Children's bed sheets hang in the windows of what was once Cedric Lamont Seamster's home on North Hamilton Street, their cartoon characters smiling into empty rooms. A child's deflated swimming pool and plastic beach toys are scattered on the dirt and grass alongside the house. An air of loss hangs about the place.
A large woven basket filled with faded silk flowers sits on the porch above a banner that reads "HAPPY BIRTHDAY." A small, faded note taped to the bedroom window bears the words "God Bless You Cedric" in a child's sloppy scrawl. Had he lived to see the day, Cedric would have celebrated his second birthday on June 14. Instead, his grandmother and two of his aunts put the decorations up in remembrance of the boy, who died at Children's Medical Center on June 11.
That same day, Cedric's mother, 25-year-old Sheryleen Berryman, was arrested and charged with child abandonment. Police allege that on June 2, Berryman left her five children -- ages 6, 4, 3, 1, and 11 months -- in the care of her 11-year-old sister, in town for a brief visit, while Berryman spent the night with her boyfriend.
Police and prosecutors call what Berryman did a crime. They say that she left her children virtually unsupervised in a house with no electricity or running water, that her children had no clean clothes or shoes.
But from her current home at the Dallas County jail, Sheryleen Berryman can't seem to grasp why anyone would think she is a bad mother.
"I take care of my kids," Berryman told the Dallas Observer in her first interview since being arrested in June.
Not anymore. Her four remaining children have been placed in foster care by the state. And her 11-year-old sister is at the county juvenile detention center, accused of beating Cedric to death. Police say the girl confessed that she struck Cedric and whipped him with a cord when he would not stop crying.
That, say the 11-year-old's sister and their mother, Cheryl Jackson of Hallsville, is unbelievable. Family members and friends who know the 11-year-old say she loved her nieces and nephews. They describe her as a gentle, churchgoing girl who had baby-sat for Berryman before and had never shown any hint of violence.
Cedric's family suspects that a 27-year-old male cousin -- who claims he peered through a window, saw that Cedric was injured, and called an ambulance -- beat the boy. Berryman and Jackson say that police coerced the 11-year-old into confessing to a crime that she did not commit.
"I was at work, and Sheryleen's girlfriend called me around 10 a.m. and told me what had happened," Jackson says. "My daughters and I were in Dallas by about 1 o'clock. I went to the hospital to check on Cedric, and then I called the police about my child. Somebody gave me the number to the detectives. They told me that they would call me back."
Nearly eight hours would pass before Jackson or any family member was allowed to see the girl.
Jackson says that when she was finally allowed to see her youngest daughter, the girl was crying and "looked scared to death." Her daughter told Jackson that police said she could go home if she signed some papers. Now Jackson fears she may have signed away her life.
Since Cedric's beating, Cheryl Jackson has driven the two hours from Hallsville to Dallas several times each week to visit her daughters. Outside of court hearings, Jackson says that she has only been allowed to visit with her youngest daughter for 15 minutes a day. Jackson gets longer visits at the county jail with her eldest daughter, Berryman, who is awaiting trial on two counts of child abandonment.
A court will eventually decide whether Berryman and her 11-year-old sister were responsible for Cedric's death. But perhaps the greater questions are, What sort of family is this? How did Jackson wind up with two daughters in jail and one dead grandson?
According to police, Sheryleen Berryman left her five children and niece alone on the night of Wednesday, June 2, while she slept over at her boyfriend's home a few blocks away. When she returned to her Fair Park neighborhood home at 8:30 the next morning, she found paramedics working frantically to save Cedric's life. The boy was taken to Children's Medical Center's pediatric intensive care unit with a laceration to the spleen and liver, swelling of the brain, and several small looped welts on his chest and side. Doctors who saw the obvious signs of child abuse called police.
For the next week, until doctors disconnected Cedric from the life-support machines that kept him breathing, Berryman kept a vigil at her son's bed. She prayed for her son's life as well as the baby sister accused of hurting her child, she says.
"I don't believe that she did anything wrong," Berryman told the Dallas Observer during a tearful interview at the Lew Sterrett jail. "She loved her nieces and nephews. My sister has never done anything out of the way to my kids. When their auntie comes to town, they follow her like she's a mother duck."
Berryman and her sister were close, despite the difference in their ages and the distance between them.
In 1992, Jackson moved her family to Hallsville, a small town near the Louisiana border, because, she says, she wanted to raise her children in the country. But Berryman refused to move with her mother, choosing instead to stay here to be with her boyfriend Alvin Seamster. In 1993, Berryman's oldest child, Aleisha, was born. Beginning two years after Aleisha's birth, Berryman would give birth to a child every year up until 1998. All were fathered by Seamster, she says.
Berryman says she never worried that she was having children she couldn't afford to raise. She claims -- with a straight face -- that she used birth-control pills after her third child, but still became pregnant.
While she and Seamster lived together, things went well, she says. She worked for three years at Dairy Queen while Seamster stayed home with the children. But Seamster moved out last January, and without a sitter, Berryman was forced to quit her job and find a new boyfriend.
"I tried to get her to stop [having children] after she had the first one," Jackson says. "But she just kept on." Jackson was worried that her daughter was "moving too fast," but says that there was never a doubt in her mind that Berryman was a good parent.
