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HomeNewsLocal newsJa'Qeada Isaac’s Last Moments

Ja’Qeada Isaac’s Last Moments

A memorial wreath for Ja’Qeada Isaac at Jane E. Tuitt Elementary School. (Photo by Aulette White)

People close to Ja’Qeada Isaac said she was extremely outgoing, an eager member of the Elite Dancers, always at Carnival. The nine-year-old was an enthusiastic student at Jane E. Tuitt Elementary School. Her home life with her mother appeared to be loving and supportive. But there was another side. The only window many Virgin Islanders have into this area of her life is through court documents explaining the alleged circumstances of her death before dawn Saturday.

Family members suspected Anyah Smith, Ja’Qeada’s mother, was consumed by a psychotic episode in the hours before she allegedly killed her daughter.

A person experiencing acute psychotic distress might hear voices others don’t and harbor seemingly unreasonable fears from unseen terrors. As odd as their behavior might seem from the outside, the threat is very real to a person suffering with severe mental illness, health experts in the territory said.

Although the Virgin Islands has public hospitals and clinics and private mental health services, like many places, it lacks sufficient capability to provide long-term care to all those in need. Complicating matters, those requiring care often fervently resist anti-psychotic medication, said Lori Thompson, head psychologist at Schneider Regional Medical Center’s behavioral health unit. Anti-psychotic drugs can take a few days to take effect, she said, meaning getting someone on the drugs and staying on them can be difficult. Being regularly fed mind-altering pills and potentially hospitalized can feed into existing feelings of paranoia.

More often, people with mental illness encounter the criminal justice system rather than medical treatment. A 2023 report from the Pew Research Center found people with serious mental illness were 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized, relative to the general population, and 16 times more likely to be killed by police.

Not all people with severe mental illness are violent, but those who are often lash out against family and caregivers.

Earlier this month, Mohammed H. Salem, 34, who police said long suffered from acute mental illness, allegedly stabbed his father to death. Salem had earlier served time in prison for assaulting his father, who had an active restraining order against his son when attacked and killed March 5.

On St. Croix, 23-year-old Osei Edwards has allegedly terrorized his family and friends for years while suffering from untreated mental illness. After a psychiatric evaluation, Edwards’ most recent assault case was being resolved in Family Court, where he may be involuntarily committed.

What follows, taken from police reports and documents filed with the V.I. Superior Court on St. Thomas, is not easy to live with. It is a catastrophe. If learning the details of Ja’Qeada’s final hours and death would do more harm than good, please stop reading now.

On Friday, Ja’Qeada’s mother posted on social media: “Today is the day they will kill me and my children.” Smith wrote: “They will kill her at sundown.”

Very early Saturday, Ja’Qeada sent text messages to her aunt, Smith’s sister, saying she was going to miss her. “It’s time,” the girl wrote. “They coming to kill me when the sun go down.” She then sent a text saying her mother was “breaking the devices and now she is breaking the phone.”

Police received a call from Smith’s mother at 2:10 a.m. asking that they check in on Smith, 32, at her Agnes Fancy home. She feared her daughter may be having a psychotic breakdown. When police arrived, they found numerous household items scattered on the ground around the residence.

A witness told police Smith had left a few minutes earlier wearing a blue dress she’d worn to a recent funeral. Smith also had a funeral ribbon pinned to her shoulder. Her white hat bore the weight of a concrete block she carried on her head. Ja’Qeada wore a two-piece beige outfit.

Video surveillance footage showed Smith and Ja’Qeada walking to the waterfront apron near the memorial plaque for Emil E. White at 2:20 a.m. Smith carried a hammer and white electrical cord, likely pulled from a household appliance, and the concrete block on her head. The two sat by the water for a moment, then went in.

At 5:22 a.m., three friends who had been looking for Smith found her barefoot at the Vitraco Mall, pacing back and forth with Ja’Qeada’s limp body on her back. Smith said the child was dead but would not let the friends take her, saying she did not know who to trust. Police soon followed, got the child, and attempted to revive her. Water spilled from the girl’s mouth. Emergency medical technicians confirmed she was dead.

At 6:55 a.m., Smith, still in the wet dress, was taken to the Callwood police station, where she declined to give a statement other than saying that the bedroom slippers she’d worn were on the waterfront, where police later found them sitting “neatly” by the Emil E. White plaque. Smith was transported to Schneider Regional Medical Center to treat a cut on her foot. She was then committed to the psychiatric ward, pending an evaluation.

The next day, Sunday, divers from St. Thomas Rescue quickly found a concrete block with a white electrical cord tied to it and a loop on the other end. Police think Smith tied one end of the white electrical cord to the concrete block and looped the other end around her daughter before both went into the water. The dive team also found Ja’Qeada’s Jane E. Tuitt School identification card — with her name and photo — in the water nearby.

Mourners placed a makeshift memorial to Ja’Qeada outside her school. Education officials and Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. said counselors were ready to speak with bereaved students.

Smith made her initial court appearance on Tuesday, where Magistrate Judge Simone Van Holten-Turnbull found probable cause to charge her with murder, assault, reckless endangerment and child abuse. She also ordered that Smith undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Bail was set at $750,000.

Smith is currently scheduled to be arraigned on April 5.

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