As soon as he entered the house at 3017 W. Harper St., Sgt. William Kelly was certain he would not find a body. There was no smell of decomposing flesh.
Kelly had been dispatched just after 9 a.m., when police received word from a teenager: She said they would find the corpse of her 5-year-old sister inside her mother's house in North Philadelphia.
The front door was locked. Kelly circled to the back. A second-floor window was open. He hoisted himself onto a shed and over the sill.
He was in a bedroom. The room was bare. He stepped carefully over the wood floorboards. The house appeared deserted. He looked behind doors, searched closets, peeked inside the bathtub.
Downstairs, the living room and kitchen were empty. He opened the basement door and peered into darkness. There was no bulb in the light socket. Kelly climbed down cautiously. The last step was broken. Weak light came through a window that had been nailed shut. A pile of rubbish lay under the stairs. A broom handle was propped against a wall.
He went back up, unlocked the front door and stepped outside. Denisha Wise, who had called police, had arrived. Kelly radioed in that the house was clear. Then he approached Denisha.
"We haven't found anything," he told her.
The 18-year-old was distraught.
"My mother told me she was in the basement. "
The officer mentally replayed his search of the house. Then he went back inside, back down the rickety basement stairs. With the broom handle, he spread the garbage under the stairs. A cardboard sheet emerged. He lifted it. A mouse leaped out.
Kelly gathered himself and lifted the cardboard higher. There was something underneath, something small and round covered with garbage and dirt.
It was a skull.
One of the most horrific cases of child abuse ever seen in the city had been unearthed. For a long time afterward people would ask, how could anyone do such a thing to a child?
* Hours earlier that same day, Sept. 16, 1997, Denisha Wise had heard the phone ringing when she returned home just after midnight.
She fumbled for her front door keys. It was a good two minutes before she reached the phone.
"I've something to tell you," said her mother, Charlene Wise. Her voice sounded strange, no louder than a whisper.
"What is it? " Denisha asked. She had been worried about Charnae, her 5-year-old sister, whom she hadn't seen since May.
That evening, she had visited Charlene in Norristown and questioned her again about Charnae. For months, her mother had kept changing the story: First Charnae had been adopted. Then she was in Norristown. Then with relatives in North Carolina.
Denisha had searched everywhere. Local child-welfare agencies had no answers. Aunts in Norristown said they hadn't seen her. Scared, Denisha called human services hotlines and told them that Charnae was missing, perhaps dead.
Charlene was hooked on crack. She infuriated Denisha. The two shared an on-again, off-again relationship. They constantly fought. But neither cut herself off from the other, and one would always come back after a quarrel and make up.
On the phone now, Charlene was sobbing. She was calling from her sister's house in Norristown. She said social workers had somehow tracked her to the local Salvation Army shelter earlier and taken away her other children. Police had questioned her. Denisha, who had directed the social workers there, said nothing. She wanted to get at the truth about Charnae.
Charlene wanted to meet Denisha right away. Denisha threatened to hang up.
"Neesie, stay on the phone," Charlene begged. "This is real important. "
Denisha hung up. She got ready for bed. Charlene called back.
"Where's Charnae? " Denisha demanded. Charlene dodged, asking Denisha to call social workers and say that Charnae was with her. Denisha hung up again.
The phone rang instantly.
"Mom, just tell me. "
Charlene sniffled and sobbed. She collected her breath: "Charnae's dead. "
"Where she at, Mom? "
"Wrapped in a sheet, under the stairs. . . . "
Denisha screamed. She slammed down the phone. She ran out the front door and rushed to her godmother's house nearby. She wore just her T-shirt and underwear.
Behind her, the phone rang like a thing possessed.
* TV news trucks had arrived when forensic pathologist Patricia Kauffman got to 3017 W. Harper St.
In the basement's half light, Kauffman examined the skull. It belonged to a child.
The basement was dirty, musty and hot. Kauffman had three detectives hold flashlights over her shoulder as she worked.
