Gloria Miller and Stella Holmes-Hughes talk about their niece Kisha S. Holmes. Holmes is a Marine veteran, who killed her children and took her own life in her Austell apartment. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Marine’s family left with questions, few answers

Family members of Kisha Holmes stunned by deaths of Holmes and her three children. Funeral arrangements still unknown.

One aunt gets tearful as she ponders the devastating loss of Kisha Holmes and her children. Another expresses frustration at the VA’s response both before and after the deaths of Holmes, a veteran with mental health problems, and her kids. And another wonders how the family will manage funerals for so many at once.

In the week since the Holmes family’s tragic end in a South Cobb apartment, metro Atlanta has struggled to understand why the 35-year-old ex-marine would kill her three children and then herself. The authorities — from investigators to officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs — have offered few clues.

Holmes’ three aunts, in town from New York and North Carolina, have faced a similar dearth of information as they’ve struggled to understand how Holmes, who moved to Atlanta more than four years ago with dreams of becoming a state trooper, drifted into depression and then tragedy.

“I just wish they could have caught this,” said Gloria Miller, a paternal aunt from Brooklyn, New York. “They (the VA) were aware of what she was going through. I think it could have been prevented. That’s the sad thing about all this. Is that this could have been prevented. She could have been here and those children could have been here. That is what really disturbs me deeply.”

The family questions if the VA and its mental health officials did enough to help Holmes, a combat veteran who had recently become pregnant and was struggling with suicidal thoughts and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Holmes, her two sons — Justin, 10 and Kai, 4 — and her 9-month-old daughter, Faith, were discovered Jan. 27 by an apartment maintenance worker in Austell. Holmes had just completed a program for homeless veterans a year ago, and had been trying to get back on her feet through a housing voucher program for veterans that helped pay for her apartment. But she had missed a pair of mental health appointments in December and the VA had identified her as a high-risk for suicide.

“If they knew something was wrong, why didn’t they do something about it?,” said Joanne Lumpkin, a paternal aunt in from North Carolina. “If she had missed two appointments. Why didn’t they come looking for her? They knew she had three kids.”

A more immediate and pressing concern for the family is how they will cover the funeral arrangements for Holmes and two of her children. Her oldest was buried on Monday at a service in Virginia handled by his father. The other two children have different fathers.

As of Wednesday, the VA had not contacted the family, the aunts said, so they reached out to the agency themselves. The family met in the afternoon with Atlanta VA officials, but there was no resolution to their request for help with the funerals. The aunts thought the VA would cover the costs but they are not so sure now, according to Stella Holmes-Hughes, a maternal aunt from Brooklyn.

“I’m less than happy with what I’ve heard,” said Holmes-Hughes. “I’m not getting a definite anything…We don’t know what to do. We are in a whirlpool of tragedy. We’re doing what we can. We have our good moments and our not such good moments.”

The Atlanta VA declined comment Wednesday. In a statement Friday, VA officials said they were “deeply saddened” by the veteran’s death and offered prayers for her family.

The aunts played a crucial role in Holmes’ life growing up. Holmes’ parents were never married and Holmes was put in foster care at age 6 after her mother, who has mental health issues, was unable to care for her. At different periods in her life, she lived with her aunts. Growing up, they described her as a determined and smart young woman who had high ambitions. She could also be hard on herself and didn’t always take criticism well.

She graduated from Catholic school in Brooklyn and went into the Marines at age 18. She was a proud Marine and saw combat before being discharged in 2003 after about four or five years of service. They described her as an ambitious, smart and tenacious person. Deeply religious, she was a gentle person who rarely expressed anger toward others, they said.

A year or two after leaving the military, she moved to Norfolk, Va., and got married.

They recall the joy she felt when her oldest son, Justin, was born and how important being a mother was to her identity. She celebrated each of Justin’s developmental milestones, they said.

“She was the happiest woman in the world,” said Williams. “She was so elated. Her whole pregnancy was something of ‘I’m giving birth. I have a human being inside me.’ That meant a lot to her.”

She got a bachelors degree, they said, and at one point had plans to go to law school. In Virginia, she reported back to her family in New York that she was working in the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).

But her marriage became troubled during the pregnancy with Justin, they said, and it eventually ended. Still, Holmes juggled motherhood and schoolwork while trying to get her career on track, they said.

“She never spoke of parenting as a chore,”said Holmes-Hughes. “She was a splendid parent.”

The family saw her with some regularity during her years in Virginia. Then Holmes moved to Georgia more than four years ago with hopes of becoming a state trooper. They think she chose Georgia, in part, because she had some friends from the military here and had a support system.

She was pregnant with her second child, Kai, as she made the move. After Kai was born, she started to drift from the family, her aunts recall, and her phone calls became less frequent. The last they heard of her she was living in Stone Mountain. But in the past few months, they had started to grow more concerned because no one had heard from her. As the New Year arrived, they planned to reconnect with her; one aunt hoped to convince her to return to New York.

“I made a vow, I said: ‘This year, I’m going to find Kisha. I have to find Kisha,’” said Williams, who had made it one of her New Year’s resolutions. “And this is what came up. I didn’t think it was going to be this.”

The family said Holmes death and what she did was more shocking because the niece they knew and helped raise seemed like the most unlikely person to carry out such an act. Holmes Austell apartment also offered few clues.

The family sorted through Holmes’ belongings after arriving in Atlanta. Shelves were stocked, the rooms tidy. Childrens’ toys lying about. No signs that Holmes’ life was unraveling, they said.

“We’ve been trying to piece together what happened to what brought this about,” said Holmes-Hughes. “All of her friends are shocked. Everyone is shocked. Everyone who knew her. Knew her with her children and felt they were very happy. They liked the way she was bringing up Justin and the kids. No one was prepared for this, least of all us.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.