From the moment they entered Erika Peters’ apartment on the afternoon of March 21, police and fire officials realized this was no routine call.
“We have a male child on the floor by the door bleeding!” a firefighter screamed, according to a police account of the incident. The firefighter had just forced his way through the apartment door. The victim would later be identified as 10-year-old Dakota Peters.
Medical personnel were called to the scene, located at 2000 Maryland Ave. NE, Apt. 104, in the Carver Terrace complex.
Two officers proceeded to “clear” the apartment. They walked to the rear and found Erika Peters, 37, lying unresponsive in the hallway, with stab wounds to her chest and head. A small piece of metal, possibly the tip of a knife blade, was embedded in the back of her skull.
Farther back, an officer encountered a locked door and kicked it open. Inside, he found Peters’ live-in boyfriend, Joseph Randolph Mays, lying facedown on the floor “attempting to appear unconscious,” the document states. There were superficial—allegedly self-inflicted—knife wounds on his chest. The officer seized on a large hunting knife atop a small dresser nearby. Also in the room was Ashleigh—Mays’ and Peters’ 2-year-old daughter—crying. There wasn’t a scratch on her.
Then the officer went to the next room, the bathroom. Erik Harper, 11, was found dead against the back wall, next to the toilet. He had multiple stab wounds to the chest and “one large laceration to the right side” of his head, the police document states.
Both Erika and Erik, her son, were pronounced dead at the scene. Peters’ other son, Dakota, would be rushed to Children’s Hospital; official time of death: 2:40 p.m.
Detectives followed Mays to the hospital, where they interrogated him. When they asked him what happened, he replied: “My girlfriend and her son [Erik] has been fucking with me for the past three days. I was fixing my little girl’s hair.…I told them to stop fucking with me, they would not leave me.”
Mays, 44, would go on to claim that he had “blacked out.” But detectives had recovered the hunting knife. There was blood on the knife. The tip was broken. And the knife rested on top of a handwritten note. “Only parts of the note were legible, including the phrases, ‘I’m sorry…I tried to make it work,’” according to the police account.
Within hours, police detectives had arrested Mays for the murders. “I think in this case, you know everybody did everything they could do,” D.C. Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier told News Channel 8. “By the time we got the call, it was late.”
Lanier may be right. After all, this killing frenzy was nothing if not private—committed behind closed doors, without a gun, in a family setting. According to reports, too, the 911 call was vague.
Yet if “everybody did everything they could do,” the city isn’t too eager to talk about all the good work. A wide swath of the D.C. government is refusing to comment on any aspect of the case. The police won’t release records showing whether officers had made previous visits to Apt. 104. The mayor’s office is also in information-shutdown mode.
Meanwhile, three pressing questions about the case remain unanswered.
No. 1: How long did it take police to get inside the apartment?
Among the few documents released by the city on the murders is a press release from the Police Department. It states that officers responded to the call for Apt. 104 shortly after 1 p.m. The upstairs neighbor tells a different version of events.
The night before the murders, the neighbor heard a series of loud bangs. She could hear the ruckus through her bedroom floor. The thumps were coming from Peters’ home. The walls are thin enough that you can hear the neighbor’s television set or a baby’s shriek.
Eventually, the neighbor stomped on the floor to express her frustration. When the message wasn’t returned with peace and quiet, she decided to go down and knock on the door, she says.
Mays answered the door and listened to the neighbor’s complaints. Then Erika Peters appeared in the doorway and offered an explanation for the racket. In a low rasp, Peters said that she was sick and had been trying to get Mays’ attention.
“Why the fuck you didn’t see what was wrong with her?” the neighbor remembers asking Mays.
Mays, she says, replied that he hadn’t noticed his girlfriend’s banging.
Randy Kittrell, a neighbor who resides across from Peters’ residence, says he happened by the scene that night. He says he was walking out of his apartment to pick up a pizza and caught part of the conversation between Peters and the neighbor. He says he heard Peters say she was sorry.
“The neighbor asked her if everything was OK. [Erika’s] eyes were wide open,” says Kittrell, 27, noting that she looked as if she’d “seen a ghost or something like that. She said, ‘I’m OK.’”
The neighbor says she went back upstairs and left a complaint about the incident with the rental office.
The next morning, the banging from Apt. 104 resumed. The neighbor called 911. She said the time was “like 12.”
The dispatcher told her that police were already on the scene. She said it was 12:10 when she opened her door to check out the situation. She remembered the time because it’s the time her daughter goes to see her mentor.
As she looked down through her stairwell, she could see an officer, Sgt. Tyshena Wallace, knocking on Peters’ door. Wallace then stopped her knocking and went upstairs to the neighbor. The neighbor explained what had happened the night before and how she heard the same banging that morning.
“I gave her the rental office number,” the neighbor says.
Wallace asked her where the banging was coming from. The neighbor took her to her bedroom. This time Wallace joined her and pounded on the floor.
Wallace screamed into the floor: “Police! Police!”
It was 12:30. Wallace left.
Kittrell, who had gotten up early and was watching TV in his apartment’s front room—the room closest to the front door and hallway—insists Wallace had arrived on the scene even before noon. “I opened the door,” Kittrell says. “The officer…asked me, ‘You seen the people next door?’”
The accounts of the neighbor and Kittrell raise questions about the police department’s own timeline. Instead of taking roughly an hour to open the door to Apt. 104, the police may have taken at least two hours.
What isn’t in dispute is that Wallace was the first to arrive. According to the police record, she walked up the stairs and knocked on Peters’ door.: “Sgt. Wallace heard a voice from within the apartment saying, ‘no, stop,’”
The record does not say whether the scream came from one of the boys. Dakota would be found later by the front door, suffering from stab wounds to the neck, head, and right ear.
According to the initial incident report, “Officers heard noises but no one answered.”
Wallace called the dispatcher. The dispatcher, the record states, tried calling the apartment but could not get through. Wallace asked what the call was for. The dispatcher gave an off-the-cuff assessment: “A child screaming on the phone, possibly playing.”
Officer Atubakr Karim eventually arrived and tried knocking on the door while Wallace called the apartment’s phone number on her cell phone.
Wallace could hear the phone ringing and ringing inside Apt. 104. At some point, the officers retreated down the stairs. Even though he was not the first officer on the scene, Karim would later write up the initial report. He listed the time of the incident as 1:11 p.m.
Jean Mason, 50, a resident in the building, remembers seeing the two officers. She says she saw them standing at the entrance to the building. Mason, who was leaving the building to visit a friend across town, says it was 1:10 p.m.
The two officers were waiting for Capt. Lamar West. The timing was anything but perfect. West was just coming on his shift and when he arrived, he approved calling the Fire Department to have its personnel force their way inside the Peters apartment, the police document states.
In the months leading up to the murders, Joseph Randolph Mays struggled with mounting debt. He turned to the Internet for support, business opportunities, and as a way to remake himself. It became an apparent obsession.