Malachi Lawson had an infectious smile.
The 4-year-old boy with glasses and braids "wouldn’t let you be sad around him,” his aunt Melissa Johnson said. Whenever “Paw Patrol” came on TV, his imagination took over — and he would transform into one of his beloved animated characters.
“He had a smile that would light up this whole city,” the aunt said, sharing a memory that is now heartbreaking.
After initially being reported missing, Malachi was found dead in a Baltimore dumpster Saturday with burns from a scalding bath that had gone untreated for days, according to police documents released Monday. His mother, Alicia Lawson, 25, and her wife, Shatika Lawson, 40, were arrested and charged with nearly a dozen crimes, including involuntary manslaughter, first-degree child abuse, reckless endangerment, tampering with evidence and giving false statements.
The child’s burns were so severe, police said, that his skin was floating in the water.
During a bail review Monday, Shatika Lawson’s attorney blamed her wife for the child’s death. Both women were ordered held without bail.
Shatika Lawson had been distracted on the phone talking with her mother while she placed the boy in the scalding bathtub of the couple’s home in the 1800 block of N. Spring St. in East Baltimore. She wanted to bring him to the emergency room to treat the serious burns from his waist to his feet, said Roya Hanna, Shatika Lawson’s attorney.
But, Hanna told the court, she couldn’t bring him for help because she was not the child’s biological mother. Instead, the two women — fearful Malachi might be taken from them or that they might face charges — tried to treat the burns themselves for more than a week, according to police charging documents.
The Baltimore Department of Social Services would not answer questions about whether the agency had a previous history with Malachi or his family. But it did issue a written statement.
“The death of every child is a tragedy, and Child Protective Services employees are working closely with our partners in local law enforcement to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Malachi Lawson,” the statement said. “The results of these investigations will be shared publicly by the appropriate agency when deemed permissible.”
According to police charging documents, nine days after deciding not to seek help for the young boy, Alicia Lawson awoke Aug. 1 to find him unresponsive. She wrapped the boy’s body in a blanket and took a Lyft across the city to the 5500 block of Haddon Ave. in Gwynn Oak. There she put him in a trash bag and placed him into a dumpster, police said in the documents.
FBI agents found searches for trash collection sites in Alicia Lawson’s internet browser history, according to police.
Hanna, the attorney, disputed charges that Shatika Lawson’s 911 call for an Amber Alert was a fabrication, saying she did not know that the boy had died or that the body had been removed from the home. Hanna said Alicia Lawson kept that information secret from her wife, and said her client only learned those details from homicide detectives.
"She didn’t want to do anything maliciously,” Hanna said.
A public defender representing Alicia Lawson said the mother graduated from Frederick Douglass High School and kept a steady McDonald’s job for four to five years. The lawyer did not address any allegations about the incident.
“She understands what is likely to happen," the public defender said.
A missing child flyer with Malachi’s picture on it remained in the window of the Lawsons’ home Monday. Neighbors said they were horrified to learn of his death.
Kenneth Holland, 63, who has lived in a home across across the street for more than 27 years, didn’t recognize the 4-year-old from the neighborhood. But he had put one of the flyers in his truck so he would recognize him if he saw him.
“It’s terrible what they did to that little boy,” Holland said. “No chance to go to school, grow up.”
His wife, Joyce Holland, 59, said the little boy’s death “hurt me to my heart.”
The news “makes your heart cry,” said Terri Griffin, whose mother lives in the same block as the Lawsons.
“People hurting kids is just wrong,” said Griffin, a 33-year-old mother of five. “How can you not form a bond where all you want to do is protect this child?”
Johnson, Malachi’s aunt and Shatika’s sister, sat with her husband on the Lawsons’ front steps Monday, sick with the knowledge of what had occurred inside, she said. Her sister had loved Malachi, she was sure of it, and the three had seemed a portrait of a model family, she said. She just couldn’t understand why her sister didn’t reach out to family members or take the child to the hospital.
“If it was an issue of needing help, they had people they could reach out to," Johnson said. “The simple action of taking him to the emergency room could’ve saved his life.”
She’s trying not to blame herself, but a pair of questions about her nephew have haunted her thoughts: “What did he last feel?" and "How could we have helped more?”
A party had been planned for Malachi’s fifth birthday next month. Instead, a candlelight vigil and balloon release for the child will take place 6 p.m. Tuesday at 4533 N. Rogers Ave.
His aunt begged anyone touched by her nephew’s story to pay close attention to the children in their lives for any signs of neglect or abuse.
“If people notice anything within their circle of family and friends,” she said, “in particular with children, if you see something, say something.”