Man pleads guilty to murdering 14-year-old niece, sister’s fiancé in DeKalb

Slain teen was 8th grader at Decatur’s Renfroe Middle School
Shykia Ward-Reese was an eighth grader at Renfroe Middle School in Decatur.

Credit: Family photo

Credit: Family photo

Shykia Ward-Reese was an eighth grader at Renfroe Middle School in Decatur.

Royce Stewart had already served time in prison for killing someone when he stabbed to death his 14-year-old niece and his sister’s fiancé in 2018.

Now, Stewart will spend the rest of his life in prison after pleading guilty Wednesday to two counts of murder, according to the DeKalb County district attorney. Instead of going to trial, Stewart, 42, also pleaded guilty to three counts of aggravated assault, theft by taking and possession of a knife during the commission of a felony.

DeKalb Superior Court Judge Tangela Barrie then sentenced Stewart to life in prison plus 35 years.

No motive for the stabbings was publicly released. But the deaths shocked the Decatur community, including Renfroe Middle School, where Shykia Ward-Reese attended.

The eighth grader played in the band, ran track and was a cheerleader. She was remembered as a hard-working student who was loved by her classmates.

“Shykia had a very promising future in front of her cut short by an act of senseless violence,” a former Renfroe Middle interim principal said in a letter to parents.

According to the investigation, Stewart had been staying at his sister’s unit at the Trinity Walk Apartments for about a week in March 2018. At around 9 a.m. on March 25, Stewart’s sister, Kimberly Ward, was getting ready in her bathroom when she heard a struggle and saw her brother stabbing her fiancé, Manuel Santos, in her bedroom.

Ward tried to intervene and was cut. She then called 911, according to investigators. Santos, 35, died from his injuries.

By the time officers had arrived, Stewart had taken his sister’s car keys and drove off in her Ford Mustang.

Royce Stewart was arrested the day after he stabbed two people to death inside a Decatur apartment in March 2018.

Credit: WSB-TV � 2018 Cox Media Group.

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Credit: WSB-TV � 2018 Cox Media Group.

While talking to investigators, Ward noticed that her daughter’s bedroom door was closed and thought the teen had been hiding. But Shykia had been stabbed to death in her bed, according to police.

The following day, the Mustang was found abandoned and Stewart was taken into custody hours later after he was located near a southeast DeKalb neighborhood, according to police.

Meanwhile, the community rallied to support the family, creating a GoFundMe page and holding a vigil. In addition to her mother, Shykia was survived by a younger sister who was 7 years old at the time of the murders.

Ward told Channel 2 Action News she had let her brother stay with her in hopes of getting help for him.

A memorial is shown in March 2018 on the steps outside the Decatur apartment where the two people were stabbed to death.

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“Manuel was going to talk to him that morning to see how we could help him get on track,” she said.

Stewart previously served two stints in state prison following convictions for involuntary manslaughter and theft by taking, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections. He was incarcerated from June 2004 until March 2008 and again from December 2014 until June the following year, records show.

In 2003, Stewart was charged with two counts of murder in DeKalb, court records show. He pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter the following year and the murder charges were dropped. Stewart was sentenced to five years in prison in that case.

Before killing his niece and sister’s fiancé, Stewart had been using drugs and appeared to become a different person at times, his family said. But his relatives did not expect he would become violent toward members of his own family.

According to the district attorney’s office, Stewart had been deemed incompetent to stand trial until February of this year.