ROCKVILLE, Md. (AP) — Two women who police say killed two young children while performing what they thought was an exorcism will continue to be held without bond as prosecutors seek a psychiatric evaluation to determine if they are mentally competent to stand trial.

The women, 28-year-old Zakieya Latrice Avery and Monifa Denise Sanford, 21, have told investigators that they believed evil spirits jumped successively between the bodies of the children, ages 1 and 2, and that an exorcism was needed to drive the demons out, said Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy.

The women also reported to investigators that they saw the eyes of each of the children blackening and, after the intended exorcism, took a shower, cleaned up the bloody scene and “prepared the children to see God,” McCarthy said. The children’s two older siblings, a 5-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy, were also found injured with stab wounds. Avery is the mother of all four children.

Avery and Sanford appeared for a court hearing via videoconference Tuesday on charges of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder. They face a sentence of life in prison if convicted.

The women identified themselves to investigators as members of a group known as the “demon assassins,” and police are looking to interview other people who might be part of the same organization but say there are no other suspects.

When being questioned by police, McCarthy said, the women told investigators that they tried multiple methods to remove the presence of demons from the children, progressing from an attempt to break the neck of the youngest child to strangulation to stabbing.

Edward Leyden, a lawyer for Sanford, told reporters after the brief hearing that “everyone who is involved in this case is in deep pain.”

“It obviously has details that are salacious and we just ask folks to give an opportunity for all of us to get a handle on just what happened here,” Leyden said of the case, “so that when the time comes to present this to a judge and a jury, all of the facts are here.”

A lawyer for Avery did not return a call seeking comment.

Avery had been living for months in a townhome community in Germantown – about 30 miles northwest of Washington – with her four children, and recently, with Sanford. The father of the children does not live in the area, police have said.

Police initially responded to the home Thursday evening after a 911 caller reported that a child was unattended in a car, but the child was no longer in the vehicle when officers got there. The police returned Friday morning after a neighbor called 911 to report seeing a car with an open door and a knife that appeared to have blood on it.

Once inside the home, officers found the bodies of the two children on the bed of the master bedroom. Their two siblings were found with serious injuries. The girl remains in critical condition but the boy was close to being released from the hospital as of Tuesday afternoon, and the timing of the 911 call is believed to have helped save their lives, police said.

“If that call doesn’t come in, we don’t think that those two children get medical help in time to possibly save their lives,” said Capt. Marcus Jones, director of the county police department’s major crimes division.

Jones has said the two women are believed to have met at a church where Avery was part of a dance troupe and where “her job was, as a lover of Christ, was that she was going to keep demons away.”

“That was their goal,” he said.

A District Court judge directed Avery to undergo a psychiatric evaluation to determine whether she is ready for trial and prosecutors plan to make a similar request of Sanford when she has a bond review hearing Friday. The question of whether either woman intends to submit an insanity defense has not yet been raised as the two will first need to be evaluated and then deemed competent for a murder trial.

McCarthy said Avery had previously been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment and that Sanford told investigators that she had previously tried to commit suicide.

“It’s based on those stories, that information, that presentation and the psychiatric history … that we made the recommendations that these two defendants immediately be seen by doctors to tell us where we stand in terms of competency as to both,” McCarthy said.


Eric Tucker

Associated Press