IN A CRACK-INDUCED haze, Charlene Wise had just one worry. The basement light could reveal her dark secret.
Anyone who walked by her Fairmount house could peek through the clouded, nailed-shut basement window and see Charnae, her 5-year-old daughter, the one she'd starved for two months, in her last hours of life.
Wise turned to another daughter, Gwen, who was just 8.
"Turn out the light," Wise barked.
The light switch was broken. Wise grew furious.
"Then bust the f...... bulb," she yelled.
Terrified, Gwen inched down the rickety steps and reached up to swat the bulb with a wooden spoon. She got on her tiptoes. "I still couldn't reach it," she said.
With dread, Gwen slowly turned around. Charnae lay on her back on the dirt floor, silent and barely moving. Her skeletal legs curled to the side. Her arms were tucked beneath her bony torso. Her eyes were half open, vacant and lifeless. Ribs poked through her grimy T-shirt. Dust covered her pants with a Pocahontas print.
"That was the last time I ever saw Charnae," Gwen said recently.
The long torturous murder of Charnae Wise in 1997 was one of the most horrific cases of child abuse in city history. Charlene Wise, a mother of eight, did more than kill one of her own. She scarred her seven surviving children, now ages 14 to 32. It's been 11 years since Wise was sentenced to 28 to 56 years behind bars, yet she continues to haunt them from a prison cell 400 miles away.
Gwen can't shake that last vision of Charnae in the basement inside the house on Harper Street near 30th.
"I was so scared," Gwen, now 22, whispered recently. "I replay that all the time. I can't get it out of my head.
"All the time I feel such guilt. My friends tell me, 'It's not your fault. You were a child.' But what if I'd told one person?" she asked. "What if I'd snuck her more food?"
Her mom had banished Charnae and her brother Dante, then 7, to the basement because she called them difficult. They needed to be punished, she'd say. In a May 12, 1999 Daily News article, Wise revealed a more candid, albeit cold-hearted reason: She just didn't want to be "interrupted from getting high."
On that late August afternoon in 1997, Wise shattered the light herself. She allowed Dante, who was bruised, cut and emaciated but able to walk, to come upstairs. She knew Charnae was near death.
So she closed the door.
She went to a party and let her daughter die.
She left her daughter's corpse to rot and moved to a shelter. Denisha Wise, now 32, her eldest daughter, grew suspicious about her sister's whereabouts. Denisha crumbled when Wise finally told her the truth.
"For all of her kids, it's a big struggle. We're just trying to make it," Denisha said. "It still haunts me."
Denisha said she's been denied both jobs and housing because of her mom. In 2002, she couldn't rent a house because the landlord "didn't want any dead children."
Denisha is everything her mother wasn't. She's a married mom of five sons who all play football, win trophies and earn good grades. She works as a bartender and is studying to become an ultrasound technician. She knows she could have taken a different path. She had two children by the time she was 20.
"I'm a daughter of Charlene Wise, but I'm not like my mother. I have to prove it, but I know who I am. I don't follow in her footsteps," she said.
Denisha last saw her mom six years ago in prison and says she loves her.
Gwen hasn't visited her and has no plans to do so. Ever.
"On any given day I'm thinking about what happened," said Gwen, who is soft-spoken with kind eyes.
Gwen refers to Wise as Charlene, never "mom."
"What I feel for Charlene ranges from love to hate and everything in between. If it weren't for her, I wouldn't be here. She didn't abort me. But I hold resentment. I don't think I hate anyone or anything, but this is the closest thing next to hate."
She has little memory of her youth. She becomes silent when co-workers or friends recall fun-filled jaunts to amusement parks.
"It feels like I didn't have a childhood. It feels like someone told me a story and I watched it. It never happened," she said.
Years ago, she told friends her mom was an airline stewardess. Then when they asked why her mom never came home, even for holidays, Gwen told them her mom was in the Army, stationed in Germany.
"Honestly, I don't think I've forgiven her."
