At a funeral where children wept even before the service began, 2-year-old Aja Amber Alexis Nicolas was remembered yesterday for her exuberant smile that was "stopped by a twisted mind."
More than 200 mourners gathered at the First Church of God in Northeast Baltimore to pray for Aja and her family after her death Friday from a gunshot to her head.
Her father, Richard A. Nicolas, 31, has been charged with slaying the little girl. Police say his motive may have been money -- perhaps a $15,000 insurance policy they say he took out on her life.
Aja's body was laid in an open white casket the size of a crib. Looking like a baby doll in a white dress and hair ribbon, the little girl singled out for her "sweet smiling face" was buried with her baby bottle, a doll and a white teddy bear.
Her mother, Lisa Esbrand, who works in admissions at the Johns Hopkins Hospital's emergency room and lives in Northeast Baltimore, wept through most of the hourlong service. Aja was her only child.
"We can't seem to get over the unreasonableness, the unfairness of it," said the Rev. Wayne L. Harting, who noted that the little girl's joyful life "was stopped by a twisted mind."
It was one of few references made at the service to the cause of Aja's death. Her father, who was being held in jail without bail, was not mentioned in a long list of surviving relatives.
Police arrested Nicolas shortly after Aja died in a remote industrial area in Northeast Baltimore while they were driving together. He gave police an account -- inconsistent with the shooting evidence, they say -- that a stranger in a dark car rammed into his auto, then shot his daughter.
Esbrand told police she had argued with Aja's father over child-support payments.
At the service a second pastor, Mitchell Bettis, asked mourners to "pray for the children of our city. They face so many dangers."
He asked God to protect youngsters from the "ugly people in our society."
The funeral program included photos of the child: Aja holding a big crayon, smiling for the camera; Aja in a party hat at her birthday party; Aja in lace tights; Aja playing in a jumper, Aja in a baby bonnet, Aja as a newborn.
"She vibrated with a certain sweetness arms always extended for a hug," said April Wyke Ransome, reading a written tribute.
Noting Aja's "big smile and bubbly laughter," she said, "Lisa and the rest of us really struggled to say no to that face."
Twenty-six children who attended a church camp with Aja sang "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." Then they brought a few laughs from the crying mourners as they sang Aja's favorite song from the television show "Barney & Friends."
"I love you, you love me, we're a happy family. With a great big kiss and a hug from me to you, won't you say you love me too," they sang.
A friend, Carolyn Lingham, recited a poem she wrote that read, in part, "Aja meant so much to people near and far, no one really knows how this went so far."
As she continued reading, "the rain is coming down from heaven, yes it's running now, there just like our teardrops falling down, you were washed away, but in God we are found," the rain outside stopped and the sun shone inside the church through the stained glass windows.
Aja was buried at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Baltimore County as the mourners crowded around her mother under a tent to keep away the rain.
As Canada geese grazed nearby, Aja's little white casket was lowered into the ground, between two big yew bushes and a dogwood sapling that blooms pink in the spring.
Pub Date: 8/01/96