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Woman pleads guilty in exorcism murders of 2 kids

A Montgomery County woman is making a guilty plea in her role in an "exorcism" that led to the murders of two toddlers.
Monifa Denise Sanford, 21, is charged with two counts of first degree murder and two counts of attempted first degree murder.

GERMANTOWN, Md. (WUSA9) -- A Montgomery County woman has been found guilty, but not criminally responsible, for her role in the gruesome murders of two toddlers in January 2014 in what she believed was an exorcism. Two other children were choked and stabbed, but survived the violent attack.

Monifa Sanford was the roommate and best friend of the children's mother. We want to warn you that the content of Friday's testimony is very disturbing and graphic. In fact, the devastated father of the four children erupted in the courtroom and was led out by marshals.

WARNING: Some of the details revealed below may be deemed graphic or disturbing to some. Read at your discretion.

Monifa Sanford's descent into the depths of mental illness included hallucinations and voices, including one that she believed to be Satan. According to testimony, he told her he was going to "kill the babies. If she wanted them to go to heaven, she had to do it herself."

"She believed that she had been initiated into this group of demon assassins," said defense attorney David Felsen.

Those "assassins" included a boyfriend linked to each of the women. The investigation revealed that those men were imaginary. According to testimony, the two women watched YouTube videos of demons and danced feverishly to ward them off.

Felsen said, "They had believed that inanimate objects had been possessed, there were demons in their house, that they had been possessed individually, that at other times, the children had been possessed."

On January 17, 2014, the children struggled and screamed, but were choked and repeatedly stabbed with a serrated knife. By the time the bloodshed was over, 18-month-old Norell and his 2-year-old sister Zyana were dead. Their 5-year-old sister and 8 year-old brother were also stabbed and choked, but somehow survived.

"I think this case was profoundly disturbing to everyone who's touched it. They're children that are involved in this case," said Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy.

Sanford has been committed to Clifton T. Perkins Mental Hospital for treatment. She could stay there for life.

After the murders, Sanford told police, "I'm glad the children are in heaven, but I miss them."

Zakeiya Avery, the mother of the four children, is expected to go to trial later this year. We have posted documentation of the State's evidence against Sanford below.

The children's father posted an emotional video on his Facebook page after being kicked out of court Friday. WARNING: The video contains very graphic language.


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The states proffer below contains details of the relationship between Sanford and Avery, the exorcism/attacks and more. Please use your discretion before reading.



In February of 2013, Monifa Sanford ("Sanford") met Zakeiya Avery ("Avery") through their church – Exuxia. At the time, Sanford was living with her father and attending classes at Montgomery County College. Sanford and Avery participated in the dance ministry program together at the church, and they became close friends. The two spent time together as much as four times per week. During this time, Avery began to educate Sanford about the types of demons in the world by showing Sanford videos of demons on YouTube. From February to August 2013, Sanford and Avery grew increasingly close, "like sisters." In July 2013, Avery's husband, Martin Harris, moved out of the residence.

During the summer, Sanford began seeing shadows and hearing noises at her father's house, which she attributed to demons. Avery told Sanford she had to leave her father's home or else the "succubus and incubus" would possess her. Shortly thereafter, in August 2013, Sanford moved in with Avery and her four children at 19041 Cherry Bend Drive, Germantown, Montgomery County, Maryland. At the time, Sanford worked as a grocery store checker at Giant. After moving in with Avery, Sanford began seeing evil spirits at her job. Avery told her to quit the job because demons were at the store, and said Sanford should continue living with her. Sanford then quit her job.

Thereafter, Sanford and Avery began to socially isolate themselves. They spent up to an hour and a half each day watching videos online about demons and the illuminati. They stopped attending church, as they believed there were demons in the church. Neither Sanford nor Avery worked, as they believed God did not want them to. Instead, Avery received financial assistance from the state, and Sanford from her mother who lives and works in Japan. From October onward, Sanford generally stopped leaving the house and allowed Avery to tend to all matters outside the residence.

