- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 10, 2008

The decomposed bodies of four girls ranging in age from 5 to 18 were found yesterday in a house in Southeast, Metropolitan Police said.

The bodies were discovered shortly before 10 a.m. when two federal marshals went to the house in the 4600 block of Sixth Street to serve an eviction notice.

Marshals found the bodies on the second floor of the small, two-story brick apartment building after noticing a smell, said Cole Barnhart, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service.

He said a woman who answered the door appeared calm when the marshals arrived.

Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said at an afternoon press conference that police took the woman for questioning and that she was “working with” investigators. Chief Lanier said the deaths will be investigated as homicides until the chief medical examiner determines the cause and manner of death. Officials said the process could take up to two weeks.

The bodies were found upstairs in the apartment, part of a block of virtually identical apartment houses near Bolling Air Force Base.

Larry Jones, who lives next door, said that in recent months he had noticed a “strange odor” coming through his vent.

“We thought it was probably dead mice in the vent or something,” he said, adding that he had talked to the landlord about it.

Mr. Jones said a woman and two or three children lived at the home, but he had not seen them since the summer. The children appeared healthy at the time, he said.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said a preliminary examination by the medical examiner’s office indicated that the children had been dead for at least two weeks and that the bodies were too decayed to identify immediately. Neither he nor Chief Lanier would discuss the children’s relationship to one another or to the woman questioned by police.

“This is obviously one of the biggest and most tragic scenes that the people of the District of Columbia have ever been familiar with,” Mr. Fenty said.

Mr. Fenty said police were conducting an investigation to determine whether any D.C. social service agencies made any recent visits to the house.

Chief Lanier said a preliminary check of police records did not reveal any recent calls for service to the home.

Mindy Good, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), which examines claims of child abuse and neglect in the District, said officials received one report about the family in April but were not able to make contact.

“We made several attempts to make contact with these people. We were unable to have any face-to-face contact with them,” Ms. Good said. “On the last attempt [in early May], it appeared they were no longer living at the address.”

Ms. Good said she could not specify the complaint that prompted the agency to attempt to reach the family, but that it was in “no way of the magnitude of this tragedy that’s happened.”

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, said city officials tried to locate the children when they failed to attend school, and that the truancy division of their school contacted CFSA when those efforts failed. Mr. Wells scheduled a public hearing for 3 p.m. tomorrow on the District’s attempts to locate and protect the children.

“We need to know if the District did all it could to exercise its responsibility to protect these children after they knew they were at risk,” Mr. Wells said.

Ms. Good said investigators eventually found a new address for the family in Maryland and alerted authorities there of the report. She would not say where the family was thought to be living.

Mr. Fenty declined to disclose whether police had identified the victims, but said they had names of children who lived in the house.

D.C. schools spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said none of the children thought to be living in the house was enrolled in the school system. One child at that address attended Stuart-Hobson Elementary School but withdrew in 2006 as a fifth-grader, she said.

The discovery rattled members of the community. Some questioned Mr. Fenty about the city’s role in verifying the welfare of children.

“It’s a real shock to me to see something like this going on,” said Harold Jackson, 27, a father of seven who lives nearby. “When my family doesn’t see me for a few days, they call to check up on me. How can something like this happen?”

Residents asked Mr. Fenty whether the school system was aware how long the youths were absent and about procedures to check on children who are absent for extended periods.

“When my child is not in school for five days, come to my house and ask me where my child is,” said a woman who lives in the neighborhood and identified herself only as Maryann. “Don’t charge me with truancy.”

Mr. Fenty said he is considering ways the school system can better document and investigate absences. He said he will offer details this morning.

Gary Emerling contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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