Atty: Exorcism murder suspects called selves "demon assassins"

Zakieya L. Avery, 28, is accused of stabbing her two toddlers to death in an alleged "exorcism"
Montgomery County police

A Maryland mother accused of stabbing her two toddlers to death in what authorities call an attempted exorcism called herself the commander of a group known as the “demon assassins,” according to a Montgomery County prosecutor.

State’s Attorney John McCarthy spoke with CBS News’ Crimesider based on information relayed in a Maryland court hearing Tuesday.

Zakieya Avery, 28, is charged with murder in the stabbing deaths of her son, 1, and daughter, 2. She’s also facing attempted murder charges after another daughter, 5, and son, 8, were found seriously injured with stab wounds in her home Friday.

 Another woman, Monifa Sanford, 21, who police say lived in the suburban Germantown, Md. townhouse with the family, is also charged with murder and attempted murder. Both women are being held without bond pending a future court appearance.

McCarthy said that the women feared demons had possessed the one-year-old boy’s body, and then “jumped” to the two-year-old girl, then to the five-year-old girl, and then to the eight-year-old boy. He said that both defendants told authorities the children’s eyes had turned black.

Strangulation attempts were made on the three younger children before all four were attacked with knives, McCarthy said. It’s not clear whether the oldest child, who later named his mother as the perpetrator of the attack, was also strangled.

Based on the boy’s statements, the two older children apparently witnessed the murder of the two younger children in the master bedroom from an adjacent hallway, McCarthy said. After the intended exorcism the women washed the children's bodies and wrapped them in blankets, believing they needed to be clean when they saw God, reports the Washington Post.

Sanford, too, was attacked after they believed the demon had jumped inside of her, according to the paper.

Sanford was not related to the family but had been living with them for several months, said McCarthy. Sanford and Avery met at a church, but splintered off from the group, telling investigators they had formed the “demon assassins” about 30 days ago, McCarthy said.


Monifa Sanford, 21, is one of two Md. women charged in an alleged "exorcism" murder of two tots.
Montgomery County Police Department
 The women told investigators they had performed numerous exorcisms as part of the group, but none of them had involved violence or weapons. Avery referred to herself as the “commander” of the group, and Sanford as a “sergeant,” McCarthy said.

To neighbors, the first indication of something amiss in the home came Thursday, the night before the children were found dead and injured. A concerned resident placed a call to dispatchers saying a child had been left unattended in a car outside the home.

The caller told dispatchers a woman who came to retrieve the child was “attacking” him and talking to herself. “You need to back up off me, ma’am,” the caller is heard saying. “A baby in a car for an hour is my business.”

Inside the home, McCarthy said Sanford and Avery were preparing for an exorcism, but not on the children – on a man they identified as “Troy.” Both women told authorities they placed the children in the car because they were afraid the children would become fearful during the exorcism, McCarthy said, based on information relayed in court.

Montgomery County Police responded Thursday evening, and when they didn’t receive an answer at the door, requested child services to follow up the following morning.

“Troy” never showed up, McCarthy said, and at some point in the early morning hours, the women became convinced the children were possessed with demons. The attack is believed to have begun around 5 a.m. Friday.

In another 911 call later that morning, a neighbor told dispatchers she had seen a knife with blood on it outside of a car parked outside the house. The neighbor, a woman, also reported that she had heard “loud noises in the night.”

In the call, she adds that she heard what sounded like "jumping" and "running" but didn't think anything of it because there were four children living in the home.

"So I didn't know. I just didn't think anything,” the caller says. “I took my kids to school and I saw the knife with blood outside, I see the car with the door open, I see the windows open. I don't know if something happened there. The knife is still there."

When officers arrived at the home Friday morning, they saw a knife on the sidewalk and a second broken knife in front of the home, according to a statement of probable cause in the case. After entering the home with keys left in the car, they heard people moving around in the upstairs portion of the home who wouldn’t immediately respond to officers.

Avery came down the stairs from the second floor, assisted by her son, 8. She attempted to flee down the basement steps and out a rear door, but officers stopped her. Inside the home, officers discovered the boy was suffering from stab wounds, according to the probable cause statement.  

He appeared to be wet, as if he had been recently in the shower, McCarthy said.

Sanford also came downstairs, suffering from several cutting injuries and a severe wound to the neck, McCarthy said.

Officers discovered the two toddlers dead in the second floor master bedroom and the five-year-old girl in another bedroom suffering from stab wounds.

Sanford would later tell officers that she and Avery both stabbed the children, “because they were performing an exorcism,” according to the probable cause statement.

“Both believed the children were possessed by demons,” the documents state.

At the hospital, the eight-year-old boy told authorities that his mother came into his bedroom, stabbed his one-year-old brother, and then stabbed him in the hallway.

She then stabbed the two other children, the boy told officers.

On Tuesday, McCarthy requested a mental health evaluation to determine whether Avery is competent to stand trial. She has previously been involuntarily committed for psychiatric illness, McCarthy said.

McCarthy said he will also ask a judge for a competency hearing for Sanford.

Avery appeared by closed-circuit television from the county jail Tuesday, reports the Washington Post. A jail employee said an initial evaluation showed evidence of psychotic thinking and delusions, reports the paper.

The surviving boy and girl are expected to recover, McCarthy said. The girl remains in critical condition.

Edward Leyden, a lawyer for Sanford, told reporters after the hearing that "everyone who is involved in this case is in deep pain,” reports the Associated Press.

"It obviously has details that are salacious and we just ask folks to give an opportunity for all of us to get a handle on just what happened here," Leyden said of the case, "so that when the time comes to present this to a judge and a jury, all of the facts are here.”

  • Erin Donaghue

    Erin Donaghue covers crime for's Crimesider.