Sanford and Avery started to believe demons were in the house. Believing they were "demon warriors," they spent a large amount of time dancing to fight the demons. Avery told Sanford she had an eczema demon, and made Sanford stop taking her eczema medicine. Sanford's severe eczema condition worsened considerably.

They also believed there were spirits in the house named "Dawntea Cross" and "Troy Williams." They believed that "Dawntea" was Avery's boyfriend, and "Troy" was Sanford's boyfriend. However, only Sanford could hear Dawntea, and only Avery could hear Troy, so they allowed the spirits to inhabit each other's bodies so each could speak with her respective boyfriend. Sanford and Avery believed they were part of a group called "Demon Assassins." The four members of the "Demon Assassins" were Sanford, Avery, and the imagined boyfriends Dawntea and Troy. According to Sanford, the Demon Assassins performed exorcisms on people and spread the word of God.

Sanford and Avery rarely had any visitors. When Sanford's father and brother unexpectedly visited the house on Thanksgiving of 2013, Avery left the room and did not speak to them. When Avery's husband's parents visited her children, they were not allowed inside. Instead, the paternal grandparents had to sit in the car outside in order to visit with the children.

In December 2013, the children's paternal grandmother took them to Philadelphia to visit their father. Avery and Sanford used that time to expel the demons they believed were in the household. They decided to drive away from the residence to avoid additional demons, and lived in their car for nine days in the parking lot of a department store. They did not bathe or eat for the first three to four days. During this time, they waited for Dawntea and Troy to arrive and "wash the demons off."

One day before the children were scheduled to return from Philadelphia, Sanford and Avery returned to their residence, cleaned themselves, and bought food for the home. When the children returned home, Sanford and Avery went through the toys the children had received as gifts and threw away the toys they believed were possessed by demons.


On the evening of January 16, 2014, Avery and Sanford expected Dawntea and Troy to arrive, and they prepared to conduct an exorcism on their boyfriends' spirits. To protect the children from evil spirits, Avery and Sanford took the children outside and put them inside Avery's blue Toyota, which was parked in front of their residence. Around 9 p.m., a neighbor walked by the blue Toyota and saw the children in the car crying. The Toyota was not running, and no adults were around. The neighbor knocked on Avery's door, spoke with Avery, and asked if she knew the kids were in the car. Avery told the neighbor they were just getting ready to leave. However, forty minutes later, the children were still alone in the vehicle.

Another neighbor, Pablo Rubio, then knocked on the door and confronted Avery about her unattended children. When Mr. Rubio knocked on the door, Avery and Sanford came outside, and Sanford took the children from the vehicle into the residence. Mr. Rubio, who is a mental health evaluator for the Montgomery County Crisis Center, noticed that Sanford was chanting and seemed to be responding to internal stimuli. Avery asked Sanford, "You got all the kids, Monifa?" Sanford did not respond. Avery then followed Mr. Rubio down the block and yelled, "You should mind your own business." When Avery realized Mr. Rubio was on his cellphone, she yelled, "You need to hang up the phone," and continued to follow and yell at him. When Avery eventually stopped, Mr. Rubio observed her pace back and forth and mumble unintelligibly. He then waited for the officers at the intersection of Cherry Bend Drive and Cherry Bend Terrace.

At approximately 10:30 p.m., officers arrived at the scene and observed that the children were no longer inside the Toyota. The temperature was around freezing, and the vehicle's windows were iced over. The left rear passenger door was open, and a few feet from the open car door was a child's blue jacket. From outside, officers could see lights on in the living room and both upstairs bedrooms of the residence. The officers also heard music being played. When the officers rang the doorbell and knocked on the door, no one answered. Instead, they heard footsteps inside, saw the lights turn off, and heard the music stop. The officers knocked on the door for about five minutes, but received no answer.

