On Monday morning, 4-year-old Tahjir Smith spilled his breakfast cereal. He stuttered, his mother would later tell police, as he told her what he had done.
Then, authorities said, his punishment began.
Using hands and a shoe, his mother, Lisa, and her boyfriend, Keiff King, would later strike the little boy over and over again, in the head and torso, authorities said. By the time Abington Township Police arrived that evening, Tahjir was limp and unresponsive.
On Tuesday, Smith, 19, and King, 26, both of Willow Grove, were charged with attempted first-degree murder, aggravated assault, child endangerment, and related offenses.
“This senseless death of a 4-year-old boy at the hands of the very adults who are supposed to care for him and keep him safe is a horrible tragedy,” Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele said in a statement. “This is the face of domestic violence — a preschooler was beaten until he stopped breathing because he spilled his cereal.”
The coroner’s office had yet to determine the cause and manner of death Tuesday evening, but a preliminary examination indicated this may not have been the boy’s first beating. Old rib fractures were found along with the recent injuries, authorities said.
According to charging documents, police officers were called to the home on the 1800 block of Lukens Avenue just after 6 p.m. Monday for a reported respiratory emergency. Upon finding the boy dead and talking with Smith, Abington Township police and the Montgomery County Detective Bureau began to investigate.
In an interview that night, Smith told investigators about the spilled cereal. That morning, Smith had seen Tahjir running toward a couch, being “sneaky,” she told police. When she confronted the boy, he began to stutter — as he often did when scared — and admitted to the spill, according to the documents.
Smith then took Tahjir to the back bedroom to be disciplined, ordering him into the “position,” which she told police was similar to a push-up position, according to the documents. When Tahjir moved from the position, she told him, “You are playing with me,” according to the documents.
That afternoon, Smith told police, she told King about Tahjir’s behavior. Throughout the afternoon, Tahjir was allegedly ordered into the position several more times as punishment. At one point, the boy put his knee down while in the position, according to the documents.
That is when, authorities said, things escalated.
Smith told police King punched Tahjir in the back of the head. After that, she lay Tahjir on a bed, naked from the waist down, as she and King alternated hitting the boy in the buttocks with a sandal, she told police. King told investigators he called this punishment a “butt whooping,” according to the documents. Smith told police she noticed her son became unresponsive during this period of punishment.
After Tahjir urinated on himself during the beating, the couple placed him in the shower, Smith told police. King turned the water from cold to hot, saying Tahjir’s punishment hadn’t ended, according to the documents.
When Tahjir was still unresponsive after the shower, Smith said, she wanted to call 911, but King told her, “He is still breathing. He is cool. He is still up,” according to the documents. Then, Smith told police, she watched Tahjir’s eyes roll back and his mouth open. King dressed Tahjir, the couple took him outside, and they called 911, according to the documents.
Ishmael Powell, King’s 18-year-old cousin who also lived in the home, told police he heard Tahjir crying from another room around 2 p.m. Powell also said he heard the sound of hands hitting skin, according to the documents.
The home, police noted, was in “deplorable” condition and was visibly roach-infested, according to the documents.
No attorney for Smith or King was listed on court documents as of Tuesday evening.
They were arraigned Monday before District Judge John D. Kessler, with bail set at $500,000 each.
Unable to post bail, the pair was being held Tuesday night at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, awaiting a Jan. 31 preliminary hearing.