The skeleton was intact. It was wrapped in a soiled sheet. The corpse had decomposed completely - this was why Kelly had not smelled it.
Peeling back the sheet, Kauffman looked for broken bones or other signs of how the child might have died.
A T-shirt with orange and white stripes covered the torso. Slacks with a Pocahontas print covered the legs. Bones protruded through the clothes. Kauffman found a few tufts of black hair. A blue plastic barrette.
The barrette indicated the child was a girl. From the hair, Kauffman deduced the girl was black. The bones suggested the victim was about 5 years old.
Kauffman searched the rubbish. She found a bucket near the skeleton and tossed it aside. Strewn around were dozens of chicken and pork bones. Kauffman sealed them in a large Zip-Loc bag. Two technicians from the medical examiner's office wrapped the skeleton in a clean sheet and placed it in a body bag.
Kauffman led the technicians outside. A large crowd had gathered. There was a wail as people saw the chicken and pork bones in Kauffman's Zip-Loc bag. They thought it was all that remained of the victim.
At the medical examiner's office, Kauffman's deductions about the age, race and sex of the dead child were confirmed.
In her autopsy report, she wrote "homicide by unspecified means. " But from medical records and Denisha's testimony, Kauffman deduced the girl starved to death:
First, she would have lost weight. Her muscles would have wasted away. She would have grown withdrawn. She would likely have developed diarrhea, hastening the loss of weight. Finally, she would have lapsed into unconsciousness. Her immune system would have failed.
Death could have come in three days or two months. It would have been painful.
In the summer heat of the basement, the corpse probably decomposed in about two weeks. Charnae had died some time between July 16 and Sept. 2.
* In the second floor hallway of her sister's house in Norristown, Charlene Wise debated her options. Denisha could not be trusted with the secret. She would tell police about Charnae, tell them gleefully.
It was morning. They were probably coming for her now. She dressed quickly and left the house.
Fleeing was all the 35-year-old had done the last few weeks. Terrified by the thought of Charnae in the basement, she had abandoned Harper Street and taken her other children to the Salvation Army shelter in Norristown.
She had returned once to dig a grave in the backyard and hide Charnae, but had lost her nerve and fled again.
"I'm in trouble!" she now said, bursting in on Sam Holden, a friend who lived nearby.
"What did you do?" he asked. "Kill somebody? "
Charlene's heart lurched. She needed a lawyer. She needed help. Holden offered to call a lawyer he knew, but Charlene's mind was on something more pressing.
"Can I have some money? "
He gave her all he had - $40. She went out and bought some crack. Like a faithful friend, the drug offered her respite. She brought the "rocks" back to his apartment.
She didn't have her drug paraphernalia - she'd pitched her pipe when police came to question her the previous evening at the shelter. So she cut a piece of wire mesh from a window. She burned the metal down to a small, hard ball. She rolled some aluminum foil around a pencil and put the ball at the end. When she pulled out the pencil, she had a makeshift pipe. She put the crack in, lit up and puffed.
But she knew she wouldn't have enough. She wanted to stay high until she was arrested. The drug allowed her to push trouble away to a distant place. So she disguised herself with dark glasses, a cap and a heavy coat and slipped outside.
She had left $300 at the shelter. When she got there, she saw police. She ducked into a back alley and raced back to Holden's apartment. He was asleep.
She turned on the TV. It was noon. The news was on and to her amazement they were showing her house on Harper Street.
Police officers were swarming around. Denisha was there, too. Charlene snapped off the TV.
She picked up the phone and dialed Denisha's number. Her daughter's boyfriend answered. Only then did Charlene realize that Denisha couldn't be home - she had just seen her on television at Harper Street.
Outside, police cars cruised by. Charlene hurriedly smoked her remaining crack. As her children well knew, she hated being rushed or bothered when she was using drugs. That spoiled her "get-high. "
But now, knowing police were coming for her, she puffed hard.
