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Mom decapitates son, then kills herself

6:24 AM, Aug 23, 2012   |    comments
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CAMDEN, N.J. -- The state's child welfare agency is reviewing its involvement with a Camden mother who beheaded her toddler son, stuck his head in a freezer and then killed herself early Wednesday.

Chevonne Thomas, 33, who had a history of drug use and mental illness, regained custody of her son Zahree through a court order just months before the horror scene played out in her Parkside home shortly after midnight on Wednesday, according to the state Department of Children and Families.

Authorities said it was inside the two-story row home on the 1400 block of Kaighn Avenue that Thomas used a knife to decapitate Zahree. She then stuck the boy's head in the freezer and called 911 and reported something had happened to her child.

Responding officers found the 2-year-old's torso on the bloody first floor of the home and then discovered his head in the freezer, according to Camden County Prosecutor's Office spokesman Jason Laughlin. A medical examiner later determined that the child had also been stabbed in the chest.

Thomas then slit her throat, minutes after ending a chilling six-minute phone call to police dispatchers in which she matter-of-factly admitted stabbing her son before breaking into a repetition of monosyllabic words and short phrases.

Laughlin said Thomas apparently killed the child shortly after a dispute at the house with her boyfriend. That man, who is not the boy's father and whose identity was not released, had left the home before the attack occurred.

During the 911 call Wednesday, Thomas first accused her boyfriend of stabbing her child, then admitted repeatedly "I did it."

Department of Children and Families spokeswoman Kristine Brown said Zahree was previously placed with relatives while Thomas sought "court-ordered treatment for substance abuse and mental health disorders."

Brown said the division had been working to assist the mother and her son since Thomas regained custody of the child through an April 3 court order.

"We are conducting an internal review of information pertaining to this case, including DCF's role with the family," Brown said in a prepared statement.

Thomas had lost custody of Zahree sometime after she was arrested in November 2010 for allegedly leaving the boy – who was 11 months old at the time – unattended in a car at 29th and Lincoln streets in the Cramer Hill section.

Thomas, who lived nearby at the time in the 1000 block of Lois Avenue, admitted she had blacked out in a nearby park after smoking marijuana laced with PCP, a sedative that can cause trance-like conditions, according to court records.

Thomas told investigators she could not remember where the child was.

But that charge was administratively dismissed in October 2011 when a female witness who had reported the incident to police recanted, claiming instead that Thomas had left the child in her care, Laughlin said.

While acknowledging investigators have received reports that Thomas was known to use wet – marijuana that has been laced with PCP – Laughlin said results of toxicology tests would be needed to determine if she was high when she killed Zahree.

Authorities said there is no record of any recent disturbances at the Kaighn Avenue home prior to Wednesday's violence.

Brown, the DCF spokeswoman, said in the news release Wednesday that the agency's services provided to Thomas "were extensive" and included, among others, counseling, medication monitoring, substance abuse testing and treatment and parental capacity evaluation.

"As with all child deaths due to suspected abuse or neglect, we will vigorously investigate the circumstances around the death of Zahree Thomas, as well as his mother," Brown stated in the release.

The state agency has been under the supervision of a federal judge and undergone a major overhaul since 2003 as a result of high-profile lapses in the oversight of children.

Accounts of Thomas from neighbors and friends differed on Wednesday as some who knew her described a mentally troubled woman who walked the sidewalks cursing while others described a gentle mother who kept an immaculate house.

All, however, were shocked by the gruesomeness of the crime.

"This is not heard of," said Kevin Holmes. "You only see that on horror movies. It still has my mind boggled."

One neighbor said Thomas was upset while sitting topless on her front steps in the hours before police were called to the home.

Neighbor Melanie Troutman said she saw Thomas, who she described as being "clearly upset," sitting with her boyfriend in front of the home about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Troutman said the boyfriend led Thomas back into the home a short time later.

Neighbor Tayari Horcey said she saw Thomas around 4 p.m. Tuesday and again at 10:30.

Horcey said Thomas was sitting outside talking with a man the latter time. However, she disputed the neighbor's claim that Thomas was topless and visibly upset. Rather, Horcey said Thomas appeared calm, as she typically did.

Horcey said she never noticed any sign of instability from Thomas in the months she and the boy had lived at the house.

If she or other neighbors had been aware of any trouble, Horcey said they would have sought out help.

"People hold that stuff in," she said. "You don't know what's going on."

However, one woman who said she knew Thomas from previous years described the mother as being "in a world all to herself."

Thelma Moore said Thomas has dealt with mental health issues for years and had been seeking help from a behavioral health therapist.

"She just walked around and cursed to herself," Moore said of Thomas.

The landlord of Thomas' brick and white-paneled home described her as a model tenant who always paid her rent on time and kept the two-story row home well cleaned. The man, who asked not to be named, said Thomas and her son moved in several months ago.

The man said just last week his wife went to the home to collect rent. During the visit the couple's son and Zahree played together. From all accounts, Thomas appeared to be a normal mom, he said.

"That's why it was a shock," the man said. "She was just a regular person."

But everything was far from normal throughout the day on Wednesday as a police squad car remained posted in front of the home and friends and neighbors gathered on the sidewalk and area stoops to discuss the unthinkable crime.

At the home, three upstairs windows remained open and their screens discarded on the roof from where officers made entry in attempts to reach Thomas, who had barricaded herself upstairs.

Authorities said Thomas was upstairs still talking to the 911 operator when officers arrived. Officers held a position on the first floor of the home while attempts were made to contact her.

Thomas, however, stabbed herself in the neck with a kitchen knife, apparently within five minutes of hanging up from her call to dispatchers, Laughlin said. Police tried to get her to open a door but soon climbed a ladder and broke through the second-story bedroom windows. Thomas was found dead in the room.

Public records show that Thomas claimed residency in several locations. Prior to moving to Kaighn Avenue, she lived at the Lois Avenue address from May 2004 to July 2012.

From November 1997 to September 2006, Thomas resided in an apartment on Merchantville Avenue in Pennsauken. A person reached at the home on Wednesday declined to comment.

Court filings also indicate that Thomas had legal proceedings taken out against her previously by landlords searching for back rent.

Meanwhile, the city announced that residents of the Parkside community will have an opportunity to receive counseling this week in collaboration with Camden Police and resident and community-based organizations.

Community support counseling will be offered through the rest of the week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Bethel Deliverance Church on Kaighn Avenue. The church is less than half a mile from the crime scene.


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