WASHINGTON – A woman found in her home with the decomposing bodies of four girls faces murder charges, and authorities believe she is their mother, officials said Thursday.
Banita Jacks, 33, was expected to appear Thursday in D.C. Superior Court, where the charges will be presented, prosecutors said.
"We are working on the assumption that these are her four children," police Chief Cathy Lanier said at a news conference.
The bodies of the girls — ages 5, 6, 11 and 17 — were found Wednesday when deputy U.S. marshals served an eviction notice at the apartment. Medical examiner Dr. Marie-Lydie Pierre-Louis said the bodies were likely there more than 15 days, "based on the insects that were found there."
Jacks, who faces four counts of felony murder, could receive a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
"I don't think anyone in the city can remember a case involving this many young people who have died in such a tragic way," Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said.
How the girls died remained under investigation, but Pierre-Louis said it appeared the oldest child might have been stabbed in the abdomen. The other three children might have been poisoned or asphyxiated, she said. The medical examiner's office was trying to identify the girls using dental records or DNA.
Lloyd Nolan Jr., an attorney listed at the courthouse for Jacks, did not immediately return a telephone call from The Associated Press seeking comment.
The home where the bodies were found is in one of the city's poorest, most violent neighborhoods. The block is lined by virtually identical apartment houses near Bolling Air Force Base. About one-third of the city's homicides last year occurred in the area, according to preliminary police statistics.
City officials were scrambling to understand how four children could have been dead for at least two weeks without anyone knowing.
The mayor said Thursday that officials were working to determine what other contacts city agencies had with the family.
"We are going to investigate every single contact that this family has had with the government, with people who are paid to look out for the welfare of children, and we will come back with a full report," Fenty said.
Mindy Good, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Child and Family Services agency, said Wednesday that the agency had received one report about a family at that address in April through the city's child abuse and neglect reporting hot line.
"We made several attempts to make contact with these people. We were unable to have any face-to-face contact with them," Good said. "On the last attempt (in early May), it appeared they were no longer living at the address."
Good said investigators later found a new address for the family in Maryland and alerted county authorities there of the report on the family. She would not say where the family was believed to be living.
Nona Richardson, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said Jacks' three younger daughters attended the Meridian Public Charter School consistently until March 2, 2007.
When they stopped showing up, Richardson said the school immediately tried to contact the mother by mail and telephone. Officials finally went to the woman's home and the woman told a school official that she wanted to withdraw the children and home-school them. They were withdrawn on March 15, 2007.
None of the children thought to be living in the home was enrolled in the public school system, said D.C. schools spokeswoman Mafara Hobson. One child at that address had attended Stuart-Hobson Elementary School but withdrew in 2006 as a fifth-grader, she said.
Fenty said Thursday that besides at least one contact with child welfare officials, the family had at least one brush with D.C. police.
According to court records, Jacks was charged in January 2007 with driving an unregistered vehicle. In February, she paid a $175 fine and the case was dismissed.
Larry Jones, who lives next door, said a woman and two or three children lived at the home but he had not seen them since the summer. He said the children appeared healthy at the time.
Jones added that in recent months he has noticed a "strange odor" coming through his vent. "We thought it was probably dead mice in the vent or something," he said.
Resident Rowand Simpkins said her neighbors tend to keep to themselves and that she never saw the woman or children.
"It's really a mystery," she said.