As their imprisoned father listened by telephone, a boy and his sister who police say were gunned down by their mother were laid to rest in a single white casket Thursday after pastors urged those grieving to turn to scriptures in the absence of answers about the killings.
Some four dozen mourners, including the children's 8-year-old brother, gathered for the funeral for 5-year-old Levada Brown III and 4-year-old Yokela Smith. But their mother, Yokeia Smith, 25, remained jailed on murder charges, accused of carrying out the killings with close-range shotgun blasts to the children's heads eight days earlier in the family's East St. Louis apartment.
The children's father, serving time in a Wisconsin federal prison for helping rob a southwestern Illinois credit union in 2006, monitored the funeral from behind bars through a telephone handset perched on the House of Prayer to All Nations' pulpit. He voiced his anguish in a letter about losing "two angels" that was read at the funeral.
"The birth of my children has made me the happiest man alive," Levada Brown Jr. said in the missive read by Jama Burries, an aunt of the children, from the altar behind the closed casket, which was covered by a spray of white flowers and flanked by pink, blue and white helium-filled balloons. "My children are everything to me _ the air that I breathe, the blood in my veins, the strength that gets me up each morning" while in prison.
"A father is a daughter's first love and a son's first hero," added Brown, who in pleading guilty to the robbery that landed him in prison said in court papers that he did the crime to help support the slain boy as a newborn.
Glossy programs handed out during the funeral cast the 5-year-old boy as a lover of football, Western movies, remote-controlled cars and time playing with his older brother. Young Yokela enjoyed jumping rope, dolls, polishing her nails, lip gloss, a purse full of change and playing in the park. Both cherished their grandmothers.
The shotgun killings stunned many in East St. Louis, a 30,000-resident city that's among the nation's poorest and where authorities long have lamented that years of gun violence has claimed too many lives, notably the young. Ministers during Thursday's funeral seized on that, pressing the latest mourners to believe the dead siblings were in a better place, free on any challenges or suffering.
"We still deal with the question of why. Why did this happen? Why was such a young person taken?" the Rev. Anthony Pettiford eulogized. "Let me comfort you and tell you that for those that have that question, you're not alone."
"There's not anything wrong with wondering why," he went on from the pulpit, near a large painting of the two kids, depicting them in life back to back and with arms folded _ halos above their heads.
"Jesus is the answer for every situation. He's in total control of what's going on, and he has a purpose. He has a reason, and he's making sure you hear the word today," Pettiford said.
The name of the children's mother was not uttered during Thursday's roughly hourlong funeral, though relatives since the Aug. 31 killings have publicly pledged their support for her, saying she was bipolar and on anti-depression medication.
"For another to do that (crime), there must have been something wrong," Gwen Dew, a 59-year-old aunt of Smith's, said after the funeral. She hoped an eventual chat with Smith by her grandmother "can make some sense of it. Right now, we just don't know."
Smith was arrested in St. Louis the night of the killings after police say her vehicle hit two pedestrians near the Gateway Arch.
Online court records do not show whether Smith has an attorney, and it was not immediately clear when she may be moved from Missouri to Illinois to face the murder counts.