WALDORF, Md. — Wrapped in a black coat, Romechia Simms walks through a cemetery in Southern Maryland on a cold March day, tiptoeing around headstones, making her way to the grave of her 3-year-old son.
She’s still grieving for him, still trying to forgive herself for how Ji’Aire Donnell Lee died — on a swing in a park where she’d been pushing him for nearly two days. Although a judge in February found Simms not criminally responsible for her actions because she suffers from schizophrenia, she has to find a way to live with what happened. And what she’s lost.
At Resurrection Cemetery, Simms snaps a photo of the grave marker, which shows engraved images of Ji’Aire as a baby.
“Hi, Babee,” says Simms, calling him by a nickname.
“Hi, Babee,” says her mother, Vontasha Simms.
Romechia, 25, reaches down and cleans the grave marker with a napkin, wiping off dirt, polishing it until it shines in the setting sun.
Then she notices something missing from her last visit.
“What happened to his little car?” she asks. “There was a red toy car right there.”
She picks up the tomb canister inserted in the grave marker. But nothing is inside.
“Where’s the car? Where’s his car?” she says, walking up and down the rows of graves. “Mom, look around — see if you can see the car.”
Her mother tries to help. “Mechia, it’s gone. It’s gone. You see the spot it was at.”
Vontasha lifts the canister. “Next time,” Vontasha says, “put it down in here.”
They decorate the grave with silk purple and white flowers they bought at the Walmart down the road.
“That’s nice,” Vontasha says.
Then the mother and grandmother hold hands to pray.
“Dear Lord, we want to thank you for your mercy and glory and all the favor you show us daily,” Romechia prays. “We want to thank you for keeping Ji’Aire in your care, dear Lord, where you can comfort him and love him and guide him.”
She wipes away tears as a cold wind whips. “Even though times have been hard, I still try to keep the faith, and I just pray that you stay with him and bless him and look over my family and help us to move on after something so tragic,” Romechia pleads. “We never know why, dear Lord, but we know there will come a time for us all. And we plan on meeting Ji’Aire one day again in heaven.”
Then she kisses her fingers and touches the gravestone six times. “We love you, Babee,” she says. “We will be back.”
‘People will judge me’
Memories of Ji’Aire are everywhere inside the rented blond brick rancher in Waldorf where Romechia lives with her mother. Romechia retreated here after she was released on bail from the Charles County Detention Center in December. She spends most of her time in her room, except for twice-weekly appointments with her therapist and support group meetings.
On a recent afternoon, Romechia, barefoot, opens the door of her bedroom and walks down the carpeted hallway and through the living room, passing a poster board photo collage devoted to Ji’Aire: Romechia holding him as newborn; Vontasha kissing him on the cheek; Ji’Aire sitting in a baby car seat, dressed in a blue winter cap and his first baby shoes; Ji’Aire in a black jacket waving to the camera, his front tooth missing. In the final row of images, the boy’s funeral program is taped to the poster board: “Ji’Aire Donnell Lee, Sunrise 8/22/11; Sunset 5/22/15.”
Romechia heads into the kitchen to make a tuna sandwich. She is wearing a sweater and blue jeans. She has gained 70 pounds from her antidepressant and antipsychotic medication, and it’s made her self-conscious. She opens a jar of mayonnaise, spreads it on a slice of bread and spoons the tuna on the other slice. She grabs a cup of juice, cleans the counter, takes the plate with the sandwich and returns to her bedroom.
Inside, she sits on the bed – two mattresses on the floor — in the corner of the room. She has her son’s toys in boxes – balls, books, stuffed animals. “He loved this one animal,” a tan monkey, she remembers. “He called it his little baby. He would pat his little monkey and say, ‘Go to sleep baby,’ the way that I did him.”
She still has his clothes packed away. She has not been able to bring herself to give anything away.
“Sometimes I find myself doing weird things, like I will grab his socks and just hold onto his socks,” she says. “Or I will grab one of his toy balls and hold onto his ball — anything that helps me to feel close — that I know was his.”
In the corner sits a blown-up photo that has run in newspapers all over the world. It was taken just two months before he died, right after his first haircut at the St. Charles mall. She’s bending down and brushing her cheek against her son’s head. They are both smiling.
“It’s one of the last pictures me and my son took,” she said. “I want that somewhere on the wall. When I get a frame, I will hang it here.”
Her bedroom window looks into a grassy fenced back yard. Ji’Aire would have loved to play out there.
In her room, she often listens to music. She’s especially fond of Aaliyah and Tupac Shakur. “My favorite singers are both dead,” she says without emphasis.
She’s a singer, too. In high school, her choir director made her a soloist. Her voice is clear, able to hit every note in Adele’s “Hello.” Romechia would love to sing on stage, perhaps make a career out of it. But then she stops herself.
“People will judge me,” she says. “For what happened. Someone will point a finger and say, ‘There is that mother who .?.?. ‘?” She stops. “Nothing like that has ever happened before,” she says. Her eyes are blank. The details of that night are blank.
A child’s death at the hands of a mother is extremely rare in the United States, according to a USA Today analysis of FBI homicide data collected from 1976 to 2012. It showed that an average of 450 children a year are killed by a parent and that 6 in 10 were killed by their fathers.
