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

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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.

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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.

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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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