PRINCESS ANNE, Md. (AP) — A divorced father and the seven children he was trying to raise on a kitchen worker's salary were poisoned in their sleep by carbon monoxide only days after the power company discovered a stolen meter and cut off electricity to their rental home, police said Tuesday.
Delmarva Power said it did not cut off the family's electricity because they were behind on their bills, but for safety reasons after discovering the illegal connection March 25.
Rodney Todd, 36, then bought a gas-powered generator and installed it in his kitchen to keep his two sons and five daughters warm. Friends and relatives last saw them alive March 28.
"The children were all in beds, and it appears as though they were sleeping," Princess Anne police Chief Scott Keller said. "Probably it was bedtime and they decided they needed some light and probably some heat, because toward the end of March even though it was spring we were having some pretty chilly nights."
Police found their bodies Monday inside the one-story wood-frame home on Maryland's Eastern Shore after school workers, friends and Todd's co-workers knocked on the door with no answer.
"I'm just numb. Like it's a nightmare but it's not," the children's mother, Tyisha Luneice Chambers, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "If I had known he was without electricity, I would have helped."
Why Todd had a generator running indoors wasn't clear. The chief ruled out foul play and speculated that had it been outside, the noise would have bothered neighbors.
Matt Likovich, a spokesman for Delmarva Power, said Tuesday that the utility was not contacted to have power restored in the home after the illegal meter was removed. "We had no record of who was living there," Likovich said. "There was no way to determine what their situation was."
Likovich said customers are encouraged to contact the utility if they are having difficulty paying their bill. He says there are options for such customers, including partnerships with social service agencies. But, he said, the customers "have to contact us."
The police chief said the utility has been subpoenaed to document exactly what it did when. Maryland's Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, also is investigating.
Maryland regulations allow utility companies to terminate service without notice if the utility finds a condition on the customer's premise is hazardous or the customer has tampered with the utility's equipment.
Sen. James Mathias Jr., a Democrat who represents Princess Anne, addressed Maryland's Senate on Tuesday, asking his fellow lawmakers to work with agencies and neighborhood groups to make certain the eight deaths were not in vain.
Although Todd got some welfare money, it wasn't enough to pay the bills, his close friend Sarah Hardy said Tuesday morning.
"How can a man survive off of basically minimum wage with seven kids, and you can't help him with a utility bill?" Hardy asked. "This man was working. And Delmarva Power cuts the lights off?"
Later Tuesday, the utility revealed that the rental home never had legal power while the Todds lived there. The utility said the electricity had been disconnected in October, and there was no request to reconnect it after the family moved there in November.
"Through the use of smart meter technology, Delmarva Power discovered a stolen electric meter was being used at the home on March 25, 2015. Delmarva Power disconnected the illegally connected meter for safety reasons and to comply with standard protocol. Delmarva Power did not disconnect electric service at this address for nonpayment," its statement said.
Bonnie Edwards said her grandsons, Cameron and ZhiHeem, were 13 and 7, and her granddaughters, Tyjuziana, Tykeria, Tynijuzia, TyNiah and Tybreyia, were 15, 12, 10, 9 and 6, respectively. Todd did all he could to stretch his money for their care, she said.
"There was nothing he wouldn't do for them," Edwards said. "All he was trying to do was to keep his kids warm."
A co-worker at the nearby University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Brittney Hudson, said Todd "was always smiling and laughing."
"He's the man you need to know and the man you want to be," said Bilel Smith, who lives nearby. "They were their own football team, their own basketball team. This is breaking our hearts."
Todd retained full custody when their divorce was finalized last September, and his ex-wife said he never harmed the children. But Chambers said he was physically abusive to her and stabbed her in the face before serving 16 months in prison for assaulting her.
Chambers also said she had been the primary breadwinner when they were together and kept paying child support until losing track of them in Todd's last move.
"I was working 12-16 hours as a manager at McDonald's, the overnight shift. He was home cooking and cleaning, and I was the working mom," she said.
But Hardy said there is more to that story.
"She abandoned him and the family," Hardy said. "He took his seven kids and her son and raised them on his own."
Todd had received assistance with utility bills in the past but did not apply for help this year, said Tom VanLandingham, who directs the Office of Home Energy Programs in Somerset County. Families can apply once a year, and assistance is based on household income and energy use, among other factors.
"We're all kind of baffled as to why he did not apply this year. ... That's the million-dollar question," VanLandingham said before the utility's announcement.
Todd's children had big personalities.
The youngest, Tybreyia, "was the bashful type," Hardy said, "but she was really loving." Cameron, who Hardy nicknamed "Pun," was a "quiet and reserved, but he was a Casanova." The older girls loved it when Todd styled their hair —a skill he almost mastered.
"They took care of each other," and they helped their dad, too, she said.
"Even the little one," Hardy said, referring to 7-year-old ZhiHeem, "I'd see him with a little broom and dustpan."
Associated Press Writers Amanda Myers and Sarah Brumfield in Washington, D.C., contributed.