`He was real bad news for her'

Couple: Sierra Swann, a young mother accused of killing her twin girls, never wavered, friends say, in her devotion to the infants' father, also charged in their deaths.

May 23, 2004|By Dan Fesperman and Laurie Willis | Dan Fesperman and Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Sierra Swann well knows of the various addictions that play out in the neighborhood near the corner of Boone Street and East 20th, a grim place where heroin and cocaine are available curbside beneath the blank stares of boarded-up windows.

She watched a drug habit torment her mother to the point that she and five siblings were placed in foster homes by the time she was 13. But the fixation that brought Swann back to these streets time and time again was of a different sort, according to friends and family.

From age 14 onward, they say, she was addicted to the companionship of Nathaniel Broadway - seven years her senior and also from a family torn apart by narcotics.

By age 15, she and Broadway had a child of their own. By 17, she was pregnant with their twins, although by the time she gave birth, their first child was living elsewhere, joining Swann on the rolls of the city's foster children.

Broadway, now 24, was often elsewhere, too, either in jail or with other women, sometimes driven away by Swann's foster mother and other surrogate parents. Yet, by all accounts, her dependency on him never wavered.

But, for all the scorn this bond elicited from those who cared for Swann, no one anticipated anything even close to the disastrous ending that came to pass 12 days ago, in the unlighted basement of an abandoned home about 30 blocks northeast of their usual haunts.

There, in a room with a crib and a bed but no electricity or running water, emergency medical workers found the month-old twin girls - Emonney and Emunnea - cold and lifeless. Each had a fractured skull and broken ribs. Police charged Swann and Broadway with murder.

It was the sort of shocking case that the city more commonly associates with the drug-ridden lifestyles of Swann's mother and Broadway's late father, and left friends wondering how things could have spiraled into something so terrible.

The only clue to emerge from the couple is a note from Broadway to Swann's mother Donna Brown, 41, who received it in the mail last week at her apartment in the 1800 block of Guilford Ave.

The handwritten note, a denial of guilt, said plenty even as it said little. Its rough grammar and misspellings seemed indicative of a young life spent more on the streets than in the classroom, with a blunt style cutting straight to the heart of the matter:

you no the Kids past away

they charge me in Sierra with

murder for what I don't no

she is over here to

we got no Bails

we go to the court June 8

for trial We Don't now How

in why they past.

Swann's friends and relatives are quick to blame Broadway in the deaths. They do so even though some of them say they vividly recall instances in which Swann struck or otherwise abused her first child, Nairra, who shortly before her second birthday was taken away by the Department of Social Services after exhibiting signs of malnourishment and physical harm.

"What turned [Swann] around was Nate," said Kathryn Lewis, a foster mother to Swann for several months after Nairra was born in early 2002, and also for a period last summer. "He influenced her to the point where she didn't think for herself. All she wanted was love."

"He was real bad news for her," said Vernedia "Shawn" Southers, 33, who acted sometimes as a surrogate mother to Swann. "He kept her away from everybody who tried to get her to do better."

Broadway is at a disadvantage in the eliciting of neighborhood opinions. Those inclined to back him are wary, even hostile, toward questioners.

But Damion Champ, 33, a friend, said of Broadway: "He was a nice guy. He was cool. He was well-mannered. He never tried to start nothing in the 'hood."

An only child

Broadway's parents are dead. So is the grandmother he lived with a few years ago on East 30th Street. He was raised as an only child, and the two stepbrothers and two stepsisters who grew up elsewhere apparently have little contact with him. His two uncles are deceased, and the aunt who recounted these family details, Anita O'Neal, said she has never met Broadway.

It is not clear how he was making a living. During his bail hearing, he mentioned a fast-food job, and Champ described him as a "petty hustler."

The 700 block of E. 20th St. is an apt point of departure for the story of Broadway and Swann. It is apparently where they met, just as she was turning 14 and he was 21.

Southers' daughter, 15-year-old Maranda Walker, said that Swann began dating various men from 20th Street when she was 13 but that before long Broadway was the only one willing to show her attention.

Southers, who lives on nearby Cokesbury Avenue, said she wasn't surprised to hear of Swann's fast-moving lifestyle at such an early age, especially down at Boone and 20th.

"It's only a few blocks away, but it's really a different world," she said.

That, too, is a tale heard all over the city; of streets where homes are well kept, yet everyone out on the steps knows of a rundown lane only a few blocks away, where houses are boarded, and crime and young people tend to gravitate.

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