* They came that afternoon. Charlene calmly picked up her bag and went with them.
She was held briefly in Norristown and then driven to Philadelphia. Homicide detectives wanted to talk to her. One officer turned to her as they drove:
"After we finish questioning you, how are you going to get back to Norristown? "
Charlene's heart jumped. They were going to let her go! She mumbled something about taking a train.
She fantasized about picking up her $300 and getting high. She imagined the sense of utter well-being as the drug washed over her. At the Police Administration building, when officers began to question her, she focused on just one thing: matches, pipe and some rocks.
She gave them a statement willingly. She waived her right to be silent. She signed everything they put before her. Yes, she would talk. No, she didn't want a lawyer.
"Will you tell us how the remains of your daughter Charnae got in the basement?" the detectives asked.
"I put her there," she replied.
"Was she dead or alive when you put her, Charnae, in the basement? "
"She was alive. "
"Tell us how your daughter Charnae got into the basement and what happened to her. "
Charlene gave them an account of drugs and abuse. When she finished, they charged her with murder and locked her in a cell.
* Meanwhile, social workers took 7-year-old Donte Wise, one of Charlene's other children, to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia: He had 18 lacerations and bruises. Withdrawn and apprehensive, the boy refused to make eye contact.
To Angelo Giardino, a pediatrician and child-abuse expert, the injuries were the signatures of childhood for many youngsters. The loop-shaped mark on Donte's left thigh was caused when he was struck by a rope that had been bent backward on itself. The ligature marks on the boy's arms indicated he had been tied up. There were pinpoint scars on his face: He had been struck with a hairbrush.
The Rev. Tom Cairns lived two blocks from where Charnae Wise died.
Two blocks! As the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church at 27th and Poplar Streets, he saw his life as a mission, the neighborhood as his responsibility.
Nine days after Charlene was arrested, Mr. Cairns led a candlelight prayer vigil outside 3017 W. Harper St.
Writing down his thoughts beforehand, he asked himself what kind of mother would kill her own child?
He was furious at Charlene Wise. In some child-abuse cases, mothers took out their anger against an ex-boyfriend or husband by hurting his child. Is that what had happened?
Hundreds of people showed up for the vigil. Mr. Cairns offered to reach out to all who needed help.
As he walked home that September night, a disturbing thought crossed his mind. It was the sort of thought he had come to associate with the voice of God: There was someone in crisis who sorely needed his help.
Cell number 49 at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center in the Northeast has a window about three feet high and a fist wide. It looks out over a lawn ringed with barbed wire. In the distance Charlene could see a tiny sliver of the Delaware River.
She paced between the door and window, 10 feet back and forth. She felt she would burst. She punched the walls. In the middle of the night, other inmates' screams echoed through the prison: "Get me outta here! "
She missed her children. She craved her crack.
She stared out the window and asked herself, "What could I possibly do to get out of this place? "
After two weeks, a guard told her she had visitors.
Denisha? It seemed impossible after all that had happened.
The guards strip-searched her before leading her to the meeting room. A large sign said: No Kissing.
The door opened and in walked two strangers, a white couple.
"They ain't coming to see me," Charlene thought.
But they were. They were members of a church in her neighborhood.
"Why did you come?" she asked.
Mr. Cairns said: "God sent me. "
Soon she was sobbing.
"Do you need a friend? "
"Do you want to be forgiven? "
"Do you want to be saved? "
A thousand times, yes.
"Whatever happened, God loves you," Mr. Cairns told her. "He wants to help you - if you let him. "
Mr. Cairns spoke from personal experience: At 16, he had contemplated suicide. He took a kitchen knife to his wrist but didn't know whether to slash lengthwise or crosswise. So, instead, he visited a church for solace. He thought the minister was speaking directly to him.
Mr. Cairns had prayed, "God, if you're really out there, help me change my life. "
When Charlene got back to her cell, she eased herself down beside the bunk, knelt and clasped her hands. Her faith was rusty. To her, God was someone floating in outer space, not the kind of God that Mr. Cairns was talking about, real and tangible.