Romechia has joined the ranks of mothers such as Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children–ages 7, 5, 3, 2 and 6 months — in a bathtub in suburban Houston in 2001, and Susan Smith who strapped her two sons, 3 and 14 months, into their car seats and let her Mazda roll into a South Carolina lake in 1994. Yates, who suffered from depression and psychosis, was found not guilty by reason of insanity and remains in a mental hospital. Smith, who initially told police that a black carjacker had kidnapped her children, is serving a life sentence in prison.
In Romechia’s case, the Charles County judge ruled she can remain free as long as she meets certain conditions, including being monitored by state psychologists, avoiding unsupervised contact with children and having her blood tested to verify that she is taking her medication.
Therapy is helping her cope, she says, but she adds, “I will never get over losing my son.”
At night, when she can’t sleep, she writes her goals of how to go on in her journal. Before she was pregnant with Ji’Aire, she was attending Bowie State University to become a high school English teacher. Now, she says, she wants to become a nurse.
When she does manage to sleep, beneath her purple bedspread, she dreams of Ji’Aire. “And then I wake up, and he’s not here,” she says.
Each morning, she rolls over, pulls the covers down and climbs out of bed. This is the hardest part: getting up to face another day. She prays, then goes into the bathroom to brush her teeth and take a shower.
She doesn’t forget to take her medication.
‘She was just trapped’
She and Ji’Aire were holding hands as they walked to the park last year on a chilly day in May.
He was a chubby-cheeked preschooler who loved to dance, sing his ABCs and watch “Austin Powers” movies. “Oh, behave,” he’d declare in a perfect imitation of the Mike Myers character. Or, “Groovy, baby!”
But Romechia had been struggling with her mental health for months, hearing voices and behaving so erratically that Ji’Aire’s father, James “Donnell” Lee, filed a petition in D.C. Superior Court seeking custody. “I do not believe she can safely care for our son,” he wrote.
Nevertheless, at a brief court hearing 11 days before Ji’Aire’s death, Lee agreed to continue sharing custody with Romechia. By then, she’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia and prescribed medication for her illness.
She later told police that she’d stopped taking her pills for “a couple” of days before she and Ji’Aire headed to Wills Memorial Park in La Plata, Md., less than a mile from the motel room where they were living with her mother.
Simms had stopped taking medication because she believed it wasn’t working and didn’t understand the gravity of her illness, her public defender, Elizabeth Connell, said at a Feb. 22 hearing in Charles County Circuit Court.
She put Ji’Aire in the swing but found herself unable to lift him out, Connell said.
“And then the voices started telling her, ‘Don’t worry. Someone is coming. Someone is going to come,’ “ her attorney said.
So Romechia waited. She waited as night fell. She waited as it began to rain. She waited as the temperature fell to 51 degrees.
“She was just trapped,” Connell said. “What was happening was a mental breakdown, mental illness taking over her.” And she kept pushing the swing, even as her son lost consciousness.
Forty hours passed before a neighbor noticed that something was wrong and called police. When sheriff’s deputies arrived at the park on May 22, Ji’Aire’s body was so stiff that they had to cut him out of the swing.
A medical examiner concluded that the boy died of hypothermia and dehydration and ruled his death a homicide. Romechia was charged with manslaughter and first-degree child abuse.
Earlier this year, a court-appointed forensic psychologist concluded that Romechia’s mental illness was to blame for her actions. But Charles County State’s Attorney Tony Covington told Judge Hayward West that Ji’Aire was “essentially — and I can’t think of any other word to use for it, your honor – tortured to death.”
Romechia remembers little about those hours in the park.
“Did I mean for any of this to happen?” Romechia said to the judge before being found not criminally responsible. “No. It’s just an unfortunate situation.”
Her punishment, her mother says, is living without Ji’Aire and with the knowledge that others blame her for his death. Vontasha doesn’t.
She has pushed for legislation that would make it easier for relatives of adults with mental illness to get them help. She wanted to call it Ji’Aire’s law, but it didn’t advance in the Maryland legislature.
One day, she returns to the park where her grandson died. She’s planning a memorial walk in August to mark what would have been Ji’Aire’s fifth birthday, and she has to map the route before she submits the proposal to the county.
“I don’t want him to be forgotten,” she says. “I’m not going to let him be forgotten.”
Vontasha also wants people to understand her daughter’s mental illness. Romechia, she says, loved Ji’Aire.
“Even during that terrible time, in the darkest moment of her life, she never left him there alone,” Vontasha says. “She stayed out there in the cold and the rain. She nearly had pneumonia herself. She took off her coat to cover his body. She never lost that motherly instinct.”
‘I still feel him’
One evening, Romechia slips into a booth at a TGI Friday’s. At one table, there is a boy having dinner with his family. At another, there is a girl in pink falling asleep in her father’s arms.
She immediately thinks about Ji’Aire.
“Some days are worse than others,” she says. “I just try to keep family and friends around me that love me and support me. But there are times I feel really down and depressed. I think it’s going to be that way for a while. “
It’s hard for her to move forward, but she has to find way.
“I hate the way things happened,” she says. “But there is nothing I can do to change that. I will always keep (Ji’Aire) close to my heart. Even though he is not here physically, I still feel him spiritually. I just know I will see him again one day.”
Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.