May 13, 2013

After testifying against killer dad, son heals

But the 8-year-old's relatives still worry about the impact of seeing his mother murdered and recounting it in court.

By Scott Dolan
Staff Writer

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.

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Ja'kai Hayden, 8, left, spends time with his brother Javanni, 3, and cousins Courtney Courtemanche, 22, of Somersworth, NH and Brooke Spence, 11, right, of Dover, NH, on Saturday, March 9, 2013 during a family gathering in Portland.

Derek Davis / Staff Photographer

In this provided photo, Renee Sandora with her son Ja'kai.

Additional Photos Below

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."


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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Joel Hayden was convicted of murdering Trevor Mills and Renee Sandora in front of Hayden and Sandora's 7-year-old son.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

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Ja'kai Hayden, 8, smiles while spending time with his grandmother Patricia Gerber, left, and relative Paula Beaulieu during a family gathering in Portland.

Derek Davis / Staff Photographer

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Ja'kai Hayden, 8, laughs while spending time with siblins and cousins, Saturday, March 9, 2013, during a family gathering in Portland.

Derek Davis / Staff Photographer

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In this Jan. 14, 2013 file photo, Renee Sandora's mother, Patricia Gerber, and her step-father, Mark Gerber, meet with reporters outside the Cumberland County Courthouse after Joel Hayden was found guilty of killing Sandora, the mother of his four children.

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer


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