FERGUSON, Mo. — Stacie Jones and Erica Lotts are two mothers united in grief -- and, in questions.
Their children had recently graduated from the same high school and died under mysterious circumstances just weeks apart in neighboring rural Missouri counties in separate incidents.
They were both with people their mothers didn’t know when they died. Drugs were found in their systems – a shock to those who knew them. And both women believe police and prosecutors jumped to conclusions about the causes of their deaths without a complete investigation.
For Lotts, police deemed her 19-year-old son’s death a suicide within days of the shooting.
For Jones, her 18-year-old daughter’s body was found decomposed along a roadway and labeled an overdose.
Now, Lotts and Jones are relying on each other to navigate the world of bureaucracy to find public records and probe public officials about the investigations.
It’s a quest that has so far led them to a private pathologist, who believes the manners of their children’s deaths into question.
Police leading the investigations told the I-Team they have concluded their investigations and referred questions to prosecutors on the cases.
The Washington County prosecutor leading the Jones case said he did not want to comment on an open investigation.
The Madison County prosecutor on Martin’s case didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.
“We both know that you can't trust law enforcement,” Jones said. “But mostly, it's been late-night talks about our children and how much we miss them and how none of this will bring them back, but we just want to know the truth of what happened to them and whoever took them from us, to get justice for them…There’s got to be somebody who can help us.”
Derontae Martin was a standout football player for Central High School in Park Hills, Missouri.
He moved along with his mother to Ferguson just weeks before his death in April. The last time she saw him, he told her a friend was giving him a ride to Park Hills to visit his grandmother. He never arrived. Two days later, he was found shot to death from a gunshot wound to his left temple inside the attic of a home in Fredericktown, Missouri – about 30 miles south of his grandmother’s house.
At first, police tried to identify him using fingerprints, but were unsuccessful.
“He had never been arrested,” Lotts said of the oldest of seven children.
Days later, the Madison County Sheriff’s Department posted a press release on its Facebook page saying it appeared Martin died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Mikayla Jones saw the story, and said she didn’t believe Martin’s death could have been a suicide, her mother said.
“Mikayla absolutely thought it was strange,” Jones said. “She was just as appalled as everybody else who hears about it.”
That was April 25.
Weeks later, Mikayla Jones went missing.
Her mother said she last saw her daughter, who had plans of becoming a nurse, at their home in Farmington on May 3.
Her body was found badly decomposed along Highway M between Caledonia and Irondale two weeks later.
The day before charges were announced against two men for abandoning her body and tampering with evidence, Mikayla’s younger brother saw a story by the I-Team detailing how Lotts had a second autopsy performed on her son that countered the coroner’s finding of suicide.
Stacie Jones took to the Internet and found Lotts.
Lotts hired Dr. Jane Turner to conduct a second autopsy of her son’s body.
Turner originally told the I-Team she believed Martin was shot from at least two feet away due to the absence of soot a close-range gunshot wound would leave behind.
Madison County Coroner Collin Follis convened a coroner’s inquest per Madison County Prosecutor M. Dwight Robbins’ request following the story.
During that inquest – a proceeding that happens only in county’s without Medical Examiners – pathologist Dr. Russell Deideker said he believed Martin had been shot from less than an inch away because there was soot surrounding the wound during the initial autopsy.
That soot had been washed away after Follis embalmed Martin’s body without his mother’s consent – so Turner said she had no way of knowing that information when she conducted the second autopsy.
But Turner remains confident Martin’s manner of death remains undetermined – regardless of the proximity of the gun.
As a former pathologist for the City of St. Louis, Turner said she saw many homicide victims who were shot at close range.
She said she also has many unanswered questions from the police investigation – including how the man who said he witnessed Martin shoot himself was never given a polygraph.
“The fact that someone else was there, in the room when this happened, is concerning,” Turner said.
Ultimately, a jury of six agreed and concluded Martin’s manner of death was not a suicide, but rather a death “by violence.”
Turner also autopsied the skeletonized remains of Mikayla Jones.
She found the presence of four drugs, including an anti-depressant, a cough syrup, methamphetamine and Fentanyl in her muscle tissue.
Turner said it is impossible to conclude Jones died from an overdose simply based on those levels because they are not an accurate representation of the level of toxicity in her body at the time of her death.
Only blood can reveal whether she had lethal levels of substances in her system when she died.
And, a blood sample from her body doesn’t exist.
She also found what looked to be a skull fracture she sent to a forensic anthropologist who believes it falls along the line where skull bones fuse together during development.
She also found evidence of bruising to Mikayla’s lower legs.
But it’s what Turner – or any pathologist for that matter – can’t examine that leaves the manner of Mikayla’s death undetermined in Turner’s mind.
There is no hyoid bone to examine – a tiny structure that is broken during strangulation.
And there are no internal organs to examine for signs of trauma.
A blue pill
Turner sent an email to Washington County Prosecutor Josh Hedgecorth Aug. 17 with a copy of her autopsy report and toxicology findings.
He responded the next day, saying Deideker “did not see any fracturing of any kind, this lending credence to the fact that any such fractures were postmortem. He did not find any other cause of death other than possible methamphetamine intoxication.”
