For Janet Woodson, 2019 was supposed to be a year of opportunity.
The 51-year-old West Philadelphia native had married the love of her life, Leslie Holmes, in April 2018. She had a job she loved at the Philadelphia Protestant Home, and had recently purchased a studio on Baltimore Avenue to open a hair salon.
“Everything was aligning, except that one thing,” Kia Morgan Smith, Woodson’s 46-year-old sister, said Thursday. “The difficulty with her son.”
Her first-born, Maurice Louis, moved back into Woodson’s home on Walton Avenue in the Cedar Park neighborhood two years ago, trailing a failed marriage and substance abuse, his aunt said. Louis acted erratically, and a stint at a nearby hospital confirmed what his mother had long suspected. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
But the 29-year-old refused to take his medicine, over the protests of his doctors and family. His condition continued to deteriorate, and his mother recently filed for power of attorney over him, according to her sister Valerie Pini, 55.
On Tuesday, Louis bought a shotgun. He carried it to his home and shot his mother, his stepfather, and two younger half-brothers in the head, according to police.
(In Pennsylvania, only people who have been ruled mentally incompetent or ordered committed to a mental institution by a judge are barred from purchasing a gun. There is no record of such a ruling for Louis.)
Hours later, when police and fire personnel forced their way inside the house through a second-floor window, they found Louis naked, holding a bottle of vodka. He told them, police sources said, that they would find “bodies” inside.
Louis, 29, was charged late Wednesday with four counts of criminal homicide in the deaths of Woodson, 51; Holmes, 56; Sy-eed Woodson, 18; and Leslie Woodson-Holmes, 7, according to police. Investigators say he confessed to the killings.
Through their grief, his aunts struggled to understand how the “regular kid” they had watched grow up could fall so far.
“He graduated high school and went to college,” said Smith, who lives in Atlanta. “But when he came back, he just wasn’t the same.”
Louis attended Towson University in Maryland, graduating in 2015 with a degree in Japanese studies, said Pini.
Shortly after graduating, he got married without telling his family, said Pini. He showed signs of drug abuse around the same time.
“His life started to spiral out of control, to the extent where things started happening,” said Pini. “He lost his job and got evicted from his apartment.”
He remained unstable even after returning to his childhood home, Pini said. In 2017, his family had him voluntarily committed to the mental health facility at Mercy Catholic Medical Center in West Philadelphia. He stayed for two weeks and left with his schizophrenia diagnosis.
He continued to do “out-of-the-ordinary things,” Pini said, but he did not appear dangerous or aggressive. Woodson never expressed fear of her son, and Pini and Smith attributed that to her loving nature, especially toward her family.
“Janet had one of those spirits where you just felt loved. If you were a stranger and came in contact with her, she became your sister. If you were in her chair getting your hair done, she became your therapist,” said Smith. “With a room full of black women, it was a sisterhood like no other in her hair salon.”
That feeling of inclusion extended to Holmes’ and Woodson’s coworkers at the Protestant Home, a seniors residence in Lawndale.
The staff there gathered Thursday morning before their shifts, according to Anthony Manzo, the senior living center’s chief executive. They held an impromptu vigil as they laughed and cried, sharing memories and stories of the couple they had known so well.
“We take these things so seriously because we truly are a family here,” Manzo said. “When we lose people, especially people like this and under these circumstances, it hits home.”
Holmes was the director of environmental services, overseeing the housekeeping and laundry, according to Manzo. He had been in that position for about two years, and Woodson joined the staff halfway through his tenure as a moving coordinator who worked with families.
“It’s a tremendous loss personally and professionally, because I don’t know how to replace people like them,” Manzo said. “This is not something we’ll be able to get past any time soon.”
The couple’s coworkers were the first to recognize that something was wrong Wednesday morning. Holmes, always attentive to his duties, was inexplicably late for appointments with vendors.
On a staff like theirs, personal bonds are frequent and strong. Many knew that Holmes and Woodson were struggling to deal with Louis’ issues. They shared their concerns with the Protestant Home’s security department, which contacted police, Manzo said.
“In the world we live in, my mind went to the worst possible scenario,” he said. “And unfortunately, that’s what happened.”
Grief counselors were made available at Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia High School, where Sy-eed Woodson was a senior, and Jacquelyn Y. Kelley Discovery Charter School, where Leslie was enrolled. Staff at both schools Thursday were planning vigils for the boys.
“We are heartbroken beyond what words can convey and deeply shaken by the news of this tragedy,” Tonia Elmore, CEO of Discovery Charter, said in a statement. Leslie "was cherished by classmates, teachers, and our staff, and will be profoundly missed.”
Noah Tennant, chief executive of Boys’ Latin, said the entire high school had been turned into a makeshift memorial to Sy-eed Woodson early Thursday. Notes, poems, and flowers decorated the hallways, with the teen’s locker serving as a focal point, coincidentally right outside Tennant’s office.