By Matt Zapotosky, Petula Dvorak and Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 30, 2008; Page A01
Phillip Garrett was passing time outside a neighbor's Calvert County home, smoking a cigarette, when he noticed a girl in pigtails wandering on the street. Her pink nightgown was caked with mud, her small body covered in bruises.
"Where's your mother?" he asked. "Where are you from?"
The girl said her mother had locked her out of their home, Garrett said yesterday, recalling Friday afternoon's encounter. She said she hadn't eaten in three days. And there was more: "She let us know that she had two sisters and that 'my mother beat them to death.' "
Early Saturday, Calvert authorities made a gruesome discovery: the bodies of two children encased in ice in a freezer in the home of Renee D. Bowman, 43. Bowman has been receiving a monthly government subsidy of $2,400 to care for her three adopted children: the 7-year-old girl on the street and two others who are now officially missing.
"You think you've seen it all," Sheriff Mike Evans said yesterday in announcing the discovery, "but you haven't."
With Bowman in jail, charged with child abuse, and investigators working to piece together what happened, the case again shined a spotlight on the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, which recommended Bowman to a D.C. Superior Court judge as a suitable adoptive parent in 2001 and 2004. The girls had been wards of the D.C. government.
The child welfare agency came under fire in January after social workers failed to investigate reports of alleged child neglect by Banita Jacks, a Southeast Washington woman now charged with killing her four daughters in their home.
Yesterday, myriad questions about Bowman's adoptions went unanswered as city and court officials in the District, citing confidentiality laws, declined to reveal details of a background check of Bowman that was performed by a private contractor. They said they were unaware of her 1999 misdemeanor conviction in the District for threatening to hurt someone.
"It would be too premature, too irresponsible, to say someone along the chain messed up," Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said at a news conference. He called the case "harrowing" and "a blow to everyone's heart and psyche that we could lose two more young people."
Not until today, after the ice has thawed, will authorities be able to conduct autopsies and formally identify the victims.
The missing children would be 9 and 11, officials said. They said the 7-year-old girl is a biological sister of the 9-year-old. All three were foster children of Bowman's before she adopted the oldest child in 2001 and the other two in 2004, officials said.
The sheriff's office said in a statement that Bowman told investigators the remains in the freezer were those of her older two adopted daughters. She told them she wrapped one of the children in a plastic garbage bag and the other in a rug, officials said. She said the remains had been in the freezer since February, when she moved to Lusby from Rockville, the sheriff's office said.
Six men carried the freezer out of the house, and it was transported to the state medical examiner's office in Baltimore.
Many neighbors near Bowman's beige ranch-style home in Lusby and at her former residence in Rockville said they had never seen children at her home and were unaware that she had any. Authorities in Calvert and Montgomery County -- and in Prince George's County, where she lived for a time -- said they could find no record of the children being enrolled in public schools.
Neighbor John Baroniak, 59, said Bowman told him that she had moved to Lusby to escape an abusive husband. He said she rented the house and seemed happy. He said it seemed to him that a man was staying with her recently.
"When I talked to her and everything, I thought at least I got a nice neighbor," Baroniak said. "I'm just kind of shocked and blown away."
Bowman was being held yesterday on charges of child abuse in connection with injuries to the 7-year-old. The girl escaped from her locked bedroom Thursday by jumping out a window, police said.
Bowman admitted beating the girl with a "hard-heeled shoe," the sheriff's office said. The girl told police her mother beat her with a white shoe to the point that it was covered in blood, officials said.
The child had "extensive open infected sores and open lesions," several injuries to her feet and knees, and ligature marks and extensive scarring on her neck, according to charging documents filed in court.
Investigators said they believe the other girls died in Rockville. Any criminal charges related to their deaths would probably be filed in Montgomery, not Calvert, they said.
Montgomery police yesterday searched the small house where Bowman lived in Rockville, in the 13100 block of Vandalia Drive.
Neighbors said she lived with a man named Joe who often lifted barbells in the back yard, near a child's red plastic toy car. They did not recall seeing children.
"During the day, it was like no one was there," said Rivelino Valdiva, 29.
Neighbors said they think that Joe worked as a pressure washer and did odd maintenance jobs and that Bowman worked as a secretary. A few months before moving out, Bowman complained of back pain and said she had cancer, according to neighbor Shirley Knapp.
After Bowman moved to Calvert, the landlord complained to Howard Knapp, Shirley's husband, about the mess that had been left behind. "They were pigs," he recalled the landlord saying. "They trashed the house, and there was at least one dead cat in there."
The Maryland Department of Human Resources will file a petition in court today to gain custody of the 7-year-old.
Staff writers Aaron C. Davis, Hamil R. Harris, Nelson Hernandez, Philip Rucker and Paul Schwartzman and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.