Prince George's County prosecutors had planned to seek the death penalty after suspected drug couriers were charged in the vicious execution-style killings of two women and two toddlers inside a trash-filled Lanham apartment.
For nearly three years, the court case against a pair arrested in the August 2010 quadruple homicide plodded methodically along. But with capital punishment abolished this year by Maryland lawmakers, officials say the trial of the man accused of pulling the trigger in the fatal shootings, 46-year-old Darrell Bellard, could begin as early as this fall.
The bodies of Dawn Brooks, 38, and her two children, 4-year-old Shakur and 3-year-old Shayla Sikyala, were discovered on Aug. 6, 2010, along with the children's aunt, Mwasiti Sikyala, 41. One of the women and the children were found on a bed in a makeshift two-bedroom apartment above a detached garage. The other woman was found on the floor in a doorway.
Mr. Bellard, who was related to Brooks by marriage, traveled to Maryland from Texas with 21-year-old T'Keisha Gilmer to sell drugs and was keeping a stash of marijuana at the home, police said at the time of the killings. At some point, a disagreement over missing drugs erupted between the pair and one of the women.
So Gilmer blocked the family's escape while Mr. Bellard shot them one by one, police said. All the victims, including the children, were shot in the head.
Prince George's County State's Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks announced her intention to seek the death penalty against Mr. Bellard in 2011 — the first time a county prosecutor pursued a capital punishment case since 2005 — due to the vicious nature of the crime.
The star witness is expected to be Gilmer, who has already pleaded guilty to four counts of first-degree murder and is scheduled to be sentenced after she testifies.
A deal to avoid trial was not an option for Mr. Bellard.
"We never offered him the chance to plead to anything," said John Erzen, a spokesman for Ms. Alsobrooks. "She felt this was definitely a death-penalty case."
But legal preparations in the case were complicated — and ultimately stalled — while the prosecution and defense monitored political developments this year in Annapolis, where lawmakers considered, and then approved, a moratorium on the death penalty.
Mr. Bellard now faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. His trial is scheduled for January, but prosecutors said that with death penalty preparations moot they will try to move it forward to the beginning of December.
Members of the defense team either did not return calls or declined to comment on the case.
Scene of the crime
For months after the slayings, no one lived at either main home in the 6800 block of Third Street in Lanham or the apartment where the killings took place.
The brother-in-law of one of the victims recently said he moved back into the main house a year and a half ago in an effort to deter vandals.
The living conditions authorities described inside the Lanham apartment were deplorable. There was no running water, and debris and trash filled the apartment and the garage underneath it. Mounds of furniture, clothes and other items were cleared away. As much as 10 tons of trash, including containers of human feces, was reportedly removed.
The family has said that much of what was removed had been collected by Mwasiti Sikyala for sale at flea markets or to export overseas to Congo.
Today, the apartment remains in disrepair.
"She was killed in there," said Antoine Agobet, 42-year-old brother-in-law to Mwasiti Sikyala, as he pointed to a back bedroom in the apartment, now marred by broken windows and graffiti. "The girl, too."
Through Mr. Agobet, other family members declined to be interviewed, still stung by initial reports that suggested the adult victims were somehow involved in the drug business or that they lived in filthy conditions.
Gilmer and Mr. Bellard have been housed at the Prince George's County Department of Corrections since their arrests. Gilmer is in the female offenders' unit and has been under maximum security sometimes — meaning she is locked in her cell for 23 hours a day.
As recently as April, Mr. Bellard's defense team filed motions indicating they hope to bar evidence from trial, such as his own statements to law enforcement officials. Defense attorneys wrote in Prince George's Count Circuit Court filings that Mr. Bellard's statements to law enforcement were involuntary and made as the "result of unlawful police deception." Hearings on motions are set for his case in September.
But even as his defense team was preparing its strategy, Mr. Bellard had other ideas about his future. After more than two and a half years housed at the county jail awaiting trial, he attempted suicide.
On April 25, Mr. Bellard was found in the jail's recreation yard with a bedsheet fashioned around his neck like a noose. Medical staff at the jail attended to him and he was transported to Prince George's Hospital Center. Since his return to the jail after treatment, Mr. Bellard told staff there that "he will attempt to commit suicide again, as soon as he has a window of opportunity," court filings state.
He remains on permanent suicide watch in the jail's medical unit.
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