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.
Whitehead Twins Charged With Murder Held Separately
Rockdale County public defender Thomas Owen Humphries, who is representing Jas, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "I've got my work cut out for me."
The girls are being held in youth detention centers in two different counties without bond to "keep them from comparing notes," said Humprhies.
The girls had a history of conflict with their mother, according to Whitehead's friend and colleague of 15 years. Their father lived in Jamaica and was not a presence in their lives.
"It took its toll on Nikki," said Sims. "She was a stranger to no one, real sweet. She was a very loving person and not a confrontational person. Any time there was a problem, she would try to bring about a resolution and didn't even hold a grudge. She was always trying to reach across the board to reconcile."
"She was always talking about problems with the girls acting out," said Sims. "They were not wild all the time. They were real amenable girls, involved in ballet, playing instruments and in the performing arts. She had them involved. But they began to rebel and tried to jump on her and got away. The police apprehended the girls and took them to juvenile."
But in 2008, Whitehead had a confrontation with the twins. "The girls wanted to go somewhere and she said they couldn't go, and they tried to jump her," said Sims. "And it wasn't the first attempt."
Whitehead called the police. "In spite of that, Nikki still loved those girls," she said.
The girls ended up in juvenile court and Whitehead's grandmother, who was more lax about discipline, was given primary custody.
"They liked being with her because they were able to do what they wanted to do," said Sims. "At first, they weren't violent, you would have thought they were typical teenagers. But after they were taken out of the home, the case turned. They were unruly began to tell lies."
Friends reported that the girls stole money from their family and their great-grandmother, who even had a dead-bolt on her bedroom door.
Over the course of the last year Whitehead had "tried back and forth with the court and with her whole heart" to get her daughters back, but to no avail.
Just a week before the murder, a judge gave Whitehead back custody of her daughters and she pledged to make a clean start. But more defiance ensued at the salon and in their home -- over respecting others, sitting down for meals and even going to school.
Sims said Whitehead suspected the defiant girls were up to something. "She was afraid of them, but I don't think she knew they would kill her."