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Magistrate calls charges heinous in case of kids found in freezer

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — A woman police say killed her two children and hid them inside a freezer was arraigned Thursday on child abuse charges, with prosecutors saying murder charges could be forthcoming.

Mitchelle Blair, 35, is charged with four counts of first-degree child abuse, a 15-year felony; and one count of committing child abuse first-degree in the presence of another child, a felony punishable by up to life in prison, in connection with the deaths of 9-year-old Stephen Berry and 13-year-old Stoni Blair.

"There remains a possibility that Ms. Blair's charges will be increased to murder in the first degree," said assistant prosecutor Carin Goldfarb on Thursday, asking for a "very high bond."

Magistrate Renee McDuffee oversaw the video arraignment before a mostly expressionless Blair. As McDuffee was setting bond, Blair stepped out of sight of the video camera, briefly interrupting proceedings.

Mitchelle Blair, 35, stands during her video arraignment in the courtroom of Magistrate Renee McDuffee.

McDuffee said Blair could have no contact with her family, including her children, or neighbors.

"The charges in this matter are so heinous that I'm setting bond at $1 million cash or surety," McDuffee said.

Blair was not represented by an attorney Thursday, although she tried to interject at one point.

"I'm advising you to maintain your silence," McDuffee said.

A not-guilty plea was entered on Blair's behalf.

A probable cause hearing has been set for April 2 before 36th District Judge Kenneth King. A preliminary exam has been scheduled for April 9.

"The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office is continuing the investigation regarding the deaths of Stoni Blair and (Stephen) Berry while waiting for the autopsy report from the Wayne County Medical Examiner," Assistant Prosecutor Maria Miller said in a release.

Wayne County medical examiners are waiting for the bodies to thaw before performing autopsies to determine the cause of death, spokesman Ryan Bridges said.

"The autopsies are tentatively scheduled for tomorrow as the bodies are still frozen," Bridges said Wednesday in an emailed statement.

Although police are awaiting autopsy results to determine the cause of death, sources said it appears the boy died of strangulation and the girl from blunt-force trauma.

Blair's surviving children, an 8-year-old boy and 17-year-old girl, are now trying to process their ordeal, said their great-aunt, Angela Gordon, who is taking care of them after their mother was arrested Tuesday near her townhouse in the Martin Luther King apartments.

"Pray for those children," said Gordon, a 58-year-old retired Detroit police child abuse investigator. "They saw things nobody should ever have to see. I have no idea what it was like for them to live with those bodies all that time. I can't even imagine."

Blair confessed to killing her two children a year apart and hiding them in a freezer after she discovered they allegedly had been molesting a young relative, two police sources familiar with the investigation said Wednesday.

Blair told detectives she killed her son two years ago, and her daughter in May 2014, after finding out about the sexual abuse, two sources said. Prosecutors said Stoni would be 15 now and Stephen would be 11.

The Detroit News is not disclosing the identity of the relative who was allegedly molested.

The two surviving children will need extensive therapy, said Gordon, who isn't sure if she will end up with permanent custody. Gordon said she's setting up a gofundme.com account in hopes of raising money for the children's therapy.

"Whether I end up with them or someone else does, they're going to need a lot of counseling," said Gordon, Blair's aunt.

Gordon said Blair cut off contact with the rest of the family, which is why nobody noticed Stephen and Stoni were missing.

"We had such a tumultuous relationship," Gordon said of her niece. "She was always calling for help; she needed food, money. I told her she had to get a job and take care of her family. That was the time when she cut everyone off and we didn't hear from her."

Gordon said Blair had sporadic jobs but they never lasted long.

"I think she worked in a bar for a while," she said. "She dropped out of school in the 10th grade; what was out there for her? I begged her to go back to school, but she wouldn't. I took care of those kids, basically. She'd run out of food stamps, and she'd call me."

When asked whether Blair was homeschooling her children, as neighbors said she claimed, Gordon scoffed. "Yeah, right. With a 10th grade education?"

Gordon added the children were enrolled in the Ralph Bunche Preparatory Academy, formerly Duffield Elementary School, until Blair pulled them out of school two years ago.

"I worked on a lot of bad cases," said Gordon, a 26-year police veteran. "... But even if this wasn't family, this is as bad as anything I ever worked on."

Detroit Police Chief James Craig briefly discussed the case during a press conference Wednesday morning at police headquarters. Craig said he couldn't go into great detail about the case because the investigation is active.

"While the desire to know what happened in that home is strong, I will ask you to be mindful of the two children who were in that home and are still alive," Craig said to reporters. "They've been through a lot as you can imagine. It's been a tremendous trauma. I don't think there's anyone in this room who would want to cause any additional pain to these children."

Blair was arrested Tuesday in the Martin Luther King apartments on the city's near east side, where court bailiffs discovered the bodies while removing the freezer from the woman's townhouse after Blair was ordered evicted for nonpayment of rent.

Blair's Facebook profile declared: "Loyal to my babies." One recent post was a photo bearing the message: "There is no greater blessing than being called Mom."

"The alleged facts in this case present examples of why we must all be diligent and involved citizens," Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said in a release. "A good way to protect society's children is to be alert and look out for your neighborhood youth, refuse to look the other way, and report what you know when necessary. Even though we are issuing these charges today, this tragic case remains under investigation."

ghunter@detroitnews.com

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