She prayed for forgiveness. When she got up five minutes later, she felt no different.
Outside the prison, Mr. Cairns and his church colleague bowed their heads and prayed aloud:
"Lord, prepare our hearts and minds to minister to Charlene. Make us good listeners. Help us be compassionate, yet honest. "
Mr. Cairns visited Charlene every two weeks. They met in a room divided by a waist-high partition. Guards watched them.
She was younger than he was but felt older. How would he ever understand all she had done, all she had been through? His earnest intensity made her feel ashamed.
She decided to tell him some things and hide others.
She was born in Norristown. She was a shy child. In school, she ate lunch alone in the bathroom. At home, no one hugged or said, "I love you. "
No one ate dinner before Charlene's father. Sometimes the children ate at 11 p.m., sometimes they went to bed hungry. She remembered being beaten with an extension cord. Social workers figured among her earliest memories. They put her in foster care. They moved her to a group home.
When she was 13, a man whistled at her on the street. He told her she had a nice-looking body. He was attentive and charming. He was more affectionate than anyone in her own family.
He was 38.
He invited her over for dinner. They had sex. She got pregnant, but miscarried.
At 16, Charlene got pregnant with Denisha. At 17, she was pregnant again.
During her second pregnancy, she moved in with another man. He was 40. They had three children. He taught her how to drive, how to cook, and how to conduct herself. He said he loved her.
She also remembered he once jammed a gun to her temple.
She shook with fear.
He angled the gun away slightly and pulled the trigger. The roar was deafening. The bullet made a hole in the roof.
It was definitely not a story to tell Pastor Cairns.
The more Mr. Cairns got to know Charlene, the more she seemed to him like a lost soul.
She stared people down and appeared remorseless because the only choices she knew were predator or victim.
She projected a hostile prison swagger, but could also be extravagantly courteous. She responded to affection, blossomed under attention. She was moody. When upset, she withdrew into brooding silences. She could abruptly turn flirtatious, steal glances out of the corner of her eye, and cover her smiles with a bashful hand. She was shrewd, but her street smarts were layered with naivete. She had given birth to eight children, yet something of the child remained in her.
Once she got to know Mr. Cairns, she talked and talked.
For all the talk, Mr. Cairns sensed there was a great deal she wasn't telling him. Secrecy meant she was in denial. Without honesty, there was no forgiveness.
She kept referring to Charnae's death as "the crime I am accused of. "
When he reminded her that she had done a terrible thing, she flared up.
"I did not murder my child. "
"But what you did do was very bad. "
She would change the subject.
Mr. Cairns wanted her to say: "I'm Charlene Wise. I killed my daughter. "
"I've got some stuff I want you to try. "
In 1988, when Charlene was 26, a sister's boyfriend cooked some cocaine, put it in a pipe, and handed it to her. She took a puff. It felt good.
"If you want more, you'll have to pay for it," he said.
The bags cost $5 and $10. She started smoking once or twice a week. Soon, she was "copping" her own stuff - buying from dealers on the street.
Her drug use compounded her other troubles: She used public assistance to feed her habit even as she raised five children. She hadn't finished high school.
When she moved to Pottstown, she and her partner allowed other addicts to use their home to get high in exchange for drugs. The children's playroom was converted at night into a crack den. They called it their "get-high" room.
In March 1990, police raided the house, found bags of crack, and arrested them. Her partner was jailed.
Interrogated and released, Charlene rushed home. She headed straight for her 3-month-old baby, Donte. Hidden inside his bottle of talcum powder was her stash of emergency drug money.
Montgomery County social workers, who once had taken Charlene from her parents' home, now came to take her children.
She was disconsolate. Her children were all she had. She screamed and wept.
"Don't act stupid now," the social workers told her.
