Father of two children drowned in Wilmington speaks out – The News Journal
A 30-year-old Wilmington woman has been charged in the death of her infant son and a 5-year-old boy who was in her care. 10/17/17
John J. Jankowski Jr. & Damian Giletto
Victor Epelle is convinced his children would still be alive had he been home on Oct 16.
“I should have been with my family,” he said. “I wanted to be with them.”
Now, Epelle’s 5-year-old son Alex and his 3-month-old son Solomon are dead while his girlfriend Kula Pelima is charged with murder. Pelima, a 30-year-old Liberian immigrant, is scheduled for a preliminary court hearing Tuesday morning.
She is accused of drowning both children in the bathtub of the couple’s Wilmington apartment on Oct. 16 – hours after calling city police concerned about her immigration status.
At the time, Epelle, a 38-year-old Nigerian immigrant, was being held at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in York, Pennsylvania, where he was awaiting deportation proceedings.
“I don’t know what happened,” said Epelle, who has not spoken to Pelima since his release from the detention facility on “humanitarian grounds” on Oct. 17.
“It’s possible she was concerned about her residency expiring,” he said. “That may have been a contributing factor, but I don’t think that’s what led her to kill the children.”
Epelle decline to speculate about it. That, he said, is a question only she can answer.
“She was great with the children but she could be easily overwhelmed,” Epelle said. “And I know she was under multiple stresses. I was in jail. I think her green card had expired. She felt like my family did not accept her. And she had two children to take care of on her own.”
Some who knew Pelima and the couple’s children also describe a troubling chain of events that led up to the killings – a tale that involves international war criminals, possible untreated mental health issues and a family trapped by the justice system.
“I don’t believe there are any simple answers here,” said Ajawavi Ajavon, an executive member of the Delaware Africa Caribbean Coalition. “These children were victims of forces beyond anyone’s control.”
An impossible choice
Epelle and his family legally entered the United States in 1997, eventually settling in Folcroft, Pennsylvania. There, he met Sharon Turner, the mother of his oldest son, Alex.
The couple split after the boy was born. He and Turner, who now lives in Cinncinatti, Ohio, share custody of Alex under an informal arrangement.
Turner, who has three other children, says she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2015 and Epelle chose to keep Alex with him.
“He has his mom and sisters nearby so he had more of a support system,” she said, of Epelle.
But being a single father was not easy.
On Sept. 27, 2015, Epelle put the boy down for a nap before running out to complete a job for his carpet cleaning business. Alex woke up and was later found on the street.
Epelle was charged with endangering the welfare of a child, according to court records. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years of probation, but retained custody of Alex.
“I made a mistake,” Epelle said Monday during an interview in the office of his Philadelphia lawyer Christian Nduka. “I should have never done that, but it just snowballed from there.”
Epelle became romantically involved with Pelima a year later. She had been working as an exotic dancer and looking to escape that lifestyle, he said. He welcomed her into his mother’s home in Folcroft.
“She was beautiful,” he said. “She was kind and tried to do the right thing. That’s why I stayed with her.”
Within weeks, Kula became pregnant and the family moved into an apartment outside Philadelphia. But, Epelle said, a downstairs neighbor frequently complained about the noise Alex made.
“To avoid a problem, I said I would find another place and move,” he said. “Delaware is not far from Philadelphia and the price was good.”
The family relocated to Wilmington in the spring.
Epelle says he voluntarily informed his probation officer of the move, only to be told he had broken the law. Having just spent money to move his family out of Pennsylvania, Epelle says he asked for time to make enough cash to move them back but was denied. His request to visit them several times a week also was rejected, he said.
“I had a choice between following probation and leaving a mother that’s easily overwhelmed with one active boy and a crying baby,” he said. “I couldn’t leave them.”
Officials with the Delaware County Adult Probation and Parole Services did not respond to requests for comment and The News Journal has not been able to independently verify Epelle’s version of events.
Epelle said he reported to his Pennsylvania probation officer on Sept. 5 and was confronted with photographic evidence that he was still living in Delaware.
He was charged with a probation violation and jailed at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Thorton, Pennsylvania, for 30 days, according to multiple officials. Epelle’s green card expired during his jail term and he was handed over to ICE on Oct. 5 – the same day he was scheduled to be released from Hill Correctional.
ICE officials confirmed they took custody of Epelle on that date and transferred him to a detention facility in York, Pennsylvania.
“I talked to Kula while I was in jail and told her everything was going to be OK,” Epelle said. “I told her to be patient but she was not happy I was there. She was worried about taking care of the children alone.”
Pelima asked him questions that Epelle says were troubling then and continue to haunt him.
