Kimberly McZinc, age 4, starved to death in a mobile home on a dirt road here in the Florida Panhandle. The refrigerator was stocked with food. Four other children in the home were plump and beloved.
Kimberly's mother, in the grip of twisted fundamentalism, is a college graduate with a masters in public administration. She believed her spunky little girl was possessed by demons.
To exorcise the evil, she denied Kimberly food and made the weakened child run "with Jesus," her tightly braided pigtails flying behind her.
Kimberly's death took five tortured months. During that time, the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services received two reports -- one that Kimberly was abused, a second that she was malnourished.
HRS workers investigated and closed both reports as unfounded.
"Why couldn't they see it before it was too late?" asked neighbor Barbara Savage.
The state's failure to save Kimberly's life lay hidden in confidential files until last month. In response to a Miami Herald request for the agency's investigations of child deaths, HRS released a 10-page report on Kimberly's case but blacked out her name and place of death.
In Santa Rosa County, the case of the little girl who died Feb. 8, 1988, is notorious.
HRS Deputy Secretary Pete Digre said her death is a case study of what goes wrong when workers are overburdened, inadequately trained and badly supervised. At that time, HRS managers had no way to monitor investigations with computerized tracking. Now they do.
Since Kimberly died, HRS has dramatically changed its system for investigating child abuse. "Unless you had massive falsification of records, you could not have a case like this today," Digre said.
On Nov. 15, the state Legislature will convene to consider emergency funding for the child welfare system.
Although abuse investigations have improved, protection of children living with foster parents or troubled families is still "primitive" in comparison, Digre said. Many HRS workers are still crushingly overloaded and inadequately trained. And though there is computer tracking of abuse investigations, there is no such system for tracking children with foster parents or troubled families.
The death of Kimberly McZinc appalled this community about 10 miles north of Pensacola.
State Attorney Kim Skievaski prosecuted the mother, Darlene Jackson, 33, for first-degree murder. While a jury deliberated in March, the mother pleaded guilty to murder in the third degree (without design to kill). Judge George Lowrey gave her seven years.
Another woman, Mary Nicholson, 39, an evangelist, is also accused of the murder. She and her four children lived with Kimberly and her mother in the mobile home. Trial is set for January.
Based on interviews, the autopsy, the HRS report, depositions of 25 witnesses, court records and Pensacola News Journal accounts, this is what happened:
Kimberly lived the first four years of her life in New York City. Her mother, a South Carolina native, received a college degree in community mental health and a masters in public administration from the University of South Carolina.
She got a job as a computer specialist for AT&T in New York City and began seeing an older man, Kenneth McZinc, an international examiner for the IRS. They had a child but did not marry.
Darlene Jackson was the model single parent -- a Sunday school teacher who organized reading programs for inner-city youngsters and church fashion shows. She quit the AT&T job to be a schoolteacher so she could spend more time with Kimberly.
"She seemed unalterably opposed to corporal punishment of children, diligent and rooted in patience and forbearance," her school principal, Doreen Hall, later wrote.
But sometime in 1986, Darlene turned to "charismatic fundamentalism." Through a friend, she started talking regularly on the phone to an evangelist who lived in the Florida Panhandle -- Mary Nicholson.
Mary had a reputation as a prophetess in her corner of the world. Once she told her pregnant sister she had a message from God: Marry the father of your child or die.
On the phone, Mary interpreted Darlene's dreams according to the Word of God. She spoke in tongues.
Theirs was an odd and fateful crossing of lives -- Darlene, the well-educated professional woman, and Mary, the high school dropout who last worked as a desk clerk in a roadside motel.
Darlene began sending Mary $72 from every paycheck. "You obey the Lord," Mary counseled her. Then she spent the money on herself.
Months later the women met in the Carolinas. Darlene was a changed person when she returned to New York, said her child's father, McZinc. She stopped letting him keep Kimberly overnight.
"She'd gone into the twilight zone," he said.
"Kimberly was a nice little kid who threw an occasional tantrum. You'd call her feisty. She had a lot of spirit."
Darlene packed up her belongings in July 1987 and moved to the Panhandle to live with Mary, her husband, Harley, and their four young children.
Darlene isolated herself in the mobile home. She did not work. She did not read newspapers. She did not watch TV. She stopped talking to her mother and brother.
Mary had powers and "talked to God," Darlene said. And Mary told her that God said Kimberly was possessed by demonic spirits of disobedience, a wolf, gluttony, lust and lying. Fasting and punishment were the cures.
Mary took control of Kimberly's diet and discipline, Darlene said.
Mary denied all this in a deposition, saying she did not believe in exorcising a child of demons with such harsh measures. Besides, the mother, not she, always prepared Kimberly's meals and punished her when she was bad, she said.
Whoever was at fault, Kimberly weakened.
Sometimes, she was fed only oatmeal, while the other children ate meat and potatoes.
Both women hit Kimberly. Mary's mother, Arcola Edwards, remembered one time when Kimberly visited her house next door. Mary came to get the girl and hit her with a belt all the way back to the mobile home.
