A 3-year-old Kansas City boy could only cry in horror as he watched his mother lose a violent fight for her life in November.
But police say the little boy’s bravery and presence of mind helped lead them to his mother’s body and along with it a piece of evidence that led to charges Monday against the alleged killer — his father.
Jackson County prosecutors charged Ja A. Ray, 43, with first-degree murder in the stabbing and drowning death of 21-year-old Essence Willoughby in a wooded area.
Ray, who has been in custody on a probation violation since shortly after the killing, also is charged with armed criminal action.
Family members said that Willoughby had been involved with Ray since she was 14 but had broken off the relationship and was studying criminal justice at an area community college with the hope of becoming a police officer.
But on Nov. 11, she agreed to go to church with Ray and their two boys.
Authorities learned what allegedly happened later that day from her son, who gave chilling details to police, according to court documents.
His mother was “bleeding in her face as she was screaming and kicking in the sticks,” the boy said.
He reported seeing “daddy cutting his mommy in her stomach.” As Willoughby fought and tried to escape, her sons, ages 3 and 2, “sat in the grass while they cried,” according to the court documents.
Willoughby, Ray and their sons had attended church service that morning at Gilbert Memorial AME Church at 3700 Topping Ave. in Kansas City.
They left together before the service ended and went into a wooded area nearby, according to court documents.
The first inkling of trouble for Willoughby’s family came later that afternoon.
Unable to contact her daughter, Willoughby’s mother spoke to Ray on the phone. He told her that Willoughby had left church with a man he didn’t know and had left the children with him.
Later that night, Ray dropped the children off with a witness not named in court documents and asked that person to watch the children.
According to that witness, the 3-year-old revealed that his parents had fought and “daddy punched momma in the face,” according to court documents.
The boy added that “daddy then started stabbing mama, then drowned her in water, and then buried her in the leaves,” according to the documents.
Police had a child protection services specialist interview the boy while detectives observed.
The next day, detectives and family members took the boy back to the church to see if he could help them find Willoughby. Her body was discovered that afternoon face down in a creek running through woods east of the church.
At the scene, technicians recovered a blue and white “Kansas City” jacket and a black knife handle. A witness who knew Ray said he was wearing a similar jacket the day he left to go to church, according to the court documents.
A bloodstain on the sleeve of the jacket matched the DNA of Willoughby, according to the allegations. The results of testing on the coat’s collar and the knife handle showed that both Willoughby and Ray could be possible contributors of the samples.
Ray pleaded guilty in 2010 to a charge of domestic assault in an Independence case and was sentenced to two years of probation. Online court records do not indicate who the victim was. Authorities issued a warrant for his arrest on a probation violation after Willoughby’s death.
News of Monday’s charges brought relief to Willoughby’s family.
“I’m extremely happy charges have finally been filed,” said Willoughby’s mother, Helen Frazier. “I’m looking forward to making them final in court.”
Frazier said her grandsons are doing well.
“They are missing their mommy every day,” she said. “But they are doing fine.”
Frazier said she is thankful that the boys were not physically harmed when their mother was killed.
“I’m glad to have my grandbabies,” she said. “It could have been worse.”