PORTLAND – The Hayden brothers, ages 8 and 3, laughed with delight as they took on the adults, each with a toy blaster in his hands, launching volley after volley of foam suction cup darts across the living room into the kitchen.
Ja’kai, the older of the two, called out, “I got you,” as he flashed a smile and dodged the darts flying toward him with a twist of his body. His little brother, Javanni, scrambled behind furniture to collect the scattered foam projectiles, some stuck to the wall and furniture.
It was a game planned by their grandmother’s cousin, Paula Beaulieu, during a family gathering at her home in Portland last month — mostly for fun, but more specifically with the intent of helping Ja’kai separate any associations he might harbor between the bright yellow toy and a real gun.
Anyone watching Ja’kai play would think he is like any other happy, bright third-grader, surrounded by loving members of his extended family. As the game ended, he stood in the kitchen firing darts at the ceiling to show how many he could get to stick at one time.
It’s a far cry from a few months ago, when Ja’kai sat on the witness stand during his father’s murder trial in January and told a jury about watching his mother die at his father’s hands.
“No child should ever have to be the one who puts their parent in jail,” Beaulieu said as the boys played in another room. “No child should ever have to do that and live with the responsibility on their shoulders.”
THE YOUNGEST WITNESS
No one knew what to expect from Ja’kai when he entered the courtroom in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court, the key witness at his father’s trial.
The prosecutor had never called a child that young to testify in a murder case. Ja’kai’s relatives had never pressed him to recall details of that night.
Before Jan. 7, the opening day of the trial, Ja’kai had never before said aloud that he saw his father shoot his mother.
The boy walked in with no apparent hesitation and never once turned to look at his father, Joel Hayden, sitting at the defendant’s table about 20 feet away. The courtroom was otherwise filled mostly with strangers.
For the first time, Ja’kai said he watched on July 25, 2011, as Hayden raised the pistol at Ja’kai’s mother, Renee Sandora, firing just a couple of feet from her head as she stood in the driveway outside her home. Hayden’s childhood friend, Trevor Mills, was already dying in the doorway of the house, shot by Hayden, who accused the two of having an affair.
Ja’kai stood on the front lawn that summer day, watching it all.
He was only 7 years old when his father shot his mother and Mills, the only witness to their murders.
Nearly two years have gone by since that night, and just a few months since he had to testify about it.
His father is now serving two concurrent life sentences in prison for murdering Sandora, only 27 years old at the time of her death, and Mills, 28, of New Bedford, Mass., at Sandora’s home at 322 Bennett Road in New Gloucester.
Prosecutors and witnesses said at trial that Hayden was a drug addict and dealer prone to misguided jealousy, frequently accusing Sandora of cheating on him. Sandora had finally had enough and tried to kick Hayden out of her home. Mills drove up from Massachusetts to help mediate. That’s when Hayden accused them of having an affair and fatally shot them both.
His mother dead and his father behind bars, Ja’kai has since settled into a more stable home life with his maternal grandparents, Pat and Mark Gerber, and his three younger siblings.
Experts on childhood trauma say the period when a child experiences fear and nightmares may fade a few months after the event without leaving long-term stress, and Ja’kai seems to have come through his ordeal with resilience. His guardians say he’s doing well in school, has a lot of friends, likes sports and recently earned his green belt in hapkido, a form of martial arts.
But his grandparents also worry constantly about him, saying they’ll do anything to ensure he grows up to be a good man. They worry that witnessing the shooting and then having to testify against his father may have a long-term impact on him.
“That’s all we want is for him to be normal,” Pat Gerber said. “I hope this never happens to anyone else.”
Ja’kai himself says he doesn’t know what to think about what he saw and testified to, and tries not to think about it.
“I just forgot everything,” Ja’kai said.
Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese, the prosecutor who called Ja’kai to the stand in January, said that in her experience it is uncommon to call on a child to testify at a trial.
“In a homicide case, Ja’kai is the youngest child I have ever put on as a witness,” said Marchese, who has been a prosecutor since 1986. “It’s not often you have an eyewitness to a homicide.”
Marchese said she met with Ja’kai several times to discuss what she would ask him on the stand and what would happen in court. But she said she never told him what to say and didn’t know how he would testify.
“He was never as explicit as he was that day in court,” she said. “He did a remarkable job.”
That was the hardest part of the trial for Pat Gerber, Sandora’s mother, watching her grandson called to the stand.
Ja’kai had already seen and heard enough to traumatize an adult. But on the stand, he had to relive that night, and put into words for the first time the details that would send his 31-year-old father, his only living parent, to prison for the rest of his life.
On the day of Sandora’s murder, Pat and her husband, Mark Gerber, decided immediately that they would take in the four children that Sandora had with Hayden and raise them as their own. Pat had thought she was finished raising children after bringing up her twin daughters and a son. Mark had never been a father before.
Ja’kai, Sandora’s and Hayden’s eldest child, now lives with the Gerbers in their house in New Gloucester, just two-tenths of a mile from his former home where he saw his mother shot.
Pat Gerber said that the days leading up to the trial were the worst. She dreaded seeing her young grandson called as the prosecution’s key witness. It was worse than facing her daughter’s killer, worse than listening to the gruesome details of her daughter’s death and worse than having to take the stand herself to relive her final exchanges with her daughter.
“That whole weekend, Mark and I were so stressed. That was the hardest part about the trial,” she said.
The Gerbers sat in the courtroom in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court in Portland as Ja’kai testified in a clear voice, sometimes leaning in closer to the microphone so the jurors could hear him better. And they accompanied him out of the courtroom into the hallway, once he had finished testifying.
“We just told him we were very proud of him,” Pat Gerber said.
