A memorial outside the Effingham County home where two children were found buried in the backyard on December 20, 2018. 
Photo: (Joshua Sharpe / joshua.sharpe@ajc.com)
Photo: (Joshua Sharpe / joshua.sharpe@ajc.com)

Were red flags missed before 2 kids found buried in Georgia yard?

GUYTON — Days after authorities found two children buried in their backyard in this rural town outside Savannah, those who knew the family are reflecting on signs of trouble they now wish they’d taken more seriously: mysterious bruises, strange punishments and, especially in recent months, secrecy.

Four adult relatives, including the father and stepmother, remained jailed in the Effingham County case the day after Christmas. They face charges of child abuse and concealing the deaths of Elwyn “JR” Crocker Jr., who officials said was last seen two years ago, and his sister Mary Crocker, who was last spotted in October. Both were 14 when last seen.

Neither child had ever been reported missing, but deputies said they found their bodies behind the double-wide trailer on Dec. 20 after a tipster called 911, concerned about the whereabouts of the girl.

Sheriff’s investigators, who declined to comment Wednesday, are still waiting for medical examiners to determine causes of death. But multiple neighbors spoke of red flags revealed long before the bodies were found.

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Daniella Gills, 14, who used to ride bikes and have sleepovers with Mary, recalled seeing bruises on the boy and redness in the girl’s face. Mary seemed nervous around her own home. “She would never want me to leave her. If she went to the bathroom she would want me to go with her,” Daniella told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “She wouldn’t tell me why.”

The boy, who went by JR, was sometimes made to sleep in a bathtub or a closet as punishment for alleged misbehavior, Daniella said.

Her father, Marvin Gills, said the family had a lock on the refrigerator, which the adults explained to him was meant to keep Mary, a diabetic, from sneaking sweets. He also remembered the family, especially the stepmother’s relatives, complaining often about the behavior of Mary and JR, though he always found them to be respectful and “awesome” children. Mary did yard work around the neighborhood and saved up to buy her bike. JR loved watching wrestling and liked to roughhouse with Gills.

He said he’s been shaken since he heard about the deaths and has begun to question whether he could have done anything to save them.

“I feel bad because I missed something somewhere,” Gills said. “It just eats at me.”

Elwyn Crocker Sr. 
Photo: (Effingham County Sheriff’s Office)

The kids’ father, Elwyn “EJ” Crocker Sr., who turned 50 on Christmas and until recently played Santa at a nearby Walmart, has been locked up without bond since Dec. 20. Also jailed and charged are Candice Crocker, who is his wife and the children’s stepmother; Candice Crocker’s mother, Kim Wright; and Wright’s boyfriend, Roy Anthony Prater. The child abuse charges they face could be upgraded later, authorities said. It isn’t clear whether the suspects have lawyers.

All of those charged lived in the trailer on Rosebud Place, where the family moved after leaving the Gills’ street in the neighboring city of Rincon. Neighbors in Guyton are searching their memories for signs they may have missed, including Gary Bennett, who lives next door and said he saw Mary working in the yard every day, as if she was afraid to go inside. Bennett also recalled recently seeing the children’s dad lingering in the backyard near the spot where the graves would later be found, though Bennett doesn’t know why.

Authorities have identified two bodies found buried behind a family home in Effingham County on December 20, 2018, as those of 14-year-old Mary Crocker (left) and her brother Elyn Crocker Jr., who would have been 16. Elwyn was last seen in November 2016.
Photo: Savannah Morning News

The mother of Elwyn Crocker’s other child, an 11-year-old boy named James who has cerebal palsy, is also trying to figure out what to make of the allegations. James was apparently uninjured and was taken from the new house into state custody. James’ mother, Rebecca Self, drove from her home in Camden, S.C., on Wednesday to speak with investigators and try to pick up her son.

Self said she is livid at the allegations against Crocker, who she had taken to court last year, accusing him of not letting her visit her son in years.

“I hope he rots in hell,” she said in the lobby of the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office.

Though tensions lingered after they broke up in 2008, Self said she’d thought all three children were OK until she heard the news last week. She remembered when JR and Mary, who Crocker had with another woman, were little, watching “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” She remembered Crocker treating them well. She said she did hear that the Division of Family and Children Services opened a case on the Crockers back around 2012, but it was closed months later, quelling her worries. (DFCS declined to comment, as it doesn’t speak on cases.)

From left: Candice Crocker and Kim Wright 
Photo: (Effingham County Sheriff’s Office)

Self said she wonders why her son apparently wasn’t abused. She said she thinks it was because he drew a monthly government check due to his disabilities.

Bennett, the next-door neighbor, said he rarely saw James.

He was full of regret for not speaking up sooner about what he saw with Mary.

Sitting at his kitchen table, the white-haired grandfather smoked hand-rolled cigarettes anxiously and recalled seeing the child doing yard work until her hands were red. He said she wore worn-out clothes and looked perpetually scared. She also was rail-thin and looked younger than 14, though Bennett said the family was so private, he had no idea how old the girl was.

He said he never saw JR, which he assumes is because the boy is thought to have died about two years ago, shortly after Bennett thinks the family moved to the home.

Roy Anthony Prater
Photo: Effingham County Sheriff's Office

Bennett said he knows he should have called 911, but he’d once had a terrible experience after getting involved with a neighbor, so he kept quiet.

Since last week, that decision has weighed on him. He said he thinks of how scared Mary looked and he thinks she must have known her brother was buried right at the edge of the wood line, by the cage where the family kept their dogs. He thinks she must have been afraid of a similar ending. “I honestly think that little girl knew,” Bennett said, disgust in his voice.

Bennett said he also remembers smelling something foul on the edge of his yard and the Crockers’ one day over a year ago, but he had no reason to think much of it, because he’d never even heard of JR.

Then last week, he saw Sheriff’s Office workers congregating at the wood line and his heart sank. He said he feared they were looking for Mary, who he hadn’t seen in a while. Bennett said he walked over to Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie and told him he was worried about the girl and how he’d seen her working so hard in the yard, seeming closed off and afraid.

Bennett said the sheriff had tears in his eyes as he listened.

A little while later, Bennett stood at the screen door in his kitchen and watched a crew digging. He was overcome when he saw one body carried away. Then Bennett was horrified and confounded when another body bag emerged from the ground.

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