Image by DAVID MAIALETTI
Sometimes you just have to close your eyes and gasp at the horror we find in this world. True-crime readers know the feeling well. How can people do these things to each other? How and why does the human mind produce such sadistic violence?
I got a strong dose of this feeling the other day reading about an utterly shocking recent case in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the story of which just gets more disturbing and tragic with each new detail.
On February 25th, 2019, a case worker from Bucks County Children and Youth Services went to Morrisville to check in with the Decree family. This was the third time in as many weeks she’d tried reaching the family, whose children had missed 10 days of school recently.
Upon entering the apartment and descending into the basement, the case worker found a scene of horror: a chaotically disheveled bedroom containing seven motionless bodies. Five of them, laying together in a tightly packed pile, were dead: Shana Decree’s children, Naa’Irah Smith (25) and Damon Decree Jr. (13), Shana’s sister Jamilla Campbell (42) and Campbell’s 9-year-old twin daughters Imani and Erika Allen.
Two of them– Shana Decree (47) and her daughter Dominique Decree (21)–were alive but extremely disoriented and unresponsive. After being taken to the hospital, things began to get strange as police investigators interviewed Shana and Dominique.
The mother and daughter contradicted each other when trying to explain why the apartment looked like there had been a struggle. But both said that everyone in the apartment had agreed to die by suicide because the world was coming to an end. Even the 9-year-old twins were on board, they said.
Autopsies conducted by the Buck County coroner told a different story, a violent one. The eldest victim had been strangled; the other four died from asphyxiation. Police and prosecutors would determine that Shana and Dominique carried out the homicides over a three-day period. According to authorities, who reviewed text messages sent and exchanged by the family, they did so because they believed they were surrounded by demons and had to obey them. Death was the only escape.
During the trial, court-appointed psychologists and psychiatrists testified that both Shana and Dominique had suffered from severe lifelong mental illness, which included schizoid personality disorder, major depression disorder, and PTSD. Dominique’s attorney said she began receiving mental health treatment at age 5.
While the family did not belong to a cult, their behavior almost models a small-scale version of one. Intense delusions had caused the family to isolate themselves, cutting the children off from friends and other family members.
Ronald Smith, the father of one of the victims, said that shortly before the murders his 25-year-old daughter Naa’Irah suddenly moved out of her apartment, where she lived with her fiance, and moved in with her mother, Shana.
Smith relayed a chilling story about his desperate attempt to communicate with Naa’Irah. After driving from Maryland to check on her, Smith said, his daughter would only speak with him for a few moments at the door of the apartment. Her behavior was unusually shy and she told her dad she had to “make herself right before going through the pearly gates,” adding that the world would come to an end on March 1st.
“It was like a switch was flipped,” Smith said. “I talked to Naa’Irah all throughout the month of January, and then nothing.”
Damon Decree Sr., who lost two children, Dominique and Damon Jr., was so devastated he attempted suicide.
He said, “The bottom line is, I didn’t do the number-one job a parent has: I didn’t keep him [Damon] safe. I may not have been the best dad, but no one deserves this.”
Prosecutors agreed to a plea deal with Shana and Dominique, saying the mother-daughter duo had expressed remorse and horror at what they did.
Addressing the court, both women cried and apologized.
“The hardest thing for me to do is decide who to say I’m sorry to first,” Shana said. “To my family, I am sorry for taking away these beautiful souls in such a horrible manner.”
Her daughter, Dominique, cried uncontrollably and said she would be haunted by her actions every day.
“I’m so sorry for everything that happened, and I truly don’t understand why it happened.”
After accepting the plea and sentencing them to five consecutive life sentences, President Judge Wallace H. Bateman, called the case “unimaginable.”
“This is horrible and tragic, because I do believe the two of you have expressed remorse. Unfortunately, that doesn’t bring them back. You can’t say, ‘sorry,’ and expect people to move on with their lives.”
“Her family tried to help her,” Shana’s attorney, Christa Dunleavy said, “but the delusions were too strong.”
It’s unclear from the articles I’ve read the extent to which the children and adult victims were fully convinced of the delusions Shana and Dominique shared. One victim’s father portrayed his daughter as having been indoctrinated by the beliefs. Does that mean she may have gone along with the plan, or perhaps was convinced death really was necessary? There seemed to be evidence of a struggle in the basement, suggesting that some of the victims had second thoughts and fought back.
Given that the killings went down over the course of three days, it would be interesting to learn more about the conversations, interactions, and preparations that occurred each day. And why were Shana and Dominique disoriented and unresponsive at the scene? Did they attempt suicide after killing their family? A look at the court transcripts may illuminate the full horror of what happened in that basement.
Then again, maybe it’s best not to dwell too much on the details of this tragic case.
The connection between mental illness and apocalyptic occultism, particularly demonology, has a well-established history, as does the connection between cults and murder. but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a case that involves an apocalyptic murder-suicide cult molded into a family cell with shared demon delusions.
RIP to the victims. Sorry this world abandoned you to unspeakable horror. You deserved so much better.