On occasion, Mary anointed Kimberly, pouring olive oil from a cow's horn on her head. Once, while Kimberly played in the yard, Mary told Darlene to look and see the spirit of the wolf in Kim's face, Darlene said. "I saw her features change," said the mother.
When Mary gave God's orders for fasting and punishment to cleanse Kimberly, Darlene said she rushed to scribble them in her blue cloth diary.
Police found the diary.
From a September 1987 entry: "It (the demon) did not eat Saturday . . . didn't feed it because of her behavior. Sunday, it had nothing to eat. Monday and Tuesday the same."
Sept. 30: "Show no emotion . . . let her touch not the other children's toys because she seeks to destroy and kill."
Oct. 1: "Feed her only what I instruct, not a crumb over."
Oct. 6: "Leave the matter in thy servant Mary's hands."
On Oct. 9, Mary's oldest daughter Tina, 21, called HRS to report Kimberly had been abused. Tina said she had seen Darlene beat Kimberly with a belt and switches. She had seen the bruises.
HRS supervisor Wayne Barnes investigated the next day. Darlene impressed him as articulate and polite. Besides, the little girl said no one had hurt her. He looked at her arms, legs and buttocks but saw no marks.
He did not interview Tina or document contacts with neighbors. Nor did he have Kimberly examined by a doctor.
Tina believes he saw the wrong child, that Mary's daughter Naomi was passed off as Kimberly.
Barnes closed the case as unfounded.
On Nov. 9, Darlene went again to her diary:
"Feed her not, for I have no more mercy for this one. . . . she attempts to hurt thyself . . . she is as a crazed animal. Why do you doubt me? Know that I am the Lord thy God. Obey, obey, I say."
Later: "Worry not about this Kimberly. When she disobeys, knock her down, knock her down, I say. Show her the bottom of your foot."
Dec. 9: "Hit her in the mouth, in the mouth, I say. Keep to the diet . . . spare not the rod of correction . . . speak less and whip more, with severity."
Kimberly's weight loss became more noticeable. Scrawny and timid, she played by herself. Mary's parents, sister and daughter Tina saw her and worried.
"We all spoke about it amongst ourselves," Tina said. "I just figured she wasn't being fed."
On Dec. 15, Tina called HRS again, reporting that Kimberly was undernourished and wasn't getting medical attention. She offered to accompany the investigator to be sure he saw the right girl.
Caseworker Keith Gwaltney, a veteran HRS worker, went out this time, without Tina. He noticed Kimberly had "a very slim build, very slim," but he, too, found Darlene persuasive. He did not examine the child without her clothes on. Darlene rejected his suggestion of a medical exam.
"She said, 'If my child needs to go to the doctor, I can pay for it . . .' I felt like maybe I'd insulted her, that she didn't need our help," Gwaltney said.
"She had an appropriate answer for my questions. I felt that Mrs. Jackson was very articulate, very intelligent. I felt she was at least my equal, and I definitely wanted to treat her with respect."
Two days later, Gwaltney talked with Dr. Lelia Montes, a pediatrician for the Child Protection Team.
The HRS worker suspected Kimberly had sickle-cell anemia but said Darlene was moving back to New York soon. The doctor told him blood tests would take time and suggested he refer her for an exam in New York.
No referral was made. Gwaltney closed the case as unfounded. His supervisor, Barnes, did not remember discussing the case with Gwaltney, though weekly reviews are required.
Darlene and Kimberly did not move back to New York.
In late January 1988, Darlene wrote in her diary: "Time is at hand concerning thy seed. . . . Her weak state demonstrates my way is the only way . . . regardless of how thin and weak she becomes, I will sustain her."
On Feb. 7, Kimberly lay in bed, unresponsive to her mother's voice. Darlene called Mary for help. They tried to give Kimberly warm milk, but she did not drink. Her hands were cold.
Mary went to bed, and Darlene fell asleep with her daughter cradled in her arms. Kimberly clutched her mother's finger. When Darlene woke the next morning, the little girl wasn't breathing. Darlene called an ambulance.
Montes, the Child Protection Team doctor, examined the dead girl. "The child is like an African child, just skin and bones," she said.
When Darlene found out her daughter was dead, she screamed, "No, no, God, no, Jesus, no!"
Cause of death: chronic malnutrition. Kimberly, emaciated, was 3-foot-8 and weighed 28 1/2 pounds. She should have weighed about 45 pounds.
The medical examiner found bruises all over her body. "Severe bleeding covered almost the entire back and involved the deep tissues beneath the skin, having the appearance of severe repeated blows to the back, chest and buttock," he wrote in the autopsy report.
At the murder trial, Darlene's lawyer, Leo Thomas, argued she had been in a "religious hypnotic trance" under the domination of Mary Nicholson.
After Darlene pleaded guilty, she vowed to spend her life "exposing people like Mary Nicholson" because "there are other Darlenes and other Kimberlys."
Postscript: Darlene is now serving time at a state prison in Lowell.
HRS supervisor Barnes quit his job before HRS could fire him. Caseworker Gwaltney requested and received a demotion to work with a smaller caseload of children.
Mary Nicholson, awaiting trial, is under house arrest in the mobile home on the dirt road.