A week ago on Father’s Day, residents in a cluster of 24 apartments in the Watkins Court development gathered outside to celebrate.
Music filled the courtyard. Children laughed together. Adults played cards and everyone filled their stomachs with barbecue.
“We didn’t know that ... locked in the closet in apartment 11, a child was starving and soaking in her own urine and feces,” said Jeaniea Ricks. “It just makes you sick.”
On Monday, the child’s mother, 29-year-old Jacole Prince, appeared in Jackson County Circuit Court on charges of assault, abuse of a child and endangering a child’s welfare.
Authorities on Friday found Prince’s oldest daughter, age 10 and weighing 32 pounds, barricaded in the closet. Police and state child welfare workers went to the two-bedroom apartment in the 1300 block of Highland Avenue after someone made a child abuse hotline call.
Prince wasn’t home when officers entered her apartment. The closet was tied shut with rope or shoestrings and blocked by a crib filled with shoes and blankets. According to court documents and law enforcement officials, the girl, “very small for her age” and seriously malnourished, spent a “substantial” amount of time locked in the closet. She wasn’t allowed regular meals or access to a restroom and, she told police, when she peed her pants her mother would strike her in the back really hard.
Prince appeared calm and expressionless in court Monday. In a barely audible voice, she asked for a public defender to represent her. Judge Margaret Sauer set Prince’s bond at $200,000, cash only, and scheduled her to return to court on July 12.
The little girl, who turns 11 next month, remained in a Kansas City hospital.
“I want to get a stuffed animal or something and take it up there to the hospital for her,” said Julia Legget, who has lived in an apartment below Prince for three years. “I just want her to know that we didn’t have a clue she was there. We never saw that child. We knew Jacole had another child, but she told us the child was living somewhere else.”
Another neighbor said Prince told her the girl’s father had been a drug abuser and had died. Another said Prince told her the girl was living with the child’s father.
Police said they had not been able to confirm whether the father is alive. Prince’s boyfriend regularly stayed at the apartment, neighbors said; they knew when he was there because he always played music “very loud.”
The boyfriend, who has denied knowing that the child was confined to the closet, hasn’t been charged in the case. However, prosecutors have not ruled out further charges because the investigation is ongoing.
Neighbors said they were shocked Friday when they learned about the little girl in the closet, identified in police and court documents as “LP” but whom neighbors now call “that baby.”
Prince has two other children, daughters ages 3 and 8. Police took them into protective custody when their mother was arrested Friday. Investigators said they didn’t know why the 10-year-old girl apparently was singled out for abuse. They also don’t know whether the significant amount of time she apparently spent confined caused any physical or developmental delays.
Prince “took care of the other two little girls,” Ricks said. “They were kept immaculate.”
Legget, whom neighborhood children call “Ms. Ann,” said the youngest daughter often came to her house “to hang out.”
“She would knock on my door and say, ‘Ms. Ann, come out and talk to me.’ We would sit here sometimes and just watch television. She was my buddy.”
Legget said that one night the little one, with her mother and the 8-year-old, spent the night with her because Prince and her boyfriend were not getting along.
“I told her if she ever got in a predicament that she could come to me,” Legget said she told Prince that night. “I would look after the girls. That lady came in my house and told me she was scared. She never said a word about that other baby. This is just unbelievable. I want to ask her why.”
When Deborah Harris heard the charges against Prince, she had a hard time reconciling the woman accused of abuse with the loving mother Harris knew.
Harris, a family friend, babysat for Prince’s now 8-year-old daughter when the child was an infant. Harris said Prince was a good mother to the baby. LP, a toddler then, tagged along with Prince only a few times.
She didn’t appear to be malnourished or underweight then. She was a beautiful little girl, Harris said.
Harris said Prince told her that LP lived with a female relative. Harris assumed the child was still living with the relative until the news about LP broke on Friday. That’s when she learned that the relative died about five years ago.
Kiana Smock, whose apartment is separated by a wall from the Prince apartment, said she has known Prince about four months. Her 7-year-old and Prince’s 8-year-old attend a Kansas City district school together and are friends.
“She has beautiful daughters. Those girls were always clean and respectful. I thought she was a good mother,” Smock said. “She and I hit it off right away. And we were kind of close.
“Jacole didn’t go to work. She hardly ever went anywhere. She was always sitting outside, smoking cigarettes morning, noon and night. Even when it rained she was sitting outside.”
Neighbors who have lived at Watkins Court for four years said Prince told them she had lived there about five years.
Neighbors watched each other’s children go off to school, return home in the afternoons and play in the courtyard until after dark. They never saw a third Prince child playing outside or going to school.
The last time the girl was enrolled in school was more than five years ago, when she was a kindergartner, according to Kansas City Public Schools records. A district spokesperson said she was enrolled at Woodland Elementary from August 2006 to April 2007.
Prince often borrowed tissues, cleaning supplies and other household items from Smock. But that wasn’t unusual. Neighbors said they were close and were always in and out of each other’s apartments.
“But Jacole didn’t let anyone into her apartment,” Smock said. “None of us have been inside. Not even the exterminator could get through her door.”
Smock said she was at a grocery store Friday with Prince when a neighbor ran in to tell them police were at Prince’s apartment and asking questions. She said Prince, with her two girls and two bags of groceries, left the store with the neighbor but didn’t go back to the apartment.
Smock said she cried the whole night after police found LP locked in the closet. She recalled that she’d heard tapping sounds against the wall coming from Prince’s apartment on several occasions. She thought it was the two girls she knew about playing a game. Now she thinks it was LP. “I can’t even sleep thinking about it,” she said.
She and other neighbors said if they had known, they would have done something. “If she had come to us and said she needed help, any one of us, all of us, would have helped her,” Ricks said.
“But they sat out here and partied with everyone like everything was OK and the whole time they had that baby in the house locked up.”
Now, she said, neighbors are even more vigilant about watching the children. If a child isn’t smiling, they want to know why.
“We are all very angry.”