PHOENIX – Rachel Henry was spiraling.
The death of her mother in 2018 left her reeling. She turned to drugs and lost custody of her children at one point.
Then, she and her fiancé moved with her three young children from Oklahoma to Arizona. The cross-country move was likely darkened by the fact that Henry didn’t have a job or any money. She spent her days at home with her three children, all under the age of 4.
On Monday, police arrested Henry after she allegedly killed her children in their Phoenix home. Court records say she confessed to smothering to death 3-year-old Zane Ezri Henry, 23-month-old Mireya Henry and 6-month-old Catalaya Kyeana Rios, singing songs to them as they died, and then placing their bodies on a couch as though they were sleeping.
Henry didn’t provide Phoenix police investigators with a motive for the alleged killing, but experts say her story is tragically familiar.
“There’s a pattern to these cases – patterned to the point that, when looking back at what happened, there’s a sense of inevitability that the harm was going to come and it was just a matter of when and what was going to happen,” Michelle Oberman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, said.
Kids previously removed from home
Henry grew up in the small town of Prague, Oklahoma. She graduated from high school and studied to be a certified nursing assistant.
A Facebook page from Henry’s 30-year-old fiancé said the couple became engaged in May 2019. He shares a last name with only the youngest child, and it’s not clear if he is the father of all three.
He and another adult, an aunt, were at the home with Henry when police discovered the children.
Henry’s mother died in 2018. Family members of her fiancé said Henry was deeply affected by the death. Both she and her fiancé became addicted to meth, according to family members and friends in Oklahoma who spoke to reporters with The Oklahoman.
In 2018, the children were placed in Oklahoma Department of Human Services custody due to an unsafe home environment because of domestic violence and substance abuse by both parents.
The agency on Wednesday said it is reviewing any “contacts that occurred” with Henry or her children and is conducting an internal assessment. The assessment will remain confidential.
“At the time of their deaths, the children of Rachel Henry were not in the custody of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services,” the department said in a statement. “OKDHS has been contacted by Arizona law enforcement and is cooperating fully with their efforts.”
Hometown stunned by arrest
News of Henry’s arrest spread quickly in Prague, which has a population of about 2,400 and is located an hour east of Oklahoma City.
Adam Holik, who owns Holik Service Station off Main Street, recalled that numerous times he and his father helped Henry with free car repairs and gave her rides around town.
Holik said Henry was sometimes seen aimlessly walking up and down Main Street, often looking lost and confused.
Customers in and out of the service station this week were all talking about Henry’s arrest.
“I don’t see how anybody could do that,” Holik said. “I knew they were kind of shady. But to kill three kids. I just can’t believe that.”
Andy Lee, who operates the Prague Times Herald, said that while he was delivering that morning’s newspaper, several customers asked him what he knew about Henry.
“People are definitely in shock that she’s from here,” Lee said. “I have no memory of her personally, but one of my sons went to high school with her. It’s just so sad.”
Strange behavior in days before murders
Henry and her fiancé moved to Arizona in 2019.
The couple lived in a pale yellow manufactured home on a lot in south Phoenix with the three children and a 49-year-old woman identified in court documents as an aunt of either Henry or the fiancé.
Henry didn’t work and told a judge during her initial court appearance that she doesn’t have any money.
Family members told police that Henry, who has a history of methamphetamine addiction, had been “acting strange” the past several days.
Pictures left at a growing memorial outside the home showed the children with heads of thick dark hair and wide dark brown eyes. The photos were left in plastic bags for protection from the rain and amid a large collection of stuffed animals, balloons, flowers and prayer candles.
The middle child, Mireya, would have turned 2 next week.
Henry was alone in the home when she smothered Mireya, according to court documents. She told police she wrestled with the child before placing her hand over her daughter’s mouth.
Mireya kicked in protest as 3-year-old Zane yelled at his mother to stop and tried to punch her in the face. Henry was unfazed and continued to smother the girl until he stopped breathing, according to the report. She left her body in the back bedroom.
She then tried to chase down Zane, but she told police she was stopped when the aunt and fiancé returned home. According to court documents, they unknowingly sat in the next room as Henry changed the boy’s underpants, straddled him with her legs and smothered him as she sang to him.
He scratched his mother’s chest and tried to pinch her to get her to stop.
The probable cause statement says Henry next fed the 6-month-old Catalaya a bottle in her bedroom until the baby fell asleep. Again, Henry sang a song while smothering the child to death.
Henry placed the bodies of the three children on the living room couch as though they were taking a nap, the report says. She didn’t tell her fiancé or the aunt what happened, according to court documents.
A female called 911 at about 7:20 p.m. Monday to report the three children were dead.
‘There’s blood on more than one hand’
The details of Henry’s case mirrors countless others nationwide.
Oberman, who wrote two books on the subject of filicide, said many of the women who commit those murders are often isolated in their motherhood and have mental health issues or previous trauma. They may not have anyone to turn to for help and spend long hours alone with the children.
Drug problems may further aggravated existing issues, Oberman said. The isolation of moving to a new place and the desperation that comes with having no money or job would only make matters worse.
“Who would think it’s a good idea for a 22-year-old that’s new in town with a drug habit to be on her own with three kids all under the age of 4?” Oberman questioned. “That’s her job and it’s really hard, but she’s not trained for it. No one is trained for that.”
Dr. Carol Olson, chairwoman of the psychiatric department for Valleywise Healthcare, said Henry’s history of methamphetamine use may have also been a contributing factor. Olson has not treated Henry, but noted sudden psychosis is a possible side effect of methamphetamine usage.
In some cases, such slayings may occur as the culmination of postpartum psychosis. Postpartum psychosis affects only a small percentage of mothers who have recently given birth, it causes delusions and hallucinations. The delusions often have to do with a fear that the child will be harmed by someone else and the mom has to kill them to protect them.
But most filicides are considered altruistic killing. In these situations, the mother kills because they feel they are unable to properly take care of their child and no one else can either.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we one day hear a heartbreaking and distorted story of what she (Henry) thought a good mom would do and what she was capable of doing and this was her best resolution,” Oberman said.
Both Oberman and Olson said it’s unlikely no one would have seen a change in Henry in the weeks before the children’s deaths. It’s something an intimate partner or someone living with them wouldn’t have been able to overlook.
“What I’ve learned over time is there’s blood on more than one hand,” Oberman said. “There’s usually more folks who knew and turned a blind eye to the idea that there was a struggle there. It’s amazing to me how many warning signs there were and how hard people worked to look the other way.”
Contributing: Adam Kemp of The Oklahoman. Follow Bree Burkitt on Twitter: @breeburkitt.