Broward County

The ominous signs before 2 kids were smothered

St. Leo and Ariel Hines
St. Leo and Ariel Hines

Anthony Singleton couldn’t find his baby. The infant’s mother had fled their home in Philadelphia — amid ongoing supervision by child welfare authorities, and a bout with severe depression — and Singleton was searching for her frantically.

Eventually, Sophia Hines called a mutual friend, who handed the phone over to Singleton. Hines threatened to turn her toddler, Ariel, over “to the state,” but offered to return 7-month-old St. Leo to Singleton, records say.

Singleton replied that “he was going to call the police and report her for kidnapping.”

Days later, the police called him. Both Ariel and St. Leo were dead, and their mother had been charged in Broward County with deliberately killing them.

Pieces of Ariel and St. Leo Hines’ final days, and their mother’s flight from the Philadelphia child protection system, can be cobbled together from a series of records the Miami Herald obtained Friday from the Department of Children & Families. The Herald fought for two weeks to secure them.

On June 6, while she was staying at a cousin’s apartment in Miramar, Sophia Hines took a bedsheet and held it over St. Leo’s mouth “until [he] was no longer breathing,” a police report says. Hines “then admitted to holding the same sheet over the mouth of [Ariel] until she was no longer breathing.”

Hines had called her cousin seven times that day, beginning at 4:19 p.m. Neisha Nettleford finally picked up on the eighth call, and Hines was crying, begging her to come home. Nettleford did.

“I hurt my kids,” Hines said, pointing to the bedroom where Ariel, 3, and St. Leo were found lying on a bed, supine. Blood trickled from Ariel’s nose, “froth” from her mouth.

Hines then “passed out on the front lawn,” records say.

Hines, 40, “gave no explanation for her actions,” a report says. She was charged with two counts of premeditated murder. Her attorneys have asked that she be evaluated to determine whether she is competent to stand trial.

Florida child welfare authorities had no prior history with Hines or her children.

Philadelphia authorities have declined to discuss the Hines family, citing the confidentiality of such records in Pennsylvania. “We are not allowed to divulge any information about the case,” a Philadelphia Department of Human Services spokeswoman, Alicia Taylor, said Friday.

In an email to the Herald June 9, Taylor said the Hines children “were not in the department’s custody.” The children, Taylor wrote, “were both involved” with the department, and “were receiving in-home services” from a Philadelphia social services agency.

That tells only part of the story.

Though child protection records remain sealed in Pennsylvania, they are considered public record in Florida when a youngster dies from abuse or neglect. For about two weeks, the Florida Department of Children & Families sought to shield records of the Hines children from disclosure, saying Pennsylvania’s confidentiality extended to Florida, a claim First Amendment lawyers disputed. DCF ultimately relented, and released all of the records to the Herald Friday.

And though the records bring the family into sharper focus, much of the narrative still remains hidden. Though Florida abuse investigators have asked their Philadelphia counterparts at least twice for documents pertaining to Ariel and St. Leo, records show, only one short document from Philadelphia is contained in the package given to the Herald — suggesting that city has yet to fully comply with Florida’s request.

Some of the family’s history in Pennsylvania is detailed in notations from telephone calls between abuse investigators in Broward County and their counterparts in Pennsylvania. The records say Hines and Singleton had a history of domestic violence between them, that Hines had very little family support, and that she had been living in a shelter before St. Leo was born.

A Philadelphia child abuse investigator told counterparts in Florida that Hines “had a pattern of mental health behavior” dating back to before St. Leo was born.

Hines had taken Ariel to a host of doctors, suggesting she had been physically abused or molested, but none of the allegations proved to be founded. First she said Singleton had molested the girl. Later, she accused workers at a nursery of abusing her. One problem, the reports say, was that Ariel was too young to talk about what, if anything, had happened to her.

The infant’s birth appears to have been a tipping point: In 2015, after St. Leo was born, Hines developed severe post-partum depression. Hines’ friend told investigators she “had a psychiatric breakdown, and was institutionalized at [Philadelphia’s] Einstein Hospital.”

Child protection authorities removed both children from Hines’ custody, and they were placed, first, in foster care, and, later, with Singleton.

A Philadelphia abuse investigator told investigators at the Broward Sheriff’s Office — which oversees abuse reports in that county — that Hines was supposed to either “complete” or “participate in” mental health counseling twice each month, as well as medication management and parenting classes.

And though authorities in Philadelphia returned the children to Hines’ care in April, BSO notes from the investigator there say “it is unknown as to whether or not Ms. Hines completed her services in Philadelphia.”

The youngsters were “safe in the current placement” Philadelphia records from April 27 say. The children were to remain under “protective supervision.” Their next court appearance was to be in July.

Nettleford, Hines’ cousin in Miramar, told authorities she saw little in the days before the killings to explain the tragedy. Hines, she said, “seemed to be good with her kids. She adores her kids. She always had the little boy on her hip,” Nettleford said. “They were always right next to her.”

Though Florida abuse investigators have asked their Philadelphia counterparts at least twice for documents pertaining to Ariel and St. Leo, records show, only one short document from Philadelphia is contained in the package given to the Herald — suggesting that city has yet to fully comply with Florida’s request.

In the days before the youngsters were killed, Singleton — who is St. Leo’s father, but not Ariel’s — had been trying to reach Hines. “She [would] not answer his calls,” BSO notes say. Hines instead called a friend, and the friend gave her phone to Singleton.

“You tearing me down,” Hines could be heard saying to the infant’s father. “I'll turn Ariel to the state, and bring the baby to you.”

Singleton said he would call police to report her for kidnapping, the notes say. The report does not explicitly say so, but it appears Singleton did not speak with authorities until he was told his son had been killed.

Singleton, 59, a forklift operator for Del Monte Foods, later told Broward abuse investigators that he had no idea Hines was taking the children to Florida. The day she left, he said, he was at work. Singleton “did not identify the signs” of Hines’ deteriorating mental illness in the weeks before his son was suffocated.

“She was functioning normal to me,” he said.