The Lost Boys

updated 01/20/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/20/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

Shawn Slappy was only looking for his work boots. On the morning of Jan. 4, the Newark, N.J., security guard awoke alone in the row-house apartment of his girlfriend, Sherry Murphy, 41, a topless dancer, and decided to see if she had stowed his new Timberlands in her cellar behind a door she always kept locked. Using a screwdriver, "I opened the door," he says, "and I looked at another world." In the darkness he made out a doll-like form that seemed barely human. "I knew it was a child," says Slappy, 31. "But there was no movement."

Terrified, he fled upstairs and phoned police. When authorities arrived, he returned with them to the basement and discovered two little boys cowering under a bed reeking of urine and feces, their emaciated bodies covered in bruises and burns. "I said, 'It's going to be all right, babies,'" he says. " 'Come on out, it's going to be all right.'"

It's a wish shared by all who hear the tale of Raheem Williams, 7, and his brother Tyrone, 4, who are recovering in a Newark hospital from starvation and dehydration. Such hopes come too late for Raheem's twin brother, Faheem, whose body was discovered the next day in another basement room. An autopsy determined he had died of starvation and blunt trauma to the stomach. Police have charged Murphy, a cousin of the boys' mother, Melinda Williams, 30, with felony child endangerment. As PEOPLE went to press, she remained at large and the FBI was assisting in the search. Williams, also a go-go dancer, had left the children with Murphy when she was jailed for child abuse in March 2002. Although released in August, she never returned for them. (Williams claims she attempted to find her children, but that Murphy hid them from her.)

On the quiet Newark block where Murphy lived, neighbors wondered if they had missed signs of serious trouble. "I saw a kid out front once. I didn't think anything of it, except that he didn't have a coat on and it was cold," says Ramsey Phillips, 22, who lives nearby. "How can that happen here?" More to the point, state and city officials are asking how the safety net failed. There was little evidence that the twins had been in school, and Williams seems to have fallen off the radar of child welfare agencies—even though she was the subject of 11 complaints of abuse and neglect dating back to 1992, when an older son was an infant. Promising a shakeup, New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey blasted his state's Division of Youth and Family Services for "failures of judgment, failure of follow-up, failure of accountability."

Relatives say Williams, the mother of four by two different fathers, frequently left her children alone. Over the years social workers substantiated one complaint of medical neglect and two complaints of neglect, including a case in which she had dumped the boys with a friend and then disappeared for weeks. But records show overburdened caseworkers were unable to confirm repeated claims that the children were burned and beaten and lived in filthy homes with feces on the floor. The last complaint, in October 2001, was closed before a social worker saw the boys.

Gloria Anderson, 50, a friend of Williams's late mother, told the Newark Star-Ledger she cared for Williams's oldest son, Fuquan, 11 (who now resides in a children's home), and the twins for two years until she fell ill in 2000, but the state agency never intervened. "We made no foster care placements on these children. I couldn't say at this time what happened," says a DYFS spokesperson. Apparently the Williams family's caseworker had more than 100 other ongoing investigations.

Shortly after authorities told her about the discovery of her sons on Jan. 4, Williams was hit by a car and is now in a Bronx hospital with a broken neck. Both fathers have been out of contact with the children for some time, but 4-year-old Tyrone's father, Tyrone Hill, 32, told PEOPLE he had contacted Newark Mayor Sharpe James and intended to visit from his home in Vermont.

Meanwhile, strangers have contacted authorities from across the country, offering to adopt the boys, who appear to be doing well, according to Mayor James, one of the few who has been allowed to visit them. "Raheem is curious and quick. Tyrone is shy. They both look at the TV like they never saw one before," he reports. "They hug you. They shake your hand. They want to cling to you."

J.D. Heyman
Bob Meadows, Diane Herbst, Hope Hamashige, Mary Greene, Liza Hamm, Sharon Cotliar and Eric Francis in Newark

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