Back in Norristown, addicted and desperate, Charlene stole. She crushed aspirin tablets and sold it to unsuspecting users as crack. She picked up men in bars, brought them home for sex, and took their money.
To Charlene, it wasn't prostitution: Prostitutes stood at street corners and flashed their legs.
She preferred older married men. Sometimes, she would take them to her bedroom, shut off the lights, and take off their clothes. She would say she needed to go to the bathroom. There, she would empty their wallets. When she came back, she would say she didn't feel like sex and kick them out. Then she would race through the house and slip out the back door before the duped men could come back to protest.
When her partner was released from prison, Charlene had sex with him, too.
In spring 1991, she found that she was pregnant with her sixth child - Charnae.
Two months after Mr. Cairns met Charlene, she took an important step.
"I gave my life to Christ and asked him to forgive my sins," she said.
The pastor embraced her. They clasped hands and prayed.
He urged her to read the Bible every day.
She had many questions from her Bible study. Mostly they were about one subject:
"Do you have to die to be forgiven? "
No, he would reply. Faith would save her. Christians were saved by faith alone.
Each question brought her closer to the confession that Mr. Cairns sought.
"What does it mean when it says, 'When someone slaps you on one cheek, show him the other? ' "
He explained the passage from the Sermon on the Mount. He read aloud:
"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. ' "
Charlene marked passages that she didn't understand. Breaking prison regulations, she kept a yellow fluorescent pen. When guards came to search her cell, she hid the pen inside her bottle of talcum powder.
Every time Charlene's case came up in court for a pretrial hearing, TV news aired her mugshot. Each time, inmates taunted her:
"Basement girl! "
They threatened to poison her. She ate as little as possible.
As Mother's Day approached, she refused to leave her cell even for recreation.
Without Mr. Cairns, she felt she would have gone mad. When the taunts grew loud, she read her Bible and turned the Christian radio stations on her headphones full blast, fighting the wrath of her fellows with voices that called down the wrath of God.
In the 18 months Charlene spent in jail awaiting trial, none of her many relatives in the area visited her. Except Denisha; mother and daughter had made up again.
Charlene worried about her eldest child: At 20, Denisha already had three children.
"I see Denisha going down the same route I did," Charlene thought to herself.
Once, when she gave her daughter advice about a dispute with a boyfriend, Denisha responded: "What do you know? You're in jail! "
Charlene tried to get in touch with her son Timothy, who was a year younger than Denisha. But he seemed to have vanished. She prayed for him and asked God to make it possible for her to see him.
As she was being taken to court one day, an incredible thing happened: She was in a prison holding area, and there was Timothy, right in front of her!
It turned out Timothy was in the same jail - on the men's side. He had been arrested for assaulting a police officer.
Surrounded by prisoners and guards, mother and son had an emotional reunion.
The prosecution offered Charlene a sentence of 30 to 60 years in exchange for a guilty plea to several charges related to the murder of Charnae and abuse of the other children. Charlene turned it down.
Sixty years! What had happened was a mistake, she had not intended to kill Charnae. Surely the jury would understand. Besides, she was no longer a drug-crazed person. With Mr. Cairns' help, she had undergone a personal transformation.
"It's not as bad as you think," she told Denisha confidently on the eve of the trial. "I'll be home. "
Assistant District Attorney Yvonne Ruiz had Charlene's children - Denisha, Kadedra and Donte - testify. Nine-year-old Donte told stunned jurors he had gone to the basement and felt Charnae's still heart.
Ruiz had Detective Lawrence McGuffin read to the court Charlene's graphic confession. The prosecutor told jurors it was not their business to understand why Charlene had killed her daughter. The fact that she had killed her was enough to convict.
Charlene's attorney, Anthony McKnight, said she hadn't intended to kill Charnae.
The jury convicted her of third-degree murder. It surprised the judge, who had expected a first-degree verdict.
As she waited for her sentence, Charlene paced in her cell, a universe of 10 feet whose every inch she would remember as long as she lived.
