Isaiah Gates was fast asleep when his grandmother attacked him in the darkness. She was clutching a screwdriver in one hand, a kitchen knife in the other.
She hissed his name.
“I got scared because I could see in her eyes that she was possessed by something,” he said.
She slashed at his head, cutting him above his right eye, on his neck, his scalp and, as he tried to fend her off, his arms.
“I said, ‘Do you know what you’re doing, Grandma? It’s me, Grandma!’” said Isaiah, 11.
In recalling that horrific August night, Isaiah curled his hands around his neck to demonstrate how his grandmother tried to choke him and he pulled up his shirt to show where she burned him with a cigarette lighter.
“She said, ‘If you scream, I’ll chop your head off,’” he said. “She said she was going to kill herself.”
Unknown to Isaiah, his grandmother, Jacqueline Sanders, 54, was schizophrenic. She had run out of her prescription medication and was experiencing a psychotic episode, according to investigators.
Isaiah, who lives in Coconut Grove with his mother and siblings, was visiting his father in Albany, Georgia, during summer vacation four months ago. Sanders, his paternal grandmother, had come up from West Palm Beach to join him, his sister Zakyria, 6, and his cousin Jaylan Barr, 7. But while Isaiah’s father worked the night shift at his job, and the children slept, Sanders began hallucinating and hearing voices.
She hit Isaiah in the mouth and chest and forced him into the trunk of her car. She slammed it shut and he was in the dark again, trembling and bleeding.
Sanders went back into a bedroom. She stabbed granddaughter Zakyria to death.
Then she set the house on fire. When firefighters arrived, Sanders and her grandson Jaylan were found unresponsive inside, and later died of smoke inhalation.
It took police hours to discover Isaiah, trapped in the trunk. His father initially assumed the boy had burned to death, and he called in tears to tell the children’s mother in Miami — who was at that moment enrolling them in an after-school care program at Frances Tucker Elementary — that his house was on fire and both brother and sister had perished.
“While I was in the trunk, I heard something burst and I thought it was a gunshot but it turns out it was the house going up in flames,” Isaiah said. “I prayed in there. I waited and waited and waited. Then they noticed blood on the trunk and I started banging on it. I was weak, but I made some noise.”
A police video of the rescue shows Isaiah emerging from the trunk after about 12 hours.
“He has a look of relief on his face, like, ‘Finally, I’m safe,’” said Isaiah’s mother, Iesha Brown, 30. “There’s blood coming out of his ears and all over his head.”
She has pictures of the blackened rooms, including one of blood-stained pink princess sheets on her daughter’s bed.
“We called her Sugar Mama from the time she was a baby,” Brown said, turning the pages of a photo album. “She was a very dramatic little girl. Fun-loving, look-at-me, the center of attention.”
If Brown had known Sanders was mentally unstable, she would not have allowed the children to stay there and can’t believe they were left alone with her.
“Miss Jackie always went to church, she was good with the kids,” Brown said. “But her family was secretive and never told us she was ill. Even now the kids’ father says a demon got into her.”
Brown is raising four sons on her own — Isaiah, who is in fifth grade; Jordan, 8; Joshua, 5; and Jacob, 1.
It has been difficult to get life back on track since that August night and the funerals that followed. They live in a cramped old wooden rooming house after spending two months in a motel room. Brown, daughter of a former South Miami Hospital dietitian and a Navy veteran who was a VA Hospital janitor, served in the Army for four years and got a degree from culinary school. But since the baby was born, she’s been working dual shifts for the company that cleans Metrorail trains.
“Once Jacob is a little older, I would like to get into the restaurant business and use my cooking skills,” said Brown, as her sons proudly offered a sample of a ham dish she made for dinner.
The family has many needs, such as a kitchen table, a set of dishes, cookware and storage bins or a dresser. Isaiah and his brothers would love to have a laptop computer, an Apple or Samsung tablet, an iPhone, Xbox 1S or Play Station 4, Lego Dimensions or Star Wars toys, and shoes, clothes or a Foot Locker gift card.
“Mostly we could use a bigger house and maybe a car,” said Isaiah, who would be overjoyed to visit Disney World for the first time.
Isaiah is receiving therapy.
“Sometimes he still hears her voice saying, ‘Are you dead yet?’” Brown said. “Certain things trigger flashbacks. I just got him to stop sleeping in the bed with me, but I have to leave the TV or a light on because he’s afraid to be in the pitch black.
“And sometimes he just spaces out. That’s what worries me. I don’t know what he’s thinking. I don’t want him to snap one day.”
Isaiah will play the innkeeper, Jordan a magi and Joshua an angel in the Christmas play at their neighborhood church, Macedonia Missionary Baptist.
“We memorized our lines already,” Isaiah said, a wide grin crackling across his face.
Other times, his expressive eyes are sad. He’s trying to put the trauma behind him.
“I forgive my grandmother, even though sometimes I don’t want to. But when I get to heaven I don’t want to talk to her,” he said. “I’m being strong in a spiritual way.”
He is, after all, a survivor, and at age 11, the man of the house.
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com. (Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.