He also noted Turner’s toxicology report found more drugs in her system than Deideker’s report, which “is concerning to me as to why they are different.”
“I believe he may be submitting it to a different company for comparison purposes,” Hedgecorth wrote. “I understand that we can’t use the concentrations from the muscle tissue to provide meaningful information, but the fact remains that she had several drugs in her system.”
He went on to describe how he has had multiple overdose deaths from Fentanyl this year.
“We have video and images portraying what appears to be Mikayla using drugs,” he wrote. “ She recorded herself on her phone the day she went missing taking a blue pill.
“We have had several cases involving blue pills where people are pressing fentanyl to look like Xanex. Mikayla tried to wake up the individual whose pill it was to find out what the pill contained. She ultimately gave up, took the pill, and stated, ‘3, 2, 1, in my mouth...it's gone.’ I sincerely want to make the right determination in this case. That's why I'm providing you with some of this information.”
Turner said the description of the blue pill doesn’t prove anything.
“That blue pill could have been a piece of candy for all we know,” Turner said.
Hedgecorth charged two men, Andrew Pierce, 32, and Ethan Civey, 24, with abandonment of a corpse and tampering with evidence after police say Pierce told them Mikayla was sleeping in the same bed with him. When he woke up, he found her dead. He then wrapped her body in a blanket, put it in his trunk and drove around with Civey looking for a place to hide the body, according to court documents.
Washington County Sheriff Zach Jacobsen responded to questions from the I-Team about the case in an email, which read: “You need to contact the prosecutor, the case was turned over to him for the charges for the crimes that could be proven.”
Hedgecorth told the I-Team he understands the frustration grieving families like the Joneses have when he can’t give them all of the answers they are seeking.
And he declined to comment, saying he did not want to jeopardize the cases against Pierce and Civey.
He noted both are facing a total of 27 years in prison if convicted of the crimes with which they’ve already been charged.
“There’s been an extensive investigation that’s been done already and it’s not over yet,” he said. “I’m not going to make a final decision until I see everything.”
That includes Turner’s report.
“The first autopsy’s conclusion was that it was an overdose, but there’s some things we’re still looking into on that side,” he said. “I don’t feel like that’s a final conclusion.
“I’m certainly open to seeing what a second pathologist has to say.”
"I'll never stop fighting"
Jones said she did not know Pierce or Civey, and said she was stunned to learn drugs were found in her daughter’s system.
“I am a nurse. I lived with Mikayla. I saw her every day, this was not a girl that was on drugs,” her mother said. “You don't find an 18-year-old beautiful girl in the woods and then just take the words of two known fentanyl dealers and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I bet it was an overdose.’
“She had no drug history and there is no reason to believe them.”
For Lotts, the coroner’s inquest gave her hope that her son’s death would be further investigated.
But those hopes were quickly dashed when she said she talked to a Missouri Highway Patrol investigator who asked her for her son’s cellphone.
It was one of the same investigators who testified during the inquest, characterizing the Madison County Sheriff’s Department’s investigation “thorough for a suicide investigation.”
She said she refused to give him her son’s cellphone because she doesn’t trust someone who already believes her son’s death was a suicide.
She said investigators have told her family they have exhausted all of their leads in the case.
The Missouri Highway Patrol sent a statement to the I-Team, which read: “The Patrol has concluded our investigation and turned the reports over to the prosecuting attorney. Any further comments on the case would have to come from the prosecutor’s office.”
For now, Lotts leans on Jones for strength when the questions in her mind become too intense.
And Jones leans on Lotts.
“She knows the pain of losing a child,” Jones said.
The women recently met in person for the first time during an interview with the I-Team after spending countless hours on the phone together.
At times, they finished each other’s sentences.
“The first thing somebody tells you is, ‘You have to be there for your other kids, so then that puts more burden on you,” said Jones, who has three other children.
“These days I sit here and cry and I don't have anybody but my 7-year-old to reach over and say, ‘Hey, mom, it’s going to be OK,’” Lotts added as she cradled her newborn daughter. “It hurts even more to hear that from your 7-year-old because they're dealing with the loss of their sibling…”
“And they can't explain it because they don't know how,” Jones finished.
The women also said they’ve heard others talk about God’s plan.
“Everybody is telling me that it happened for a reason, and that God has a plan,” Lotts said.
“No grieving mother wants to hear that,” Jones said.
“Exactly, you have to think about, ‘OK, well, why take he take my child for the plan?” Lotts said.
“Your mom told me, ‘Why not your child?’ And I said, ‘Because I miss her too much,’” Jones said.
The women also know there are people who believe they are nothing more than grieving mothers who refuse to believe their children could take their own life or overdose on drugs.
“I say that's fine, let's just go where the evidence takes us, but they didn’t even investigate,” Jones said. “It won't hurt any less, having her gone, but I still deserve to know the truth. We deserve to know the truth.”
“And they may not be here, but they need answers themselves,” Lotts said of their deceased children.
“I’ll never stop fighting,” Jones said. “Simple as that.”
Lotts nodded in agreement.