PRINCESS ANNE, Md. — A divorced kitchen worker and his 7 children were accidentally poisoned in their sleep by carbon monoxide from a gas-powered generator after the utility disconnected a stolen meter at their rental home, authorities said Tuesday.
Delmarva Power said it did not cut off the family's electricity because they were behind on their bills, but rather for their own good. After discovering the illegal connection on March 25, they disconnected it for safety reasons, the utility said.
Rodney Todd, 36, then bought a generator to keep his two sons and five daughters warm, relatives said. They were last seen alive on March 28.
Princess Anne Police Chief Scott Keller confirmed their cause of death Tuesday, and said the utility has been subpoenaed to document exactly what it did when.
"I'm just numb. Like it's a nightmare but it's not," the children's mother, Tyisha Luneice Chambers, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "If I had known he was without electricity, I would have helped."
Police found their bodies Monday inside the one-story wood-frame home on Maryland's Eastern Shore after school workers, friends and Todd's co-workers knocked on the door with no answer.
"The children were all in beds and it appears as though they were sleeping," Keller said. "Probably it was bedtime and they decided they needed some light and probably some heat, because toward the end of March even though it was spring we were having some pretty chilly nights."
Why Todd had a gas-powered generator running inside closed doors wasn't clear. The chief ruled out foul play, and speculated that had it been outside, the noise would have bothered neighbors.
Todd got some welfare money, but it wasn't enough, said Sarah Hardy, his close friend.
"How can a man survive off of basically minimum wage with seven kids, and you can't help him with a utility bill?" Hardy asked. "This man was working. And Delmarva Power cuts the lights off?"
Later Tuesday, the utility revealed that the rental home never had legal power while the Todds lived there. The utility said the electricity had been disconnected in October, and there was no request to reconnect it after the family moved there in November.
"Through the use of smart meter technology, Delmarva Power discovered a stolen electric meter was being used at the home on March 25, 2015. Delmarva Power disconnected the illegally connected meter for safety reasons and to comply with standard protocol. Delmarva Power did not disconnect electric service at this address for nonpayment," its statement said.
It wasn't immediately clear Tuesday whether Todd made any arrangements with the utility or any other authorities or advocates for the poor to restore power after the illegal meter was removed. What is known is that Todd bought a generator to keep the lights on.
Bonnie Edwards said her grandsons, Cameron and ZhiHeem, were 13 and 7, and her granddaughters, Tyjuziana, Tykeria, Tynijuzia, TyNiah and Tybreyia, were 15, 12, 10, 9 and 6, respectively. Todd did all he could to stretch his money for their care, she said.
"There was nothing he wouldn't do for them," Edwards said. "All he was trying to do was to keep his kids warm."
A co-worker at the nearby University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Brittney Hudson, said Todd "was always smiling and laughing."
"He's the man you need to know and the man you want to be," said Bilel Smith, who lives nearby. "They were their own football team, their own basketball team. This is breaking our hearts."
Todd retained full custody when their divorce was finalized last September, and his ex-wife said he never harmed the children. But Chambers said he was physically abusive to her, and stabbed her in the face before serving 16 months in prison for assaulting her.
Chambers also said she had been the primary breadwinner when they were together, and kept paying child support until losing track of them in Todd's last move.
"I was working 12-16 hours as a manager at McDonald's, the overnight shift. He was home cooking and cleaning and I was the working mom," she said.
But Hardy said there is more to that story.
"She abandoned him and the family," Hardy said. And when he was released, "he came home, caught her in bed with another man, and the man was abusing the kids. He took his seven kids and her son and raised them on his own," Hardy said.
Todd had received assistance with utility bills in the past, but did not apply for help this year, said Tom VanLandingham, who directs the Office of Home Energy Programs in Somerset County. Families can apply once a year, and assistance is based on household income and energy use, among other factors.
"We're all kind of baffled as to why he did not apply this year ... that's the million-dollar question," VanLandingham said before the utility's announcement.
Todd's children had big personalities. The youngest, Tybria, "was the bashful type," Hardy said, "but she was really loving." Cameron, who Hardy nicknamed Pun, was a "quiet and reserved, but he was a casanova."
"They knew how it was to be siblings. They took care of each other," Hardy said, and they often helped their dad around the house, too.
"Even the little one," Hardy said, referring to seven-year-old ZhiHeem, "I'd see him with a little broom and dustpan."
Associated Press Writers Amanda Myers and Sarah Brumfield in Washington, D.C., contributed.