Mark Gerber took Ja’kai out to lunch as a treat afterward, but news of the trial had already spread, she said.
“They went to lunch at Burger King, and it was on TV and he said, ‘Oh, Papa, look,’” Pat Gerber said.
RECOVERING FROM TRAUMA
Until the trial, Ja’kai’s only reference to the night his mother died had been to say, “That’s when the bad thing happened,” or something similar. During counseling sessions, he would play out the events of that night. But more often, he would simply say, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Months after the trial, Ja’kai still isn’t eager to talk about it.
“It was hard. Very,” he said about having to testify at the trial. “I don’t know what to think about.”
Pat Gerber and Ja’kai both spoke about the trial last month at the family’s second big gathering since Hayden was sentenced Feb. 5. They drove to Portland with Pat’s mother, Barbara Sandora, and Ja’kai’s younger siblings — his brother Javanni and twin 22-month-old sisters, Jiselle and Julissa — for lunch at Beaulieu’s house.
The boys sat on the couch in Beaulieu’s living room in the arms of their older cousins, laughing and playing video games, while their twin sisters played dress-up with toy tiaras and halos, topping off their outfits with sunglasses. When their uncle Mike Sandora arrived, the girls called out his name and clung to him.
“I can’t explain how difficult it is,” said Pat, sitting in the kitchen for a brief spell without a child in her arms. “I worry so much about these kids. I don’t know if it’s because they’re Renee’s kids or because they’re grandkids.”
Pat Gerber said that before Hayden killed her daughter, she would see her and the kids every day. Her daughter was her best friend, they lived near each other on purpose, and when they were apart, they talked on the phone or texted each other constantly.
After Renee’s death, Pat and her husband had to make a decision about what would happen to the children. Mark had never had children of his own before, but didn’t hesitate to decide that they would take in all four.
“He said, ‘They’re not going anywhere,”‘ Pat recalled. “We wanted to keep them together. We knew it would be hard.”
Pat said the hardest day of her life was sitting Ja’kai down to tell him that his mother had died and gone to heaven and that he would be coming to live with her and “Papa.”
She added that the boys, Ja’kai and Javanni, still call her “Grandma,” but the younger girls now call her “Mama.” Mark Gerber is “Papa” to them all.
Ja’kai has undergone a lot of counseling since witnessing the murders and continues to see a therapist, but is taking a break from his counseling sessions.
“He went after the trial, and (the counselor) talked to him. But now she wants us to just be a family,” Pat Gerber said.
She said the boy had nightmares at first, and she worried that they would continue. He still occasionally has bad dreams, but not like she had worried early on.
Carlyle Voss, the former assistant chief of psychiatry at Maine Medical Center, said people who undergo a traumatic or very frightening event often react in different ways, but psychiatrists have found there are common stages.
Within the first weeks and up to three months, a person may experience fear, anxiety and have bad dreams. That stage of acute stress may fade and does not necessarily lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, said Voss, who has not met Ja’kai and spoke only generally about people who have been witnesses to traumatic situations.
“People can go through horrible situations and come through,” Voss said. “Some will develop long-running PTSD, and for others it goes away.”
Children and adults often react to trauma in the same way, though children’s minds aren’t fully developed.
“They may experience it differently, but they don’t necessarily react differently,” Voss said.
For children who experience trauma, adults should be on the lookout for behavioral changes, such as aggressive or withdrawn behavior, school performance problems, and how well they get along with peers, he said.
“If the child is generally doing well with friends and is doing well in school, you may not want to medicalize this and overtreat. That should not be the thing that defines who he or she is if we can avoid it,” Voss said. “People should inquire. Where you draw the line depends on the kid. The child may say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ but know that you are there to listen.”
Some children, like adults, may feel compelled to talk about the traumatic event, while others don’t. Voss said a classic example is a military combat veteran who returns home and never wants to talk about the war.
“Treatment of PTSD can be dicey. On the one hand, you may want to have a person talk about it, but you might hope that the memory would fade,” he said. “Unfortunately, for people with true PTSD, they would remain vulnerable for it to come back out. … There is even a category called delayed onset.”
A ‘VERY SPECIAL LITTLE BOY’
After a day of playing with his family at the family gathering, Ja’kai had little interest in sitting down to talk more about his father’s trial. After a few minutes of answering questions about having to testify and recalling his mother’s death, Ja’kai repeated a line he uses often to say he’s had enough.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said, politely but firmly, turning his attention back to a handheld Pokemon video game.
When asked about his favorite sport or friends at school, Ja’kai eagerly looked up from the video game.
“I’m really good at soccer,” he said. His favorite position? Goalie.
“I’m really good at it. Probably someone gets one goal, but the others all miss,” he said, switching from one-word answers to talking eagerly in complete sentences.
He said he has a lot of friends at school and likes being a big brother, though sometimes his younger siblings can be annoying.
Although Ja’kai seems well adjusted after all he’s been through, Pat Gerber said she worries constantly about how he will grow up.
As the oldest child, he will likely remember life with both his mother and father at home, his father’s aggressive behavior, the domestic abuse and the instability brought about by that kind of home life, his grandmother said.
She said she and Mark will do everything they can to ensure the children have a loving, supportive and structured home life, but she worries that it may be a question of “nature versus nurture,” that he is Joel Hayden’s son.
“We don’t know how they’re going to grow up,” she said. “That’s all we want is for him to be normal.”
One of the state police detectives who investigated the case wrote two sealed letters to Ja’kai, one to open on his ninth birthday on Thursday, and the other to open on his 18th birthday.
Even his grandmother doesn’t know what’s inside the envelopes, but she remembers the detective telling her that Ja’kai is a “very special little boy.”
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: