.

Edward Shreve, 47, an 11-year veteran recalls seeing a 2-month-old boy being brought out of the house in a charred car seat.

"It was a gruesome sight," Mr. Shreve said.

Another paramedic in Medic 7, Keith Small, 32, a four-year veteran, recalled that all six children were in cardiac arrest when medics arrived.

"We were able to get heartbeats back on three of them," Mr. Small said. They were Deon, Antoine, and 5-year-old Russell Williams. "They were so badly burned. Their faces were still there, though. You could see them through the soot."

As his paramedics rushed to bring the children back to life, Capt. John R. Johnson made his way through the crowd of onlookers, neighbors, reporters and television news cameras. He located Ms. Lucas, sobbing and hysterical.

"It took me 35 minutes to calm her down. She kept asking, 'Are they dead? Are they dead?' over and over. She seemed very, very concerned," Captain Johnson said.

"She also seemed utterly terrified of the news reporters and cameras. She didn't want to go near them."

When she had calmed, he gave her a ride to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where the children were rushed in ambulances. In the car, she asked again and again, "Are they all dead?" Captain Johnson recalled.

"I felt so sorry for her. And even now, after hearing that the police have charged her, I still feel sorry for her. But in a different way," he said.

The aftershock of the fire will linger as one of the most traumatic calls the unit has handled, even though Medic 7 handled 8,633 calls in East Baltimore last year. Eight paramedics went for a 35-minute Critical Incident Stress Debriefing program after the fire.

"We had six babies lying in front of us, who hadn't done anything to anybody," said Mr. Shreve, "and they were burnt to a crisp."

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