The officers then contacted the Family Crime Child Abuse Section. While the officers were on the phone, the lights in the upstairs and downstairs part of the townhouse came back on. The officers again knocked on the door of the residence, and the lights went off downstairs. The officers then heard the sound of someone walking up a stairway, and saw the lights go off in the upstairs part of the townhouse. The officers then contacted Child Protective Services regarding the incident and decided to come back at another time to identify the parties.


Later that night, in the early morning hours of January 17, 2014, Avery woke up Sanford and told her that everyone was dead and only their spirits remained. Avery instructed Sanford to retrieve the bible to put on the armor of God. The two then went into the second floor bedroom where Norell and Zyana Harris were sleeping that night. Avery told Sanford that Norell, who was crying, had demons on him, and Sanford claims that she saw Norell's eyes turn black and his nose start to bleed. Avery picked up Norell, gripped her hands around her son's neck and tried to choke him. This description is consistent with the autopsy, which revealed petechial hemorrhages indicating an asphyxia event. Norell continued to cry. Unable to stop the crying, Avery and Sanford then began to perform what they claim was an exorcism. Avery put Norell on the bed, and she and Sanford attempted to pray the demon out by speaking tongues and "laying hands," an act that consisted of holding her hands just above Norell's body. Avery said that the only way to save the baby's soul was to kill him, and instructed Sanford to retrieve a knife.

Sanford immediately went downstairs to the kitchen, retrieved a small, serrated pairing knife with a red handle, then returned to Norell's room and gave the knife to Avery. Avery straddled Norell on the bed, as Sanford again spoke in tongues and "laid hands." First, Avery cut her son's throat multiple times. Norell Harris suffered at least eight cutting wounds on his neck, and additional cutting wounds directly under his chin. Avery then began to stab Norell. Norell suffered numerous cutting wounds to the right and center portion of his chest that injured the skin and superficial soft tissue. He also suffered one stab wound to the right side of his neck, which injured his jugular vein. As Avery repeatedly stabbed and cut her son, Sanford stroked the child's face in order to calm him. Despite his young age, Norell struggled and attempted to defend himself by blocking the knife. As a result, he suffered multiple cutting wounds to his palms and fingers. To prevent him from struggling, Sanford positioned herself near the child's head and pinned down Norell's arms as Avery continued to stab him. At some point, Sanford and Avery moved Norell to the floor because they believed the knife was not penetrating deeply enough. With Norell on the floor, the attack continued. Most significantly, Norell suffered a five-inch deep stab wound immediately below his left nipple that punctured his lung, diaphragm, liver, and stomach.

During the attack on Norell, Avery's two year-old daughter Zyana was also in the room. Sanford claims Zyana became possessed by the devil, and began to growl and grunt. They attempted to pray the devil out of Zyana's body, but it did not work. Sanford then picked up Zyana, put her hands around the girl's neck, forced Zyana back to the ground, and choked her unconscious. Zyana was then stabbed numerous times in the upper left portion of her chest. She was stabbed with such force that at least thirteen stabbings penetrated Zyana's torso completely and created exit wounds in her back. It is unclear who stabbed Zyana, as Sanford and Avery each claim the other is responsible.

During the attacks on Norell and Zyana, the door to the room was open. At some point, Avery's eight-year-old son Martello, who had been sleeping in the adjacent bedroom, woke up and entered the room where Sanford and Avery were attacking Norell. As he watched his younger brother get stabbed, Martello cried and yelled to his mom to stop. Martello witnessed Avery stab Norell in the chest, and saw his brother close his eyes and stop crying. Believing a demon had possessed Martello, Avery and Sanford then attacked him. They struck Martello in the face and attempted to choke him, but he fought back. As Martello was being attacked, Avery retrieved the same red-handled serrated knife that was used on Norell and Zyana and stabbed Martello once in the upper left part of his chest, just below his left nipple, in the same area where Norell and Zyana were stabbed. The stab wound was deep enough to puncture his lung, and Martello fell to the floor and started screaming. Sanford saw that he was bleeding.

