A North Baltimore man was charged yesterday with beating his 3-year-old nephew to death in a cocaine-induced rage and, with help from the child's godmother, setting his house on fire to conceal the crime, city police said.
Gerald Bernard Harris, 30, and the godmother, Rhonda Alisa Nichols, 28, were charged with first-degree murder and arson early yesterday after several hours of questioning from homicide detectives.
Police said they believe the young victim, James Simon, was beaten and shaken to death last week and his body placed overnight in a second-floor bedroom before being carried to a basement storage area, where the fire started last Friday afternoon.
Fire investigators initially ruled the fire at 908 St. Dunstans Road accidental -- attributing it to a child playing with lighter fluid that had spilled on himself and a couch.
But the death was ruled a homicide Monday when an autopsy revealed no trace of smoke in James' lungs and found evidence of severe head injuries.
Agent Robert W. Weinhold Jr., a police spokesman, called the case "extremely disturbing" because of the connection to drugs and the charges that the couple kept the child's body overnight while plotting to escape detection.
"We trusted them with our child," said the child's aunt, Gloria Luckett, on Tuesday.
The child's mother, Donna Jones, 27, who lives in O'Donnell Heights with her four other children, said James often visited his RTC godmother -- whose residence is in Baltimore County -- and uncle for weeks at a time at the St. Dunstans Road address. She was trying to get her son returned last Friday, but said her calls to the Govans house went unanswered.
Agent Weinhold said events leading to the child's death began Sept. 28, when Ms. Nichols left the home because "Mr. Harris was smoking crack cocaine and had shown a propensity toward violence" when he used the drug. "However, she left the 3-year-old child behind," the spokesman said.
Police said Ms. Nichols returned to the second-floor apartment later that evening and found the child lying unresponsive on the living room floor. Investigators believe the boy already was dead.
Police said that Wednesday night, officers brought Mr. Harris to the homicide office. They said Ms. Nichols, who lives in the 3400 block of Janvale Road, in Baltimore County, came in voluntarily.
A District Court commissioner ordered both suspects held without bail yesterday and scheduled a hearing before a judge today.
James' funeral is to be held at 7 p.m. today at Mount Sinai Baptist Church, 922 E. Preston St.