No one’s sure when the talk changed, when pride turned to fear.
It just did, as surely as Jarmecca Whitehead went from happy mother to homicide victim. As surely as her daughters went from honor-roll students to murder suspects.
Now, Whitehead is buried on a hillside. The 16-year-old twins, Jasmiyah and Tasmiyah, are in jail.
And the story of the Whitehead girls, mother and daughters, confounds everyone who knew them.
“Everybody loved Nikki!” said Zilif Taskin, using Jarmecca Whitehead’s nickname. Taskin was Whitehead’s friend, as well as a customer at the Decatur beauty salon where Whitehead, 34, worked until her January slaying.
“I loved Nikki! I think about her every day. I go to sleep, I pray for her. I question God, ‘Why?’ ”
“I am surprised, very surprised, about this” said Cornelius Lee, who attended Tucker High School with the girls until their arrests May 21 and briefly dated Jasmiyah. “I would have never thought it.”
Even cops are hard-pressed to explain what could have driven the girls to kill the person who gave them life, said Conyers Police Chief Gene Wilson. His department investigated the crime and arrested the twins, who both say they did not do it.
“You see a lot of things” in police work, he said. “But anytime you see a family member perpetrating violence on another family member, it kind of shakes you.
“The mother’s dead, and the two teenage daughters are charged with murder,” he said. “The core of this family is destroyed.”
Blood, a body
In re-creating events that led up to Jarmecca Whitehead’s killing, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed her relatives and friends, as well as young people who knew the girls. The AJC also spoke with police, court officials and others close to the case. A picture emerged of a woman who tried, until the end, to keep her family intact.
The end came Jan. 13, a Wednesday.
A Rockdale County deputy was passing through a Conyers subdivision that day when he saw a girl, waving. The deputy, who had served a warrant at another house, stopped. The girl’s words came out in a jumble: blood, mother, dead.
The officer walked into the one-story frame home. He saw blood on the hardwood floor, dark-red spatters on the carpet. A woman’s body lay on the bedroom floor. He radioed for help.
Conyers police came quickly. They took photos and cut a swath of the bloodied carpet, once tan. They followed a track of spatters from living room to bedroom. They talked to the girls, who said their mother was alive when they went to school that day.
The police remained for hours. Officers came and went. Finally, they rolled out a gurney bearing the body of Jarmecca Whitehead. People looked out their windows or stood in yards, afraid and wondering.
Detectives consulted their notes. No door locks had been jimmied; the windows were intact. Whitehead, they surmised, knew her killer, or killers. She let her assailant walk in.
Jasmiyah and Tasmiyah returned to their great-grandmother’s home, where they had lived until recently. They resumed classes at Tucker High School, where they were sophomores.
Police went to work. They would spend four months assembling evidence, creating a net that snared girls who once showed such promise.
She was a real head-turner, graceful and flowing as a silk curtain. Robert Head followed her into Macy’s at South DeKalb Mall and introduced himself. She said her name was Jarmecca.
“I bought her an outfit,’ said Head, a truck driver. “We went dancing that night and stayed out ’til the club closed.”
That was a decade ago, and the beginning of a relationship that ended only when Whitehead’s life did. Whitehead, though three decades younger than Head, never was far from his side. Nor were her two daughters.
He’d visit Whitehead at work, driving his Peterbilt. In truck-driver parlance, it was a “bobtail,” a tractor lacking the trailer. It was “lit up like a Christmas tree,” and the twins loved it. He’d pack them into the cab, and they’d growl off into the traffic for a meal at McDonald’s or Mrs. Winner’s.
“They were real sweethearts,” said Head, 65.
They were great little girls, agreed Taskin.
She recalled a long-ago afternoon when she sat in a salon chair, Whitehead busy with her hair. The shop’s door opened. In burst the girls, eyes bright, smiles brilliant. They waved report cards like flags.
“All A’s,” said Taskin. “She [Jarmecca] was so proud.” So was Lynda Whitehead, Jarmecca’s mother and the girls’ grandmother. The twins were Girl Scouts. Tas showed a talent for dance. Jas liked to write.
“I thought they might go to Harvard or Yale,” said Lynda Whitehead, 56, who lives in Atlanta.
When the twins graduated from middle school, the Whitehead women — grandmother and mother — were right there.
That was spring 2008 — the last time, perhaps, that life in the Whitehead household was that good.
