A puzzling portrait: Mother as homicide suspect Six of her children perished in July fire

August 30, 1992|By Melody Simmons and Michael James | Melody Simmons and Michael James,Staff Writers

Tonya Lucas sobbed as she walked past the closed caskets of her six children July 13 at Zion Baptist Church in East Baltimore. In a small room near the pulpit, she gave her soul to Christ.

The next day, police charged Ms. Lucas with killing all six children.

In a statement to homicide detectives, a witness -- whom police will not name -- reported that Ms. Lucas set the blaze that swept through the two-story rowhouse at 2424 E. Eager St., according to court records. The fire erupted at about 8 a.m. July 7 -- an hour before Ms. Lucas and her family were to be evicted from the house. The witness said Ms. Lucas, a welfare recipient and the mother of seven, set the blaze so the Red Cross would provide her family with clothing, furniture and new housing.

The witness also told police that he saw smoke coming from the house a short time later.

Michelle Lucas, the suspect's sister, dismisses the allegation that her sister set the fire.

"She loved her children. Why would anybody do anything like that? She didn't work," Ms. Lucas said. "Her kids were her means of support."

On Thursday, a city grand jury indicted Tonya Lucas, 29, for arson, child abuse and six counts of first-degree murder. She is set for arraignment in city Circuit Court on Oct. 2, and her trial date will be scheduled at that time.

Since her arrest, Ms. Lucas has been held without bail at the Baltimore City Detention Center. Her lawyer, Mark A. Van Bavel, would not allow her to be interviewed. Interviews with Ms. Lucas' sister, neighbors and criminal justice officials reveal a puzzling portrait of the woman charged with killing her children and the events leading to the fire. There is also evidence that Ms. Lucas and one of her children were victims of physical abuse.

Ms. Lucas was charged with child abuse because her 2-year-old son, Gregory Rodney Cooke, weighed only 10 pounds at the time of his death and showed signs of broken bones.

His gaunt appearance shocked an emergency room doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital, who told State Medical Examiner John Smialek that the boy looked so emaciated he could have been dead before the fire.

"Gregory was really striking -- he looked abnormal, very wasted," Mr. Smialek recalled.

The autopsy showed that Gregory suffered burns over 60 percent of his body, dehydration and smoke inhalation. The report also noted that his brain was "small for his age" and that he suffered from "emaciation and malnourishment."

The child also had old, healed fractures on his 10th and 11th ribs and in the middle of his left leg, the autopsy revealed.

Ms. Lucas' sister Michelle said that Gregory was "a small child" and that many members of her family were "small people."

"People always teased us about looking like we were malnourished," Michelle Lucas said. "He always was a small child. He didn't like to eat. He would spit his food out."

Gregory was among five children ranging in age from 2 months to 12 years who died the day of the fire. Another child, 3-year-old Deon Dwayne Cooke, lapsed into a coma and died three days later. The only child to survive was 8-year-old Billy Lucas.

The protective services division of the state Department of Social Services performed nine investigations on Tonya Lucas and her family between July 6, 1981 and March 4, 1991, said Sue Fitzsimmons, a department spokeswoman.

Privacy laws prohibit Ms. Fitzsimmons from giving details of the examinations or each report.

Four days before the fire, Ms. Lucas called police and reported that she had been beaten up. A police report states that Ms. Lucas had a "busted lip and busted nose" and that the assailant was Tony Lucas.

"Victim reports that her husband got angry because she wouldn't give him her rent money so he could buy drugs," the report said.

But Michelle Lucas says her sister was not married. Tony Lucas is their brother, she said.

The blaze, believed by firefighters to have been started in the living room, spread quickly through the house. Ms. Lucas jumped out of a second-story window just after the fire started. Afterward, she lay crying on the floor of a rowhouse across the street.

"She was so emotional, she wanted to know what happened to her children," said Marsha Hopkins, the neighbor who comforted Ms. Lucas minutes after the fire.

On July 29, aided by city eviction-prevention officials, Ms. Lucas submitted a handwritten motion to District Court Judge Martin A. Kircher claiming that she had paid landlord George Dangerfield back rent for part of May and June with a money order dated June 17.

Mr. Dangerfield said he never received the $432 money order, and Ms. Lucas asked the judge for a stay of eviction until July 2 to obtain a refund and "pay the landlord again."

Judge Kircher granted the motion. He asked Ms. Lucas to find the money order receipt and bring it back to rent court, which she never did, said Bernadine Simmons, of eviction prevention. Ms. Simmons said she also advised Ms. Lucas that if she were evicted, she could seek emergency shelter.

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