NEW YORK/HARRISBURG, Pa. (Reuters) – Relatives of a Pennsylvania woman, accused on Tuesday of killing five relatives including two 9-year-old girls, said they had begged authorities for weeks to check on her due to concerns she might have fallen under the influence of a fringe religious group.
On Monday, police found five bodies in the family’s home in Morrisville, about 30 miles (50 km) northeast of Philadelphia, local prosecutors said.
Authorities charged Shana Decree, 45, and her 19-year-old daughter, Dominique, early on Tuesday with five counts of homicide and one count of criminal conspiracy in the deaths of Shana Decree’s daughter, Naa’Irah Smith, 25; her son, Damon Decree, 13; her sister, Jamilla Campbell, 42; and Campbell’s twin daughters, Imani and Erika Allen, each 9 years old, Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub said.
“This is a terrible tragedy,” Weintraub said at a news conference early on Tuesday outside the apartment building where the five were found slain. “We just spoke to the family of all five of the deceased and they’re all heartbroken.”
Police were investigating the cause of the deaths and possible motives.
Both Shana and Dominique, who had visible injuries to her neck, gave police an account of how they killed each person, prosecutors said in court papers. The women also alleged that Decree’s sister, Jamilla, had choked one victim to death before being choked to death by Dominique.
“Shana later told police that everyone at the apartment, including the 9-year-olds and the 13-year-old, wanted to die,” prosecutors said in an arrest affidavit. “Shana advised that all, including the children, were talking about suicide.”
Shana Decree’s niece, Toya Nelson, told Reuters she was beyond heartbroken.
“We’ve been trying to call for three weeks and I’m so angry at city officials because we’ve been calling them,” Nelson said in a phone interview. “It just makes me angry because now they want to be sorry but you had the opportunity to save them.”
Nelson, 29, said she began to worry about the family after learning from relatives that the children were no longer attending school and the family was getting wrapped up in a fringe religious group.
She said authorities had visited the home at least two weeks ago but found no cause for concern.
A representative for the Bucks County Children and Youth Social Services Agency did not respond to a request for comment.
Child services officials arrived at the apartment on Monday to perform a wellness check and found the home in disarray, with broken glass and furniture turned over, according to an arrest affidavit. They called the police, who found the five bodies in one bedroom.
Nelson said she suspected that Shana Decree may have planned a family murder-suicide and believed that her cousin, Dominique did not intentionally participate in the crime.
A spokesman for Weintraub, James O’Malley, declined to comment on Nelson’s remarks.
Shana Decree was ordered held without bail and did not enter a plea during a brief Tuesday arraignment, according to court records. Her daughter, Dominique, was expected to be arraigned later on Tuesday.
Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum