Did Single Mom Latoya Jackson Die Trying in Vain to Save Her Sons?

There was so much on the horizon for Latoya Jackson and her three sons in the summer of 2015.

Her youngest, Kantrell, was about to start kindergarten. Her oldest, Andrew, was preparing to finish junior high. And the whole family had recently moved into a new home on the South Side of Chicago.

It wasn’t too far from that home in the Chatham neighborhood where several of the 27-year-old single mom’s family members were gathered for a picnic that July 18 when they got word neighbors were complaining of an ungodly stench coming from her home.

For the first few hours after police were called to do a wellness check, nobody really knew what was going on. It was clear that Jackson and her boys hadn’t been seen for a while, she wasn’t answering phone calls, and something was wrong.

But there was still a chance of it all being a misunderstanding.

April Bussell, Jackson’s longtime friend, told The Daily Beast that was her first thought when she got a call that her best friend was missing.

“‘Nah, Toya’s not missing. Y’all not saying nothing about the kids and I know she wouldn’t leave them,’” she recalled reassuring herself.

The reality didn’t sink in, she said, until she drove over to Jackson’s house on the 8300 block of Drexel Ave.

“I got over there … and I had never smelled a dead body in my life, but you can smell it, it’s so strong,” she told The Daily Beast through sobs.

They had been in the house for so long before they even knew the kids were in there.

April Bussell

Officers conducting the welfare check found four bodies in the home, all badly decomposed after going unnoticed for days in the sweltering summer heat. They were discovered on July 18, 2015, four days after Jackson’s 28th birthday.

“They had been in the house for so long before they even knew the kids were in there,” Bussell said.

The gruesome discovery was the start of a nightmare that Jackson’s friends and family never got to wake up from. It would take eight months before authorities would officially identify two of the victims as Jackson’s sons. But friends and family didn’t need the medical examiner to know whose remains they were.

“She couldn’t live without them, and they weren’t going to be able to live without her,” Bussell said.

All four deaths were deemed homicides. An autopsy determined that Latoya had died of ligature strangulation, with the Chicago Tribune citing a law enforcement source at the time saying a belt had been found near her body.

Media reports also said the young mother appeared to have suffered head trauma, something Bussell and Jackson’s cousin, Lisa Jackson Ray, told The Daily Beast they were told by authorities at the time.

“Toya was strangled with a belt and was hit in the back of the head with something,” Bussell said.

“If she saw that harm was coming to her kids, she just went out to try and protect [them]

Lisa Jackson Ray

She said she believed someone had to have hit Jackson from behind to incapacitate her before strangling her, because “she’s a fighter” and wouldn’t have let someone get a belt around her neck unless she was “passed out.”

The youngest son, Kantrell, was formally identified as one of the deceased in late July, but Andrew and Kameron were not officially named as victims until the next April.

Latoya Jackson’s sons Andrew, 11, Kameron, 9, and Kantrell, 5.


Autopsies on the boys were initially said to be inconclusive, but further testing determined they had died as a result of a fire inside the home, due to “inhalation of products of combustion” and “carbon monoxide toxicity,” the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office told reporters in April 2016.

The circumstances surrounding the fire are still not entirely clear more than six years later. The Chicago Fire Department did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.

Fire officials at the time said the boys died as the result of an “incendiary fire” that had damaged the inside of the home but had never spread to the outside. “There was an indication of fire inside, but no one reported the fire,” Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford told reporters.

A fire official cited by the Chicago Sun-Times nearly a week after the bodies were found acknowledged that burn marks had also been found on the victims, but said authorities weren’t sure if they were burned before or after they were dead.

“Whoever did this… when they first strangled Toya, they tried to set her on fire,” Bussell said she suspected. “The neighbor was saying that they smelled smoke, but it wasn’t enough for them to think there was a fire.”

It was not entirely clear how the fire put itself out, but Glenn Corbett, a fire science expert who works as an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told The Daily Beast it was possible the fire could have self-extinguished if it was in a “tightly sealed space.”

“You can literally have a situation where all the oxygen is consumed in the room and the fire goes out,” he said. “However, that’s a pretty darn rare event, in most situations.”

The boys would have died rather quickly if they succumbed to smoke inhalation from the fire, according to Corbett. In addition to the carbon monoxide that gets released during a fire, “you can get hydrogen cyanide [from the burning of synthetic materials], which is actually even a little bit more nasty than carbon monoxide is.”

It was unclear how long the bodies had been in the house before they were found, Frank Shuftan, a spokesman for the Medical Examiner’s Office, said at the time. A spokesperson for the agency told The Daily Beast the medical examiner was not able to say exactly when the victims had died.

For Jackson’s family and friends, the only thing that’s clear is that the single mom died protecting her kids, and they her.

“I think the oldest son was trying to save her,” Jackson’s cousin, Lisa, told The Daily Beast, saying she recalled being told that Andrew had been found near her.

Bussell, too, said Andrew had been found near his mother.

“They couldn’t open the door at first, ‘cause his body was there,” she said.

Latoya Jackson was found facedown in an enclosed porch, next to a door. The Chicago Tribune reported at the time that one of her sons was found facedown on just the other side of it, the two separated only by the locked door.

“If she saw that harm was coming to her kids, she just went out to try and protect her kids,” Jackson Ray said.

Two boys were found face-up on a bed in the other room, having apparently succumbed to smoke inhalation in their sleep.

“This was a whole generation of kids. … A 5-year-old, an 11-year-old … this is a whole generation,” Bussell said.

The entire neighborhood was left shell-shocked by the discovery. Neighbors who had previously been used to seeing Latoya’s three sons playing in the backyard now saw investigators entering and leaving the home in Hazmat suits, the area blocked off by red crime scene tape.

Neighbors paid their respects at a makeshift memorial in front of the home with balloons, candles, and drawings.

“I’ve known Latoya ever since she was a little girl. She’s a very caring mother, she loves her kids dearly, and it hurts my heart to hear that something tragic like this had to happen to her,” one unnamed neighbor told NBC Chicago at the time.

Leon Ervin, the grandfather of the boys, told local reporters he was in too much shock to even comprehend what had happened.

“I don’t know how they died. All I know is all four of them is dead,” he told CBS Chicago. “I’m granddaddy. All of them called me granddad. … I’m devastated, man. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to say.”

“What kind of person would do this? And to kids?”

People gather outside the home where Latoya Jackson and her sons Andrew, 11, Kameron, 9, and Kantrell, 5, were found dead on July 18, 2015 in Chicago.


Residents and family members of Latoya Jackson were immediately in agreement that whoever killed her and her kids was no stranger.

“My honest opinion … I just believe it was somebody that she knew, that she opened the door and let him in. It was just somebody that she was trusting of and that she knew,” Jackson’s cousin, Lisa, said.

“I can’t tell you how many times I just replayed it over in my mind, just trying to put together what possibly could have happened. You know? And it just … it sticks with me that it was somebody that she knew that just probably came over and just rang the doorbell,” she said.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about little Kameron and [the others] and what they could have been,” she said.

Bussell said her best friend was a fiercely private person and would not have let just anybody into her home.

“This is her home, that’s where she felt safe, so whoever did this to her was not a stranger,” Bussell said, noting that the killer had struck at an oddly fortuitous time: when Jackson’s “nosy neighbor” was out of town and Bussell herself had not been around as much as she usually would because she was living further across town.

I still have Toya’s picture as my screensaver from six years ago. I never changed it. I wake up to her face every day.

April Bussell

“This is somebody that was really close,” she said.

Jackson’s penchant for keeping to herself is also what took people so long to realize something was wrong at the house, Bussell said. Because Jackson “didn’t really celebrate holidays,” and treated her own birthday as “just a regular day,” it didn’t immediately strike anyone as odd when they hadn’t heard from her that week.

Police said early on that they were investigating several leads in the case, including whether Jackson had been a victim of domestic violence, but they never publicly named a suspect or took anyone into custody.

Nearly seven years later, Bussell said that while she had been the one to express suspicions about domestic violence in the wake of the murders, she no longer believed that to be the case, and police had cleared a boyfriend—who she did not name—after he proved to be cooperative with investigators.

The Chicago Police Department declined to comment on whether there were any new suspects or leads in the investigation.

“There are no updates at this time. It remains an ongoing investigation. We cannot comment on specifics of an open investigation,” a spokesperson told The Daily Beast.

Most of Latoya Jackson’s closest family members have passed away in the years after her murder, including her uncle, Dale Jackson, who had been leading the push to keep heat on the investigation.

Bussell said that’s part of the reason she feels compelled to talk about what happened.

“I still cry about this daily. It’s been six years. I still have Toya’s picture as my screensaver from six years ago. I never changed it. I wake up to her face every day.… I still talk to the air like I’m talking to her.”

“I feel like I have to talk for her. … I don’t want nobody to forget them. I don’t care how many years pass, I will never forget. It seems like it just happened,” she said.

Throughout the interview, she frequently catches herself referring to her best friend in the present tense, especially when she’s remembering how “full of spirit” the young mother was.

“If it’s nice weather in the middle of October, Toya would put on her bathing suit and not care” what people thought of her, Bussell said. “She would put her bathing suit on and walk up and down the street.”

“Toya was 100% the realest person you would ever meet,” she said.

“I don’t even try to fill that void.”

The fact that Jackson’s three sons were killed along with her left a hole in the neighborhood still felt today, Bussell said, adding that kids from the area continue to struggle to make sense of the murders.

“They still reach out to me all time” about what happened, she said.

When Jackson’s cousin, Lisa, speaks about the boys, the grief in her voice is briefly edged out by pride.

“They were really going to be something, if they had gotten old enough to be able to live life,” she told The Daily Beast, adding, “They were all very, very energetic kids. They were very energetic. They were babies. They loved their mother. And they were just exceptionally smart.”

People gather outside the home where Latoya Jackson and her sons Andrew, 11, Kameron, 9, and Kantrell, 5, were found dead on July 18, 2015 in Chicago.


The grandfather, Ervin, in comments to the Chicago Tribune in 2015, said the oldest son, Andrew, “wanted to be everything” when he grew up, while Kameron dreamed of becoming an astronaut.

Kantrell, the youngest, “was just excited to go to school,” he said.

Bussell said all the boys were incredibly strong-willed, a trait she says they got from their mother, who “brought them up to be strong.”

She said there was only one thought that had ever helped her make sense of their deaths.

“I just feel like God knew she wouldn’t be able to live without them kids, and them kids would not be able to live without her.”


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