Before the boy died and went into a secret grave by the family dog pen, Elwyn “JR” Crocker Jr.’s dad complained about the 13-year-old to police. The father claimed JR stole, fought when told to take a bath and was a “bully,” which was why he was homeschooled.
Cpl. Kurtis Smith took the boy aside and asked what was wrong, according to an incident report. JR acknowledged he did get angry a lot. He was upset mostly because he didn’t have many friends. The Rincon police officer advised JR to listen to his family, everything would be fine.
Two and a half years later, this past Dec. 20, Effingham County Sheriff’s deputies found JR and his sister Mary Crocker, who was about two years younger, buried behind their trailer, some 30 miles from Savannah.
They arrested every member of the family who lived there, including Elwyn Crocker Sr., the father who turned 50 on Christmas and until recently played Santa at a nearby Walmart. The suspects, who authorities say don’t have attorneys yet, remain jailed on charges of child cruelty and concealing deaths. The cause of death for the children could remain unknown for weeks or months as medical examiners perform tests on the remains.
The officer’s 2015 encounter with JR was just one of many times when authorities and other got close to the family without realizing something would go terribly wrong, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.
Interviews with those who know the family, as well as public records obtained by the AJC, show the children endured a tumultuous home life from an early age. Police were summoned multiple times, responding to fights between the adults around them. Child welfare agencies in South Carolina and Georgia investigated. There were strange punishments — especially for JR. Some witness accounts of mistreatment for one reason or another went unreported to authorities. Viewed together, the information paints an unsettling picture of how isolation and a hesitancy by authorities and neighbors to intervene more forcefully left the kids vulnerable.
Then there was one big alleged lie, a statement that could have changed the course of the children’s lives.
A picture, a reality
There is a picture on Facebook of the family, taken in 2010: Crocker and his wife, Candice Crocker, beaming, crammed onto a loveseat with the man’s three kids, Mary, JR and James, the youngest, who suffers from cerebral palsy. They’re dressed like they just came from church and they look happy. But family portraits don’t tell all.
Two years before, the father was in South Carolina with a different woman. Rebecca Grantham Self gave birth to James on Nov. 1, 2007. (JR and Mary share a mother, who couldn’t be reached for comment.)
Self lived with Crocker and all three kids in the little town of South Congaree, southwest of Columbia.
In Self’s telling, things were mostly fine until April 27, 2008. On that afternoon, she dialed 911 and told police Crocker had just flown into a rage after she woke him while feeding the baby, according to an incident report. He accused her of feeding James the wrong food, snatched the bottle and grabbed her by the throat, pressing her back against a window while she was still holding the infant, Self told an officer.
Crocker had allegedly left a large red mark and a scratch on James’ head. The baby was taken to the hospital to get checked out.
Sgt. Joshua Shumpert called the South Carolina Department of Social Services. A worker came and took the baby from the tearful mother. DSS declined to comment, but records provided to the AJC by Self suggest the agency believed her accusations against Crocker, at least before her alleged lie.
The next day, Crocker told a police investigator that he and Self had been in a “verbal” fight and a “physical struggle for the bottle,” which resulted in the marks on the baby. He wasn’t charged and JR and Mary apparently remained in his custody.
Nine days later, Self showed up at the police department with an awful-looking black eye, claiming Crocker had punched her. Shumpert, the same cop who’d called DSS, remembers feeling concern — then suspicion. He got Self a wet cloth and asked her to wipe her eye.
The blackness came off — it was makeup, Shumpert said.
“It ruined her credibility,” Shumpert, who is now the police chief, told the AJC recently.
Crocker was never charged with grabbing Self by the throat or hurting the baby. Shumpert said he isn’t sure why, because he wasn’t involved in the investigation and couldn’t locate investigative records, but he suspected the “black eye” could’ve had something to do with it.
Self was also later convicted of assaulting Crocker, court records show. She maintains today that she actually had been punched by Crocker and was angry that police hadn’t charged Crocker with hurting the baby.
DSS later gave the father custody of the baby.
Fights and long silence
Crocker soon moved to Georgia with his new wife, Candice Crocker, who is 17 years younger.
The Division of Family and Children Services investigated the family around 2012 but the agency has not yet commented or released any records on the case.
At some point, the Crockers ended up in Rincon, on 9th Street, where the two dozen or so trailers in the Brother’s Keeper mobile home park are planted.
Former neighbor Marvin Gills said he knew them well.
Gills told the AJC he thought Elwyn and Candice Crocker were OK people. The kids were great. JR, a professional wrestling fan, would come roughhouse with Gills and help him work in the yard. Mary would spend the night with Gills’ daughter Daniella. After beginning home school at the start of the 2018-19 year, Mary still walked Daniella to the bus stop.
Gills said the family’s home life took a turn when Candice Crocker’s mother, Kim Wright, and brother, Mark Wright II, started coming around more.
Daniella said she saw Kim Wright hit Mary “upside the head.” James was forced to sleep in bathtubs and closets because he’d been “bad.” One day, Daniella saw strange purple marks on Mary’s hands. Mary said it was from swimming, Daniella said.
On 9th Street, the most significant times police were called was when Elwyn Crocker complained about his son and when Kim Wright called about Elwyn Crocker. She said her son-in-law had busted her lip on June 7, 2016, after the family had agitated him by waking him up, according to an incident report.
She told the responding officer she didn’t put up with the man’s “nonsense” like the rest of the family. It was the same officer who’d told JR to listen to his family a year earlier. Kim Wright said she didn’t want to press charges. The cop told them to try and get along.
Later, the Crockers moved in with Kim Wright, her son and her boyfriend in her double-wide on Rosebud Place, outside the city of Guyton. The last known sighting of JR was two years ago, Mary in October. Both were 14 when last seen.
Deputies found them in the dirt on Dec. 20 after someone called 911 concerned about Mary.
In Rincon, the Gills family was brokenhearted by the news and reports that Mary always seemed scared on Rosebud Place. “The sad thing is, people around there never saw her smile,” he said.
On 9th Street, she’d smiled often.