Denisha distinctly remembers the first time her mom got high. It was 1988. Denisha was 8 years old, playing outside on her pink and white Huffy bike. Her aunt's boyfriend told her mom he'd found a new drug that would make her feel good.
Wise told the kids to stay outside and play. She slipped inside.
Before that day, Wise had worked at a law firm, kept a clean house and cooked chicken or spaghetti dinners for her children.
"After that," Denisha said, "our life went downhill."
At night, the playroom became a crack den.
Wise, who was 16 when she had Denisha, lost her job, her home, her moral compass.
"We never had a stable home," Denisha said during a recent interview as her legs shook nervously on the couch.
The family bounced between houses and homeless shelters. Drugs and beer swallowed up most welfare checks. Denisha became the mom.
"I was 11 years old and cooking noodles, chicken and eggs and going to the grocery store," Denisha said.
By 1991, Montgomery County social workers had removed Charlene Wise's children when they found them living in a crack house. Charnae was taken from the hospital as a newborn in September of that year.
Charnae was returned when she was almost 3 after her mother convinced social workers that she'd turned her life around.
By 1997, Wise, now 48, was living with six of her eight children on Harper Street. Denisha, who had a turbulent relationship with her mom, had moved out on Christmas Eve 1996.
"I told her I was tired of not having a stable home, I was tired of her using drugs. She didn't want to hear what I was saying."
Gwen remembers two moms.
"When she wasn't high, she was an evil lady. She'd hit me with anything she could put her hands on. She told me she hated me. She cursed at me," Gwen said. "When she was high, she was nice."
The city's Department of Human Services received reports that the children had burns, bruises, black eyes. Social workers came, but often Wise wasn't home or wouldn't let them inside. A DHS worker last saw the family June 4, 1997, and reported that the children appeared healthy and there was food in the house.
It was around the same time that Wise banished Charnae and Dante to the basement.
"It started out as punishment, to get them to be quiet," Gwen said. "For them it was hell. I don't have many memories of Charnae. Maybe I blocked it out."
Sometimes Wise allowed Charnae and Dante to eat upstairs at the table.
"She'd make them stand up and be quiet. We used to joke that they were so skinny because they had to eat standing up," Gwen said. "I was a child. I didn't know any better."
As time wore on, Gwen and the others rarely saw Charnae or Dante. "The basement became their home," Gwen said. "Personally, I think she forgot about them."
When they told their mom that Charnae was fading, Wise dismissed them and told them not to worry. "It's our secret," she told them.
Sometimes Wise placed leftover hot dogs or spaghetti on a plate at the top of the basement steps. Their bathroom was a bucket.
One late afternoon in August 1997, Gwen heard a tap at the basement door. It was Dante. He told her Charnae was bad off.
Her sister Kadedra crept halfway downstairs. "Tell mom there's something wrong with Charnae," Gwen said Kadedra told her.
Their mom told Kadedra to put Dante in the tub. "He was as skinny as you could get without being dead. He didn't look no better than Charnae," Gwen said.
Wise went downstairs.
"The only thing she was worried about," Gwen said, "was the light."
Denisha lived apart from her mom, but grew increasingly worried about Charnae. She suspected her mom was lying about the little girl.
When Denisha begged to see her little sister, her mom said she couldn't. Workers for an adoption agency had just whisked her away, her mom told her.
Denisha called every adoption and social service agency she could find. There was no record that Charnae had been adopted.
Her mom then told her that Charnae was in North Carolina with relatives.
By that time, Wise had left Harper Street - and Charnae's body - moving with the children to a Norristown shelter.
Denisha reported Charnae missing to the Department of Human Services. Police questioned Wise at the shelter. Social workers removed her kids and Wise went to her sister's house in Norristown. Wise felt trapped. The lies were catching up with her.
Sobbing, she called Denisha. "She sounded very scared," Denisha recalled. After a few moments, she dropped the bombshell. "Charnae is dead," she muttered.
Denisha screamed and dropped the phone. Wise called back. Denisha asked where she was. Wrapped in a sheet under the basement steps, her mom said.
Denisha cried hysterically. She hung up and dialed 9-1-1.