She prayed first thing in the morning and the last thing at night: "Please God, give me patience. "
On sunny days, she saw daisies on the lawn and sailboats on the Delaware River. She envied people on those boats. She looked forward to rainy days when no one would be outside with the sun on their faces.
She thought about all she had done, all she should have done, and all she wished she'd done. Slowly, a change came over her.
She had spent her first days in prison blaming everybody, her parents, her family, the drugs. She had blamed social workers, even little Charnae, who had been a difficult child. But now she knew that Charnae's death was her fault.
"I'm sorry my daughter's life had to be taken for this," she told Mr. Cairns, as tears slid down her face. "She's in a better place than here on Earth. She's in heaven; she's one of God's little angels. "
"It used to be that your body was free and your heart was in prison," he told her. "Now your heart is free. It's much better this way. "
As he prepared to sentence Charlene, Judge James A. Lineberger ordered a psychiatric evaluation. Charlene was summoned to the Criminal Justice Center.
She was put on a bus at the prison, handcuffed to another prisoner. As soon as the bus began to move, a group of inmates began taunting her.
"That's the bitch who was on the news. "
She stared straight ahead.
Suddenly, an inmate came up from behind and slammed a fist into Charlene's face, snapping her neck to the left.
Tears of shock and hurt and humiliation rolled down her cheeks, but she did not retaliate. She climbed off the bus and went for her psychiatric evaluation.
Later, she told Mr. Cairns about the incident, adding that she had not hit back.
"Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath," he had read to her from the Bible. " 'It is mine to avenge, I will repay,' says the Lord. "
Mr. Cairns wrote a letter to the judge about Charlene before the sentencing:
"Only God can be completely certain about a person's sincerity and depth of faith, but after 21 years of Christian ministry I'm as sure as I can be that her faith and conversion are genuine. "
The foster mother of three of Charlene's children also wrote to the judge. She described how traumatized they were.
The court psychiatrist's opinion was that Charlene's "prognosis for significant change or progress was guarded. "
In May, citing the "horrendous nature of the crimes," Judge Lineberger gave Charlene 28 to 56 years in prison.
Charlene peered through the narrow bars of her cell. A full moon shone, and the Philadelphia sky looked strange.
"Maybe the world will come to an end," she told her cellmate. "But I'm not worried. I'm going to heaven. "
"Don't be so sure," the cellmate scoffed.
Instead of fighting, Charlene prayed for her "cellie. "
When she told Mr. Cairns about the discouraging remark, he said: "You know whose voice that was. "
Mr. Cairns nodded.
"Your eternity is secure. "
She was sent to the state prison in Muncy. The first question she had was about chapel services.
Inmates crowded around her: "What did the judge give you? " "The judge ain't give me nothing," Charlene said. "God gives me one day at a time. "
Tomorrow: Why Charlene let her child die. Plus, in Health and Science, how child abuse can be prevented.
* This account is based on extensive interviews with the Wise family, the Rev. Tom Cairns and investigators, and on court testimony and records.
WHOM TO CALL FOR HELP Resources to help prevent child abuse. Most of these services are free.
State Child Abuse Hotlines, if you know or suspect abuse, or need help:
New Jersey: 1-800-792-8610
Local groups that offer counseling and advocacy:
Child Abuse Prevention Effort (hotline and counseling): 215-831-8877
Stop Child Abuse Now (education, home counseling): 215-590-1504
Support Center for Child Advocates ( advocacy, legal aid): 215-925-1913
Parents Action Network (DHS-sponsored parent support groups): 215-727-3687
Bucks County Peace Center (parenting support): 215-750-7220
Parents Anonymous, for referrals, counseling and community-based support groups:
New Jersey: 1-800-843-5437
Child Help USA child abuse hotline: 1-800-422-4453
National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information: 1-800-394-3366; http://www.calib.com/nccanch/
Prevent Child Abuse America: Information, parenting tips: 1-800-CHILDREN (244-5373) www.preventchildabuse.org