During the attack on Martello, Avery's five-year-old daughter Taniya also appeared in the hallway and was crying. Avery told Sanford to get Taniya, and Sanford ordered Taniya to get on the ground. As Taniya lay down, Sanford told Taniya to "confess" and that "the Lord is your savior." Sanford then put her hands around the child's neck and choked her unconscious. Taniya quickly regained consciousness, and as she came to, Sanford used the red-handled serrated pairing knife to stab Taniya once in the chest immediately below her left nipple. The stab wound punctured Taniya's lung, and she immediately collapsed and crawled away on her hands and knees into her bedroom. While Sanford attacked Taniya, she saw that Avery was still attacking Martello by stomping and kicking him while he lay on the ground. Martello yelled out that he was afraid, and Avery told him he needed "to believe."

After the attacks on the four children, Avery turned on Sanford. First, she told Sanford to go into the master bathroom, take her clothes off, and get in the shower. Avery followed her to the master bathroom, removed her own clothes, and started attacking Sanford. Using the red-handled serrated pairing knife, Avery stabbed Sanford multiple times in the chest. Photographs later taken at Suburban Hospital confirm that Sanford suffered two stab wounds and one laceration on her chest. When Sanford attempted to defend herself, Avery told her not to fight back. As Sanford fell to the floor, Avery choked her and slammed her head into the ground, causing a contusion over Sanford's left eye. Avery then used the knife to partially cut Sanford's throat.

At some point, Avery stopped attacking Sanford and left the master bathroom. Sanford then went downstairs and retrieved a second knife from the kitchen. This knife had a longer, smooth blade, was approximately twelve inches long, and had a wooden handle. She returned upstairs and confronted Avery in the front bedroom where the kids were. Sanford told Avery that she would not continue to be attacked. Avery then struck Sanford on both sides of her face and struggled for control of the knife. Avery gained control of the knife, stabbed Sanford again in the stomach, and pushed her on the ground. She then jumped on top of Sanford and stabbed her twice in the back. These additional stab wounds were later noted by the emergency medical personnel and photographed. During the struggle and attack, the wooden handle on the knife broke. During this fight, both Taniya and Martello were in the room. Sanford recalled that Taniya was rolling around on her bed, crying and moaning, while Martello lay still on the other bed.

When Avery stopped attacking Sanford, she said they needed to clean the house and dispose of the clothes they were wearing. Sanford and Avery then showered. When they were done, they put the clothes they wore during the attacks in a black plastic bag and discarded the knives by throwing them out the children's bedroom window into the front yard. Together, Sanford and Avery then stripped and washed the bodies of Norell and Zyana in the master bathroom and left them on the bed in the master bedroom. Sanford also helped Martello shower. After he showered, Avery wrapped Martello in a bed sheet. However, Taniya remained in her bedroom and was eventually found still wearing the clothing she wore when Sanford choked and stabbed her.

At 9:40 a.m., Officers responded to a report of a suspicious situation at Avery's and Sanford's address. In the front of the house, they found the serrated knife with the red handle lying next to a blue Toyota and the longer chef's knife with the broken handle lying in the grass, both of which appeared to have blood on them. A neighbor notified the police that the Blue Toyota belonged to Avery. In the backseat of the Toyota, officers saw a large keychain, which they retrieved from the unlocked car. The officers also noticed that an upstairs window to the apartment was open, which was unusual for mid-January. Officers knocked on the door, and after receiving no response, entered using a key on the keychain.