A fight, arrests
The end of the school year brought changes in the twins’ attitudes. The girls were in their early teens, say family and friends; like a lot of teens, they pushed at parental boundaries. Typical arguments about curfews and cellphone use got increasingly heated.
That year, a fight between mother and daughters over Jarmecca’s phone flared in the Conyers home the Whiteheads shared with Head, the truck driver. Juvenile court documents, provided by Lynda Whitehead, say the girls scratched and dragged their mother across the floor. The fight ended with the girls charged with battery.
The case went to juvenile court, where a judge on June 30, 2008, gave custody of the girls to their great-grandmother. The great-grandmother couldn’t be reached for comment for this article.
The twins left Conyers for Clarkston, where their great-grandmother lived, and enrolled at Tucker High. Students knew the girls weren’t staying with their mother, but didn’t suspect the violence in their past, said rising senior Shakeel Hargett.
“They didn’t talk about their mother much,” said Hargett, 17.
Jarmecca, meantime, talked increasingly about her daughters — but no longer in glowing terms. The once-happy girls became sullen, she told Taskin, her friend and customer. They cursed her. And always, Jarmecca Whitehead remembered that 2008 fight.
“Nikki used to tell me, ‘I got a family that does not function good. Sometimes I’m afraid. I don’t know what my children might do to me.’
“I said, ‘Nikki, you better put a lock on your bedroom door.’”
Their grandmother, too, knew things weren’t right.
Last November, she and her daughter had a sweet 16 party for the girls. Twenty-five people showed up at an Atlanta bowling alley to celebrate. Tas was there, but Jas? Grandmother reached for her cellphone and dialed her granddaughter’s number.
“I asked her, ‘Why aren’t you here?’ ” Lynda Whitehead said. “She said, ‘I just don’t want to come.’ ”
Jarmecca smiled and made the best of it, Lynda Whitehead said. They had the party without Jas.
Head, the boyfriend, also wondered about the girls. He remembers a conversation he and his girlfriend had in late December. He was north of Atlanta, his trailer filled with produce bound for Indianapolis, when his cellphone rang. Nikki. The miles clicked by; he listened.
She wanted her children back, she told Head. Yes, friends had advised her to keep away from them, but she was their mom. She had raised them alone for years; their father was not a presence in their lives.
“She said, ‘Those are my kids. I’m not going to let them go,’ ” Head said.
She got her wish. A Rockdale juvenile court judge signed an order sending the girls back to Conyers.
The twins, said Head, did return — reluctantly. The date: Jan. 5. In eight days, Jarmecca Whitehead would be dead.
“She should have let them go,” he said.
On Jan. 8 and Jan. 10, Conyers police visited the house. A department spokesman said officers responded to domestic disturbances both times. Tensions in the household were spiking.
The girls are in separate detention facilities. Police say they don’t want them comparing notes. Bond has not been set for either, though Jasmiyah is scheduled for a bond hearing Monday.
Rockdale District Attorney Richard Read said he is preparing findings to present to a grand jury. This is routine in murder cases.
What’s not routine, said Read, are the circumstances in the killing of Jarmecca Whitehead. How often are twins murder suspects? “While I’ve had some unusual cases, yeah, this is a little different,” he said.
If the girls are guilty, they have committed matricide — the murder of their mother. They will be tried as adults.
Atlanta lawyer Dwight Thomas said his client is innocent. He’s representing Jasmiyah for free.
Jasmiyah, said Thomas, is having a hard time behind bars. “She’s frightened. She’s concerned. She’s going through a lot of anxiety right now.
“I believe, at the end of the day, that a jury will return a verdict of not guilty.”
David LaMalva is representing Tasmiyah. Court officials appointed LaMalva, who has offices in Conyers and Atlanta, last week.
The repercussions of the killing continue elsewhere.
Lynda Whitehead, the grandmother, has a memory that won’t go away. When mourners gathered Feb. 1 to bury her daughter at Westview Cemetery, the twins hung back. “They wouldn’t even approach her casket,” she said.
Students at Tucker High School have a question that nags them, said Shakeel Hargett. “Were we going to classes with killers?”
Head, when he returns from another long haul, walks into his house and remembers earlier days – the smell of food cooking, the sound of her voice. His house is quiet now.
“All she had to do was let those kids go,” he said. “She would have done real good if she had.”