3 Girls Were Strangled to Death. Why Did It Take 8 Months for the DA to Tell the Public?
Last summer in Eastern Texas, a horrific tragedy struck. Three young siblings were pulled out of a neighbor’s pond dead, and believed to have drowned. Then, in March, the incident made national headlines when authorities announced autopsy results showing the sisters had not died by accident — they’d been strangled to death before someone threw their bodies in the pond.
This week, the district attorney of Cass County, Courtney Shelton, told Rolling Stone that her office actually had the autopsy results since last August, days after the girls’ bodies were found; they just didn’t tell the public about it until almost eight months later. “There has been an incorrect assumption made that the autopsy results were not provided for eight months,” she says. “The information simply was not released to the media until that time.”
While authorities withheld news of what Shelton herself describes as an “an unsolved triple homicide” from the public, Shommaonique Oliver, the mother of the three girls, tells Rolling Stone that although investigators told her the cause of death last August, they did not update her after that until earlier this month, when she says a ranger finally returned her calls but offered her no new information. The DA has refused to answer further questions about the case. “I just want answers,” Oliver says.
Now, Oliver, who, like her three daughters, is Black, fears the case has stalled out, and the delay is bringing up issues about which crimes matter to authorities, the media, and the general public. Authorities insist they’re continuing to pursue answers in the investigation.
Oliver lives in a small town outside of Atlanta, Texas, itself a city of just a few thousand people near the state’s border with Arkansas. On Friday, July 29, Oliver left three of her children in the care of her cousin and went to work. She never saw her daughters alive again.
At first, Oliver knew only that her girls — Te’Mari Robinson-Oliver, 5, A’Miyah Hughes, 8, and Zi’Ariel Robinson-Oliver, 9 — had disappeared. The cousin who’d been watching them reported them missing, according to the DA. (Rolling Stone reached out to the cousin but did not hear back.) That evening, members of the sheriff’s office, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and fire rescue crews scoured the area. Cass County Sheriff Larry Rowe told press at the time that they’d found a pair of shoes near a pond on the property of one of Oliver’s neighbors, prompting searchers to home in on the body of water. The neighbor with the pond is another relative of Oliver’s, she tells Rolling Stone, but not the one who was watching the kids that day. Authorities called in a dive team, and the girls’ remains were found in the pond around 3 a.m.
News articles at the time suggested the girls might have drowned. “Officials cannot confirm if the girls frequently play at the pond…or if the children knew how to swim,” KTAL reported July 30, 2022, before quoting Lieutenant Game Warden Jason Jones. “That is unknown, whether they were swimmers or not,” he told reporters, and said that the girls had not been wearing life jackets when their remains were found. “We have no idea what the girls were doing there,” Sheriff Rowe told the Texarkana Gazette. He added, “Nobody has been accused of anything.” The Texas Rangers were investigating the case, KTAL said.
After the discovery of the bodies, months passed before March 23, when DA Shelton put out a press release that catapulted a small-town Texas tragedy into the national spotlight. Three girls had gone missing and been found dead in a pond last July, the release summarized. “Autopsy reports concluded the manner of death for all three girls was homicide, indicating evidence of strangulation,” it stated. “The girls also suffered lacerations to their faces. Multiple witness statements have been obtained, DNA testing is ongoing, and the investigation will continue.” At the end of the release, the DA asked for anyone with “any new information which would lead to an arrest” to contact the Texas Rangers.
When Rolling Stone asked DA Shelton this week for updates on the case, including whether the eight-month delay in the autopsy results had hampered the investigation into the girls’ death, she replied by email, correcting the timeline. “The autopsies were performed the day the girls were pulled from the pond,” she said, noting that the results came back a couple days later. “On Aug. 4, 2022, Texas Ranger Joshua Mason met with Shomma[o]nique Oliver, the mother of the children, and her father and notified them that the deaths of all three children were not accidents, and provided both of them with details from the preliminary autopsy report, stating that the cause of death was homicide.” She added that Ranger Mason laid out a “roadmap” of the investigation for Oliver, including what evidence had already been collected, and what evidence they were planning to collect.
Asked why her office had not announced the triple homicide last August, and whether a development in the case had prompted the release of the information in March, Shelton replied, “I have provided all [the] information that I will be providing at this time.” She also refused to reveal what agency had performed the autopsies.
Nearly 10 months after her daughters’ deaths, Oliver struggles constantly with the loss of Te’Mari, A’Miyah, and Zi’Ariel. “I’m doing OK, a little bit,” she says. “I just gotta take it day by day.” The girls were the middle children of Oliver’s six kids, and she says they were particularly close. “Those three stuck together,” she says. They loved TikTok, playing outside, and riding bikes. Their surviving siblings have been processing the loss, too. “They’re doing OK so far, throughout this whole thing,” Oliver says.
Oliver confirmed to Rolling Stone that she had learned the cause of her daughters’ deaths just a few days after the girls’ bodies were recovered from the pond. “[They told me] that my kids did not die of drowning,” she says. “They died by strangulation.” Immediately after hearing the news, Oliver says she wondered, “Why? How? Who could have done anything to kids?” She does not know why the authorities didn’t tell the public at the time.
After that day in August, she says, when she learned the autopsy results, the authorities didn’t update her again. She claims she reached out dozens of times to the Texas Rangers, but says she didn’t hear anything from them until last week, when a Ranger called her back. “Finally they actually responded,” she says, “But all they could tell me was that the evidence is still being tested and there’s no update that they can give me, but if I know anything, would I share with them.” The Texas Rangers did not respond to a request for comment on this claim.
Since the March press release, Oliver has gotten support from the New Black Panther Nation, based in Houston, in demanding answers in her daughters’ case. The leader of the group, Quanell X, tells Rolling Stone he sees only one reason for a lack of information and action when it comes to the case of these three young girls dead by homicide: their Blackness. “We do believe that the root is racism,” he says. “If these were three beautiful little blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white children from a suburban community in Cass County, Texas, they would have handled this entire investigation completely different.”
Oliver also says she has a theory about the case, but that authorities haven’t been receptive to it. The Texas Rangers did not respond to a request for comment about Oliver’s theory.
Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Adam Albritton, a spokesperform for the Texas Rangers, said on a call earlier this week that the agency was still “actively investigating” the case, but that the press release from the DA was all the information the Rangers could share. Albritton did not respond to a followup phone call or multiple emails seeking comment on Oliver’s claims.
Before Shelton stopped answering questions over email, Rolling Stone asked whether there was a killer at large in Cass County. She replied, “I’m not sure what you’re asking. At this time, we have an unsolved triple homicide and we are diligently searching for answers.” Answers from the authorities are exactly what Oliver has been waiting for, for nearly 10 months now. “It’s taking entirely too long to get closure,” she says. “If they would have actually been doing their job, I would have been had answers or closure…But it seems like they’re just sitting back and relaxing and not doing anything, because they don’t care.”