"She kept them kids so clean, and every month when she got her [welfare] check she made sure that she bought them clothes. She cooked every day and kept a clean house," Jackson says. Jackson trusted her oldest daughter enough that she often allowed her two teenage daughters to spend summers with their sister.
The night Cedric was beaten, Jackson says that her 11-year-old daughter pleaded with her to be allowed to travel to Dallas and stay at Berryman's house through the weekend.
Jackson says that when the girls were in Dallas they enjoyed caring for their nieces and nephews. Her youngest "would bathe the kids and fix their hair," says Jackson, but it was her understanding that the 11-year-old was always under the supervision of her older sisters. (Berryman claims she left the children with a 20-year-old-cousin when she left for her boyfriend's home in June.)
But even Jackson seems baffled by what had been happening at her daughter's home recently. She was unaware until after Cedric died that Berryman didn't have electricity or water at her home, though she disputes the police's claim that Berryman's children had no clothes or shoes. She says she found clothes for the children -- with the price tags still on them -- in the house on Hamilton. Jackson says the reason the house had no electricity or running water was that Berryman was too proud to ask her mother for help.
"I always asked my daughter if she needed help, but she never did indicate that there was a problem. If she would've let me know, I would've helped her," says Jackson, who works inspecting trains for Trinity Industrial.
In Berryman's mind, nothing was going on in her home that she could not handle. She does not deny that the utilities were shut off, but claims that the media and police twisted the facts. "They said my kids didn't have on shoes, but it was early in the morning and nobody had on shoes," Berryman says.
She also points out that she and her children had electricity -- from an extension cord strung to a family member's home next door. "The lights got cut off in April," Berryman says. "I got an extension cord and ran electricity from my uncle's house next door. I had a lamp and my television in my bedroom, and that's where we all stayed. My kids could watch TV," Berryman explains, proudly telling how she made do. Berryman's grandfather was going to pay the $205 electric bill for her, and the lights were scheduled to be reconnected on June 3, she says.
Berryman says that she called the water company in June and "told them to cut it off," disputing the high bill that the company sent to her. Once again, Berryman improvised by buying bottled water from the store. She and the children bathed and used the bathroom next door at her aunt's home.
"We had a ball just like we was at the park," Berryman says.
Five children. No husband. No electricity. No water. To Sheryleen Berryman that was simply "life." Berryman received a monthly welfare check of $288 and $489 in food stamps. She stretched those funds to the limit each month, and when she needed extra help, she went to her grandfather. Was Berryman as innovative at finding childcare as she was at rigging lights and getting water?
The police say that she was not. Berryman still stands by her statement that she left her children with the 11-year-old sister and a 20-year-old cousin, Ravinia Green. Berryman says that Green was sitting on her porch using the telephone when she left for her boyfriend's.
Green has a different story. She says that she used Berryman's phone to make arrangements for a friend to pick her up, and that even as she was getting into that friend's car she saw Berryman walking down the street with her boyfriend, away from the house.
"If you ask me, all of this started when the lights got cut off," Green says. "All of a sudden I would be there using the phone, and I'd look up and Sheryleen would be gone." Green says that oftentimes she would end up watching the children because she didn't feel safe leaving them, but unfortunately the night of June 2 was not one of those times.
Berryman says that she never intended to stay away the entire night, but that she fell asleep watching movies at her boyfriend's. While Berryman slept, someone was abusing her child at home.
But who was that someone?
Both Berryman and her mother told the Observer that they suspect someone else, but both were advised by the 11-year-old's lawyer not to name the suspect. Green says a neighbor told her that he saw a male family member enter Berryman's home at 4 a.m. the day Cedric was killed. Green says the man had struck Berryman's children in the past.
"He always used to hit on the kids and holler at them," she says. "He'd come into the house talking about 'Who's the master?'"
The one thing everyone agrees upon is that Cheryl Jackson's youngest daughter did not hurt Cedric.
Esther Donald supervises the youth group at Love Temple Full Gospel Church in Longview, which the family attends. Church members say the girl was a peacemaker, not violent. "One time we were putting on a play, and some children started arguing. [She] said, 'We were just sitting in church talking about Jesus, and now you all are acting like this,'" Donald says.
Church members have written letters to the girl, but she is allowed to receive only two letters a week. But somehow Jackson's daughter is keeping her faith, and Donald has heard that the girl has helped two other children at the detention center to become Christians.
Berryman says that she and her sister have written to each other. In one letter, Berryman's sister writes, "God is my witness that I didn't do anything to hurt Boo." Boo was Cedric's nickname.
This summer, Jackson had planned on allowing her daughter to play on a baseball team, but now that all seems so far away. Jackson can barely meet her bills because she is unable to put in a 40-hour workweek because of the time that she spends in Dallas.
"I pray to the good Lord to make me stronger," Jackson says.
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Another concern for Jackson and Berryman is Berryman's four remaining children, now split up among foster homes. Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marla Sheeley says the children are well and receiving therapy. Six-year-old Aleisha frequently asks for her mother.
Jackson says she was not informed about the first custody hearing held a few weeks ago about her grandchildren. Berryman instead told a close friend and cousin of her children, who plans to seek custody.
Jackson's mind is eased knowing that someone in the family is seeing after the children, but she would prefer to have custody herself. Long before any of this happened, she had a feeling that she should convince Berryman to give her custody of some of the children.
"I wish I had just took all the kids," Jackson says in hindsight. "I should've just taken them all."