Walidah Campbell knew something was wrong when her niece didn’t return her “Happy Birthday” text on Feb. 11. Naa’Irah Smith wasn’t like that, Campbell said Wednesday. She always kept in close contact with her family.
Unbeknownst to Campbell, 800 miles away in Georgia, the silence was seen as an early warning sign of a sharp change in behavior for Smith and Campbell’s two older sisters, Shana S. Decree and Jamilla Campbell.
In the last month, the women seemingly retreated into a cramped unit in the Robert Morris Apartments in Morrisville, pulling their children out of school and isolating themselves from the outside world, according to relatives and others who struggled to reach them.
The brief conversations that did happen were troubling, relatives said — exchanges peppered with bizarre imagery of demons and “pearly gates.”
“I really wish I could ask my sister what happened,” Walidah Campbell said. “Naa’Irah’s fiance was concerned. The children’s fathers were concerned. It all happened so fast.”
The seclusion was shattered late Monday when a caseworker from Bucks County Children and Youth Social Services discovered five members of the family dead inside the apartment: Jamilla Campbell, 42, and her 9-year-old twin daughters Imani and Erika, along with two of Decree’s children — Smith, 25, and Damon Decree Jr., 13, according to investigators.
Decree, 45, and her daughter Dominique, 19, were there as well, reportedly lying “disoriented" in a bedroom down the hallway from the bodies, authorities said.
The two women told police that “everyone at the apartment ... wanted to die,” and confessed to choking some of their own relatives, according to court documents. They each face five counts of criminal homicide and conspiracy, and remain in the county prison without bail.
Authorities, who continue to investigate, said they knew of no motive for the quintuple homicide, a crime that Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub called an “unspeakable tragedy.”
For the family, the loss is staggering, the alleged crimes unimaginable.
“Shana is such a good-hearted woman,” Walidah Campbell said. “I don’t understand how she went from that to this. What we’re seeing here isn’t her.”
Campbell and her extended family tried for two weeks to contact her sisters and their children, a group of eight who had been living together in the apartment for about a month. The crowding together confused her.
Decree and her two younger children had been living there for some time, but Smith had her own home, Campbell said, as did Jamilla Campbell, who lived with her twin daughters and teenage son.
Questions about the living situation went unanswered, she said — even her father, James, couldn’t get the family to answer the door when he stopped by the apartment, concerned.
At his home in Trenton on Wednesday, James Campbell declined to talk about the deaths or the guarded silence that preceded them, telling a reporter he had “nothing to say.”
The only contact Walidah Campbell had with the family in the last month came through an aunt who had been in touch with them. She said they told her they were afraid to leave their home because of the “demons” they saw all around them, Campbell said.
“This is not normal for them. They were all very sweet, intelligent people,” she said. “I think it was something they got into, something that took over them.”
Morrisville Police Chief George McClay said Wednesday that his officers “had no indication” that fringe religious beliefs played any role in the murders. He stressed that the investigation was still in its early stages and that authorities were waiting for the results of autopsies.
McClay noted that Dominique Decree was taken into custody with “very superficial” cuts to her neck. They appeared to have been recently self-inflicted and were bleeding when she was taken into custody, he said.
Before the grisly discovery on Monday, Morrisville police had little contact with the family, other than a few minor calls for disturbances at the apartment, he said.
But the family had attracted the attention of Bucks County Children and Youth. The caseworker who stumbled upon the bodies had visited the apartment on Feb. 5, and had tried to contact the family again on Saturday.
Sources familiar with the investigation said the caseworker was sent to check on the family at the request of officials at Morrisville Junior/Senior High School. The school’s principal called the agency on Feb. 1 after Damon Decree Jr. had been absent for several days and his mother did not return officials’ calls.
Police said Jamilla Campbell’s daughters, Imani and Erika, were registered for school in Trenton, but had not been attending in recent weeks.
Jason Harris, superintendent of the Morrisville School District, said he couldn’t comment on the district’s interaction with Children and Youth. But he confirmed that Damon Decree Jr. had missed nearly 10 days of school in the last month. The school district was eventually able to reach Shana Decree, who told them she wanted to remove her son from the school and begin homeschooling him, Harris said.
The district had begun making arrangements for that when the boy and his relatives were discovered dead.
Late Wednesday, some of Damon Decree’s friends and classmates paid a visit to the growing memorial outside his family’s apartment, cordoned off by crime scene tape and overseen by police officers.
“He came to school every day. He kept a smile on his face. And he just made sure to keep pushing," said Tahmeer Glover. “I’m sure on the inside it must have been hurting. On the outside, he made it seem like he was going through something good.”
Glover, 18, a neighbor of Decree and his family, said he could sense that something was bothering the teenager in recent weeks.
“I don’t think he told anybody. I think he was too afraid," Glover said. "I think he kept all that pain inside instead of telling somebody for help.”
It was Damon Decree’s spirit — and that of his family — that hundreds of people mourned and honored Wednesday night at a vigil that filled the pews at the Morrisville United Methodist Church.
Over an hour, leaders from five local churches led the congregation in prayer, stopping regularly to hold moments of silence for each of the victims, each of whom had a candle lit in memory.
Attendees held each other and bowed their heads, and some cried quietly during the most somber of Bible passages.
And then, in a sudden turn, the mood shifted when the Rev. Ronald W. Dunston of the Resurrected Life Church in Morrisville stepped to the microphone.
“It’s time to forgive,” he said, his voice booming, inciting nods, murmurs of “Amen,” and some hands in the air. “It’s time to forgive. It’s time to move forward.”