When the officers entered the house, they saw Avery rush down the stairs from the second floor with Martello, who was wrapped in a bed sheet. Avery was pulling Martello behind her, and it was clear to officers that Martello was not in charge of the situation. As they reached the ground floor, Avery and Martello turned away from the officers, rushed down the hallway, and went down a separate staircase toward the basement. Behind Avery, the officers saw Sanford come down the stairs and, noticing her injuries, rendered first aid. Avery and Martello exited the rear of the house from the basement and attempted to flee in her car. Avery put Martello in the backseat, but officers apprehended her before she managed to get into the vehicle.

Emergency medical personnel arrived and immediately treated Martello for a stab wound to his left chest. Martello was then transferred to Children's Hospital for treatment. There, doctors administered morphine for pain and, noting an "obvious open lung injury," sedated Martello and surgically inserted a chest tube in his left lung. Martello remained in the hospital for treatment for six days.

While searching the house, officers found Taniya curled up in her bed. Taniya lifted her head to look at the officers, but did not otherwise move. An officer then carried her outside and set her on a police cruiser. The officer felt that his hand and Taniya's nightshirt were warm and wet, and noticed that his hand had blood on it. He then discovered the stab wound to Taniya's chest. Emergency medical personnel immediately tended to Taniya, and she was also transported to Children's Hospital. Doctors diagnosed Taniya with a collapsed left lung and associated accumulation of fluid and air in the chest cavity due to the stab wound. Taniya was administered morphine for pain, treated for acute blood loss, and underwent surgery to insert a chest tube in her left lung in order to drain fluid and re-inflate her lung.

While sweeping the house, officers discovered the bodies of Norell and Zyana on the bed in the master bedroom. Emergency medical personnel were summoned, but found no respiration and no pulse. Following the autopsy of Norell Harris, the Medical Examiner offered the following opinion:

This 18 month and 9 day old male child, Norell N. Harris, died of Sharp Force Injuries that resulted in extensive blood loss. This injuries consisted of a stab wound on the right side of the neck (a), a stab wound on the left side of the chest (b), and abundant cutting wounds that were located on the neck, torso, and extremities. Stab wound 'a' injured the right internal jugular vein, a major blood vessel. Stab wound 'b' injured the left side of the ribcage and pierced the left lung numerous times (at least 20 penetrating injuries), in addition to piercing the diaphragm, the liver, and the front wall of the stomach. Several cutting wounds traversed the front of the neck. In addition to sharp force injuries, petechial hemorrhages were noted on the left cheek, which may represent an asphyxia component. Blunt force injuries were also noted in the form of contusions (bruises) that were located on left and right side of the head. Several superficial cutting wounds were noted on the hands and left thigh, locations of injury that may represent defensive type injuries. The manner of death is HOMICIDE.

Following the autopsy of Zyana Harris, the Medical Examiner offered the following opinion:

This 2 year old female child, Zyana Harris, died of Multiple Injuries that consisted of sharp force injuries and signs of asphyxia. A stab wound was on the left side of the chest that injured the left side of the ribcage and perforated the left lung numerous times with several of the perforating wounds exiting the left side of the back. The wounds were associated with extensive blood loss. Petechial hemorrhages exemplified signs of asphyxia. Bruising on the head, face and left side of the back was also noted. The manner of death is HOMICIDE.

Sanford was treated for her injuries and transported by ambulance to Suburban Hospital. In the ambulance, she told Officer Hedgepeth that an unknown assailant had broken into the home and struck her in the head. When she came to, the assailant was on top of her trying to kill her. At the hospital, Sanford repeated this lie to Detective Janney, and added that she only noticed the laceration on her neck when she awoke in the morning. At approximately 9 p.m. that evening, Sanford spoke to the officer guarding her hospital room door and revealed the truth of what happened. After the thirty-minute long conversation, the officer called Detective Janney and Detective Ruvin, who then returned to the hospital and re-interviewed Sanford. This second interview was video recorded and lasted approximately ninety minutes. Although Sanford spoke quietly, she responded to the detectives' questions and described the attacks on the children in great detail. Sanford was forthcoming about her participation in the attacks, and the physical evidence corroborates her account.