Friends described Jarmecca "Nikki" Whitehead as a "loving and open" mother whose rebellious teens increasingly challenged her on issues of dating, cell phone use and even about going to school.
The 16-year-old twins, Tasmiyah, "Tas," and Jasmiyah, "Jas," had at one time been "A" students, involved in Girl Scouts and the performing arts at their Georgia high school. But 18 months ago, they reportedly became so violent and hard to handle that they temporarily moved in with their elderly great-grandmother.
Now they're locked up, accused of murdering their mother, a beautician who had recently gone back to school to study fashion design.
Whitehead was found dead in her Conyers, Georgia, house in a pool of blood Jan. 14, brutally beaten and stabbed. Just one week before the murder the twins had returned home, but their mother had called police three times to rein in her out-of-control twins.
"Do I think they were capable of doing it?" said Petrina Sims, owner of Decatur's Simply Unique salon, where Whitehead worked until her death. "I was hoping not, but after all she had gone through, it was like you almost knew it was them."
Apparently police thought so too, arresting the girls May 21 after connecting them to the brutal murder of their 34-year-old mother.
The girls face charges of malicious murder, felony murder and aggravated assault, which can carry a life sentence without parole. Prosecutors cannot ask for the death penalty because juveniles are barred from capital punishment in Georgia.
"There was a point soon after the murder when a lot of people became suspicious of the two girls," Police Chief Eugene Wilson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The twins have denied killing their mother, telling police that they discovered her body when they came home from school. One of the girls hailed a sheriff's deputy, who had been serving a warrant in an unrelated case in the neighborhood.
The number of young children who kill is small, but edging up after reaching an all-time high a decade ago.
The murder arrest rate in 2008 was 3.8 arrests per 100,000 juveniles ages 10 through 17. This was 17 percent more than the 2004 low of 3.3 and three-quarters less than the 1993 peak of 14.4, according the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
The Whitehead slaying has unsettled this middle-class community of about 80,000 people, just 30 miles outside Atlanta. The last violent crime in Conyers was a 1999 shooting at its Heritage High School, according to Rockdale County District Attorney Richard Reed. Six students were injured in a copycat shooting one month after the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado.
When the girls became suspects, police literally "beat the bushes" with batons in the Whitehead's subdivision, searching for a weapon, according to ABC's affiliate WSB-TV.
Police have gathered evidence that was tested at the GBI crime labs to see if it will help link the girls to their mother's death.
"Some of that evidence is tested and some testing is ongoing," said Reed.
He confirmed that Whitehead and her daughters had a tempestuous relationship.
"There were extreme differences between the mom and the girls and there was a lot of emotion and a lot of drama and anger that the girls had directed toward their mom," said Reed.