Leader of Durham sect receives two life sentences for murder

ablythe@newsobserver.comJuly 5, 2013 

  • Timeline

    October 2010: Jadon Higganbothan, just 4 years old, is shot in Durham.

    December 2010: Antoinetta Yvonne McKoy is killed in Durham. Her family reports her missing.

    February 2011: A young woman escapes from 2109 Pear Tree Lane, where Moses was living with three women and eight children. She alerts investigators to the violence.

    Investigators go to the house, but find nothing suspicious. They return after learning that McKoy has been reported missing. Women in the house, according to investigators, hide Moses in a bathroom and deny he lives there.

    Vania Rae Sisk, Jadon’s mother, tells investigators she does not have a son named Jadon.

    June 2011: The bodies are found.

    July 2011: Murder charges are filed.

    June 2012: Moses pleads guilty.

    July 2013: Moses receives two consecutive life terms without parole.

— As a bailiff led Peter Lucas Moses out of an emotionally charged Durham County courtroom Friday, the 28-year-old man lifted up his cuffed hands in a half-wave toward his mother.

Orlando Hudson, the county’s chief resident Superior Court judge, had just sentenced Moses to two consecutive life terms without possibility of parole for the 2010 first-degree murders of a 4-year-old boy and a 28-year-old woman who had been living with him.

The hearing exposed two warring descriptions of a killer.

At one extreme was Yvonne McKoy, the mother of Antoinetta Yvonne McKoy, whom Moses – according to testimony – had ordered killed because she couldn’t have children and wanted to leave him and the bizarre cast of women who lived with them.

“This man is evil,” Yvonne McKoy told the judge.

Moses’ family and defense attorney were at the other extreme, portraying him more as a victim of Durham’s mental health and court systems. Their views suggested that the murders of Antoinetta McKoy and Jadon Higganbothan, 4, were extreme consequences of inadequate mental health care. They described Moses as a man suffering from bi-polar disorder who had stopped taking his medication after a brush with the law led to an outstanding arrest warrant and the halt of his disability checks.

“These crimes occurred at a time that Mr. Moses lost his Medicaid benefits,” said Lisa Miles, the lawyer representing Moses. “His illness made him do something monstrous. His character will make him atone for that.”

Moses, who was on medication during the hearing Friday, listened quietly as McKoy, the mother of his former high school sweetheart, unleashed a barrage of thoughts and questions about what happened to her daughter.

Moses and Antoinetta McKoy, reported missing by her family shortly after her death in December 2010, had talked about marriage, and she had come to Durham to live with him.

By then, Moses purportedly subscribed to the tenets of the Black Hebrews, a radical sect that believes a race war is coming that will leave blacks dominant and supreme. He had patched together an unusual family at 2109 Pear Tree Lane in southeast Durham. Women who lived with him, according to court testimony, counted themselves as wives or common-law wives and often referred to him as “Lord.”

Jadon’s death

In October 2010, according to testimony, Moses shot Jadon, a boy living in the house with his mother. Women in the house, who also were charged criminally in the cases, told investigators that Moses shot the boy because he thought the child was gay after he touched the buttocks of one of Moses’ children.

Durham investigators began looking into Moses after a woman who had lived with him and other women, but left in early 2011, told them about the violence.

According to court testimony, Moses ordered two of the women to set up computers and speakers in the garage before he killed Jadon. Prosecutors contended that Moses then took the boy into the garage, where music and the Lord’s Prayer in Hebrew blared, and a gunshot sounded.

Some of the women cleaned up his bloodied body, prosecutors have said, then put it in a suitcase in the master bedroom until Moses complained about the smell.

Two months later, Moses ordered Antoinetta Yvonne McKoy killed, according to investigators, when he learned she couldn’t have children and wanted to leave the group.

Antoinetta McKoy kept a diary and, after she found out she could not have children, wrote in several entries that she worried that “Lord” might kill her, according to court testimony.

McKoy tried to escape the house right before her death, according to a neighbor whom investigators interviewed. On one day in late December, she ran to the neighbor’s house and asked to use a cellphone to call her mother in Washington.

The neighbor thought the woman was mentally troubled and had run away from a group home, and did not call police.

The other women came out of the house where McKoy had been living and wrestled her to the ground, then dragged her back inside, the neighbor told investigators.

Moses then beat McKoy repeatedly and tried to strangle her with an extension cord. McKoy, according to the informant, begged for her life.

The defendant then got the gun that had been used to kill Jadon, the informant told investigators, and took it to the bathroom.

Three of Moses’ followers – Vania Rae Sisk, Jadon’s mother, Lavada Quinzetta Harris and LaRhonda Renee Smith – beat McKoy in the bathroom while religious music played before Sisk shot and killed her, according to testimony.

McKoy’s body was kept in a large trash bin inside the house, according to prosecutors, before it was buried in a shallow grave alongside the boy’s, at an Ashe Street house where Moses’ parents lived for a time.

Though McKoy had been reported missing by her family and Jadon had been reported missing by his father, it was not until June 2011 that the bodies were found.

Other sentences

Sisk was sentenced last week to a minimum of 30 years in prison for her role in the deaths of her son and McKoy.

Smith was sentenced to at least 24 years in prison for her role in the deaths.

Harris, who pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact of murder, was sentenced to at least 12 years in prison. Moses’ brother, P. Leonard Moses, also pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact of murder and was sentenced to at least five years behind bars.

“These are some of the worst cases I’ve ever seen as a judge,” Hudson said Friday at the conclusion of the hearing.

At the end of it all, two mothers searched for answers.

Moses’ mother and siblings wondered whether a justice system that takes mental illness into account when weighing the severity of sentences or a person’s fitness to stand trial had adequately reviewed the man whose character had been altered without his medication. Moses pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder a year ago to avoid a trial and risk the possibility of the death penalty, which prosecutors had held out as a possibility.

Moses, according to his attorney, had been in the mental health system since he attempted suicide at age 10. He later was committed to psychiatric facilities, where he was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and depression. When he first arrived in the Durham jail after his arrest in 2011, Moses, according to his lawyer, “was freaking out all the time.” But after medications were administered during his incarceration, Moses’ personality was very different.

At the hearing Friday in a seventh-floor Durham Superior Court room, Moses was calm and seemed remorseful.

Yvonne McKoy, who traveled to Durham from Washington, was agitated, though.

She wanted to know why Moses had ordered her daughter killed. She wanted to know why he had not told her the truth about what happened when she called, frantically hunting for her daughter. She wanted to know why he had not let Antoinetta return home when she wanted to leave.

“Why, why, why?” McKoy asked.

“He took something very dear and precious from me,” McKoy told the court. “She was a good girl, a church girl, a God-fearing girl.”

McKoy spoke alternately to the judge and to Moses.

“There is not a day I don’t think about her,” McKoy said. “She is resting in God’s arms now. That is the only thing that gives me closure.”

“There will come a time when I can forgive you, but I just haven’t gotten to that stage now. … If I don’t forgive you, God can’t forgive me, and I can’t see my child again. … This is like a nightmare.”

Moses looked at McKoy as she wrapped up her thoughts.

“I am sorry for what happened to your daughter,” he said quietly.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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