“She asked me if she was a demon,” he said. “And she asked me if I am the devil.”
Early warning signs
Pelima and her siblings were brought to the United States from Liberia legally by their father, Hena, when she was 10 years old, according to ICE and police officials.
Their arrival occurred the same year the infamous warlord Charles Taylor came to power in Liberia following one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars. The eight-year conflict took the lives of more than 200,000 Liberians and displaced roughly a million others.
The family settled in Akron, Ohio, where Pelima met Vera Willie, a fellow Liberian immigrant, in middle school.
“Our mothers knew each other in Liberia but we didn’t talk about it much,” said Willie, who now lives in Canton, Ohio. “We all had to run for our lives. I know I saw kids get shot and people get raped. We saw a lot of traumatic events.”
Willie says her friend grew up in a strict household. Pelima’s father, who remarried in the U.S., was convicted of endangering children when she was 15. He was sentenced to 180 days in jail, all but two of which were suspended, according to Ohio court records.
Four years later, Pelima dropped out of high school, according to an official with Akron Public Schools.
Pelima’s immediate family members either did not return messages or declined to comment for this story.
Willie said Pelima’s father sent her back to Liberia and she returned on her own a few years later. The two friends then moved back and forth from Akron to Philadelphia.
“When we were kids, she was nice and bubbly and loving, but she also could be manipulative,” Willie said. “As time went on, she started lying about dumb things like her age, her name and her whole persona. She created a whole fantasy in her head.”
Pelima stayed in Philadephia the last time Willie moved back to Ohio. The two stayed in touch via social media. But Willie says her childhood friend’s behavior grew stranger, especially over the last two years.
“She became really paranoid and started talking about how she had become a spiritual entity, her own god,” Willie said.
Willie said Pelima invited her to a wedding she planned to have with Epelle that never occurred. The last time they communicated was in September when Pelima sent her a message over Instagram apologizing for “everything she did in the past.”
“I told my mom that I think Kula needs help,” she said. “I didn’t know how much help until I saw the story about the murders.”
A cry for help
Pelima’s 30th birthday was Oct. 8.
Eight days later, she placed a call to 911 at 3:45 a.m. Police say she was “concerned about her immigration status” and “worried about what could happen to her” because of Epelle’s pending deportation.
Both Epelle and Willie said Pelima’s green card may have expired. ICE officials declined to confirm those reports. They only said she entered the country legally and has no known criminal convictions.
Following Pelima’s early morning call, a Wilmington police officer visited Pelima at her Trinity Vicinity-area apartment in the 800 block of West Ninth Street. The officer told her police were not interested in arresting her and gave her the number of a hotline that could provide her with answers, police said.
The officer reported seeing Alex but did not notice anything in the home indicating distress, police said.
About five hours later, Pelima again called 911 – this time to report she had drowned two children. She later met officers at the door of the first-floor apartment and took them to the bodies, both still in the bathtub.
Pelima also had turned on the gas burners on her stove, which required police to evacuate the home until it had aired out.
She was formally charged the following day. Pelima is currently being held at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution on $2 million cash bond.
“The police came to the jail late Monday night and told me what happened,” Epelle said. “When the guards told me two detectives from Wilmington were there, I knew something terrible had happened.”
Epelle now lives with family members in Pennsylvania. He said he plans to bury his children on Tuesday, hours after Pelima’s scheduled court hearing. Turner, Alex’s biological mother, said she’s hoping to scrape up enough money to attend the funeral.
“He was just an amazing kid who was always smiling,” she said of her son. “I’m still in shock and trying to process everything.”
Liberian immigrants living in Delaware also say they are trying to process how this could happen to one of their own.
“Children are a blessing and for a Liberian to do something like that is unspeakable,” said Ajavon, who immigrated from Liberia as a child. “But Africans tend to think mental health issues can’t happen in their home and rarely seek help, even though so many of us have been through such horrible things.”
She and other Liberian-Americans say they want to offer financial and emotional support to the Epelle and Pelima families. That includes helping to fund Pelima’s defense.
They’re not excusing her actions, she said. But they do understand the pain that may have driven her to this point.
“This is a mother who just gave birth to her first child and was caring for another,” she said.
“She had no support, no idea what was going on with her paramour, likely was already suffering from [post-traumatic stress disorder] and possibly had severe mental health issues,” she said. “We couldn’t be there for her when these children were alive, but we won’t abandon her now.”
Epelle says he can no longer stand by Pelima.
“How can I defend her,” he asked.
“My sons and Kula were my life,” he said. “I just want to lay my boys to rest.”
Contact reporter Scott Goss at (302) 324-2281, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ScottGossDel.