Early on the morning of Sept. 16, 1997, Denisha met police on Harper Street. At first, police couldn't find any sign of a body and there was no foul smell.
But Denisha was certain what her mom had said. The cops climbed down once again to the basement. It was dark. The light socket was empty so the cops carried flashlights. They spread the garbage under the basement steps. Underneath, they found Charnae's skull wrapped in a soiled sheet.
Charnae's remains weighed just 12 pounds.
Dante survived with 18 bruises, cuts and burn marks. His mother had tied his arms with a rope that would cut his skin just above the elbows.
By the time his mom went to trial, a Montgomery County couple had adopted Dante and his two younger sisters, Shadera and Larrisha.
Their adoptive mother, Sybil Hailey, told the judge how Dante felt somewhat responsible for his sister's death because he sipped their only source of water - a drip from a crack in a hot-water heater.
Hailey didn't return phone calls from the Daily News. But both Denisha and Gwen said Dante is very protective of the mom who almost starved him to death.
"Dante loves his mom and wants to see her. Boys are more forgiving of their mothers," Denisha said.
Kadedra was adopted by another family in Lancaster.
Gwen lived in four foster homes and two group homes after her mom was arrested.
"I didn't want to be adopted. I held out hope for Charlene until I was about 14," Gwen said.
She wasn't allowed to watch TV when her mom was on the news. "I didn't know anything. All I knew was my mom was locked up and Charnae was dead."
Gwen felt particularly alone since her father died of a brain aneurism when she was 2.
"I see a mom with her daughter on a bus and I get upset. She wasn't there for my first date, my prom, birthdays and Thanksgiving. I hold resentment," said Gwen, who works as a cashier at Marshall's.
While Gwen was staying with her aunt in South Carolina, her mom wrote them a letter. Wise never mentioned Gwen's name, or any of her children for that matter. "What she really wanted was money for cable[TV]," Gwen said.
Therapists tried to help Gwen. "But I built up a wall in counseling. I showed no emotion. My wall is my laughter," she said. One time she giggled as she told a friend that her mom was in prison for killing her daughter.
Denisha wanted answers from her mom. She drove to the prison. How could you starve your daughter? she asked.
"She doesn't know why," Denisha said.
"She never said Charnae's name."
After sentencing, Wise told a Daily News reporter that God has forgiven her. She had become a born again Christian. "I know people think I'm a monster. It's not true. They don't know me. I've been forgiven for this," she said.
"I'm not going to hell."
Back on Harper Street, neighbors decided to wash evil away with beauty. They created a memorial and garden for the little girl no one could save.
At the corner of 30th and Harper streets sits perhaps the city's most hauntingly peaceful, expansive tribute to a murdered child.
A mural of Charnae surrounded by doves, lilies, candles, blue sky and puffy clouds blankets the wall. She has a pacifier in her mouth because that's the only photo anyone could find. (Photo of memorial on Page 7.)
At the base of the mural sit 10 large wooden boxes where neighbors meticulously plant vegetables and flowers. Above and to the side is a wooden deck with chairs - all encased by a wrought iron fence, thanks to a city grant.
Neighbor Joyce Hill, one of four on Charnae's memorial steering committee, prefers not to talk of the past. "I don't like dwelling on it. I'm at an age now where I don't need those nightmares," said Hill, now 67.
Denisha keeps her own memorial on her living room mantle, a plaque that reads, "Charnae Wise - 1991-1997" with hands clasped in prayer.
"I am Charnae's voice on earth," Denisha said, sitting in her tidy West Philadelphia home. "She's an angel."
A few years ago, Gwen decided to return to the house where her sister died. "It looked so much smaller than I remembered," she said.
"I wanted answers. I didn't know where else to go."
Gwen sat in the living room talking to the soft-spoken mom, Kaife Sky, who lives there now.
"She told me she had so much anger," Sky said. "I told her, 'That's your mother's story. It's not your story.' "
Gwen stayed for hours, her back to the kitchen.
She couldn't go in there, she said.