N.O. woman booked with 2 counts of murder
New Orleans — When Judy Andrews rolled over the bodies of her two grandchildren at their Gert Town apartment, she knew immediately that they were dead.
As she looked at the blood streaming from the nose of Kendall Adams, 3, and the foam framing 4-year-old Kelsey Adams’ lips, she knew she was too late to save the babies she’d worried over so many nights. At the urging of a police dispatcher, Andrews pulled the little bodies from the tub and dried them. But when she tried to perform CPR, the shock and despair overwhelmed her. What she saw is too horrible to remember, but impossible to forget.
“All I kept saying is ‘Oh Lord, they dead,’ ” said Andrews, who broke down as she recounted those terrible moments on the bathroom floor “You don’t (forget), you don’t.”
Chelsea Thornton, 23, has admitted to killing her two children at their apartment in the 3300 block of Audubon Court on Wednesday and leaving their bodies in a bathtub, according to the New Orleans Police Department. Kendall was shot once in the head, and Kelsey was drowned.
At a probable cause hearing on Thursday in Orleans Parish Criminal Court, prosecutors said that Thornton tried to shoot Kelsey as well, but the gun failed to fire.
Thornton has been booked with two counts of first-degree murder and is being held without bond. She is currently being represented by attorneys with the Louisiana Capital Defense Project.
The killing sent shock waves through Thornton’s family, and the family of the children’s father, Kenneth Adams, 29. By all accounts, Thornton loved her children to excess, and was so enamored with them that she couldn’t even stand to discipline them. But those who know her also say that Thornton has struggled with mental illness for years and at times could become “catatonic.” Yet no one ever imagined that her illness would go this far.
“She wouldn’t just kill her children,” said Eleanor Chapman, Thornton’s mother. “My child ain’t never been in no kind of trouble.”
History of mental illness
Chelsea Thornton may not have been in trouble with the law, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t known trouble. She’s been hospitalized in mental institutions in Mandeville and Baton Rouge in recent years, according to Chapman.
She was on medication for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Andrews said that Thornton has left the two young children home alone on more than one occasion and spent time living in a homeless shelter with Kelsey. The state Office of Child Services would neither confirm nor deny whether Thornton had ever been investigated by the agency.
Andrews, who allowed Thornton and the children to live with her for a few years, said that at times it would seem like Thornton would just check out on life. Thornton was naturally quiet, but that quality would be exacerbated when she was struggling mentally. Those episodes seemed to be linked to breaks in her medication schedule, Andrews said.
“She was fine when she stayed on her medicine,” said Andrews, noting that in recent weeks there had been no signs of issues. “It was like she was getting better.”
Chapman agreed that her daughter was improving but said she always relapsed whenever Andrews’ son, Kenneth Adams, came around. Adams and Thornton had been dating since Thornton was 14 years old, and Chapman claims he has always brought misery to her life. Adams splits time between Houston and New Orleans, and family members said he worked in construction. However, Chapman scoffed at that idea, noting Adams’ previous convictions on battery and narcotics charges.
In fact, Chapman said she suspects it was Adams’ gun that killed her grandchildren because Adams argued with her daughter about a missing gun days ago. That was when Chapman was moving Thornton into the apartment on Audubon Court. Police did not immediately provide any information on the weapon, or whom it was registered too.
“I just told him, ‘Why are you sucking the life out of my child,’ ” Chapman said, noting that her daughter was studying to be a medical assistant at Cameron College on Canal Street. “Every time he came home something happened with my child.”
Problems with medication
But even as family members argue about whom to blame, they are united in their belief that Thornton’s actions were inextricably linked to her illness and not the result of any malice toward her children. Several of them said that if she could have gotten more medical help, or if her medication had been less expensive, she wouldn’t have had so many problems.
Cecile Tebo, a clinical associate at Exodus House and former commander of the NOPD’s mental crisis unit, said she is certain that this tragedy could have been avoided if Thornton had access to adequate care. Someone with Thornton’s illness needs a combination of outpatient care, inpatient care and residential care, along with case workers dedicated to making certain she complied with her medication schedule, Tebo said.
Unfortunately, budget cuts in the state’s public health care system have made that almost impossible to receive, she said.
“If you take one piece out, the rest will crumble,” Tebo said. “This is the consequence of a very broken mental health system.”
Tebo said the state has tried to shift mental health services to the private sector, but that hasn’t been successful for poorer populations because the Medicaid reimbursement rates aren’t seen as adequate. Low-income residents have been struggling with rising mental health issues for years, and it’s been evident in the city’s constant crime issues. Tebo wondered if the death of Thornton’s children would be enough to spark change.
“Is this going to cause a big enough outcry? I don’t know” she said.
Shackled hand and foot in court on Thursday, Thornton wiped tears from her eyes multiple times while waiting to stand before the judge. A slender, almost frail woman, she was swallowed up by the bright orange jumpsuit given to prisoners.
Chapman, who had to be escorted from the courtroom after sobbing her daughter’s name, said Thornton was devoted to her children. She was determined to give them a good life despite not having much money.
Kendall and Kelsey were both sweet children, she said. Kendall loved playing alone with his toys, while Kelsey was smart as a whip and full of energy.
“We raised my grandchildren… My babies were beautiful. Those children didn’t even catch whippings,” Chapman proclaimed in the courthouse hallway. “Now I don’t have no grandchildren, and I don’t have no child.”
Andrews said her son also is taking his children’s deaths hard. When he called her on Wednesday and asked her to pick the children up from day care, he was only worried that they were home alone. He never considered the children might be dead. Thornton caught the bus to Adam’s aunt’s home to get him to take her to the hospital because of head and stomach pains. For hours Thornton told family members that the children were safe in day care. In fact, she even sent Andrews to that business to pick them up. Workers there said Thornton actually picked up the children at 10 a.m.
Andrews said her biggest worry when she entered Thornton’s apartment was that the children had gotten in trouble while alone. She found the television in the front room blaring cartoons, but no children. She checked their bedroom, and shook the little tents they loved to use as hiding places, but still heard no answer to her calls. It was only as Andrews was preparing to leave the apartment, worried sick that the children had somehow gotten outside, that she noticed the bathroom door ajar.
Andrews said that when she broke the news to her son, he demanded answers from Thornton and got one that Andrews will never forget.
“My son yelled ‘What did you do?’ ” Andrews said. “She said ‘They are in a better place.’ ”