Swazikki Davis held up a photograph of her slain toddler, asking passing motorists to donate money for the funeral.
None of this, she said, feels real.
"I never thought nothing like this could happen to me," Davis said. "It's very hard."
Davis, 21, sat in a lawn chair this morning at the entrance of a shopping plaza on North Florida Boulevard holding a cardboard sign with neon-colored letters that read, "Help Murdered Baby Burial Cost." Her mother, Mary Davis, stood across the street with another sign, telling drivers that a "Murdered Baby Needs Funeral Donations."
The baby is Swazikki Davis' 13-month-old son Ezekiel Mathis, who died last week in her apartment. Deputies say Davis' boyfriend, Damarcus Kirkland-Williams, beat the toddler to death.
The case put into question which agency was responsible for allowing Ezekiel to stay in a home with a man wanted on a warrant for burglary, especially since Davis' 2-year-old daughter had been removed because investigators suspected child abuse and neglect.
At the center of it all is Davis herself, who said she has been in and out of foster homes throughout her adolescence and has struggled with depression and anxiety since a family friend sexually abused her when she was 7.
"I've been through a lot," she said.
Ezekiel's death is the breaking point, she said, an event that has not only shocked and numbed her but sent her spiraling into a deeper depression. Still, she mustered enough energy today to turn to the community for help.
The family said they need $1,500 to pay for Ezekiel's funeral on Saturday. Mary Davis first stood on a curb Tuesday to collect money. The Davises have about $500 so far.
"I don't want to just throw him in a hole and say goodbye," Mary Davis said about her grandson. "I want him to have a good-time, hallelujah service. Ezekiel was special to me."
Trouble first surfaced earlier this year when caseworkers contracted by the Florida Department of Children & Families noted that Swazikki's Davis' daughter showed signs of abuse.
Davis' older sister blamed Kirkland-Williams. Davis said her boyfriend had always been kind to her children. Her daughter got hurt because she's accident-prone, Davis said.
"My daughter is very clumsy," Davis said. "When she started walking, she was clumsy." The only aggression Kirkland-Williams ever showed her daughter was when he grabbed her by the arm.
"He didn't pop her," Davis said. "He didn't hit her."
The girl's injuries were enough for caseworkers to take her away from Davis. Investigators with the Hillsborough County sheriff's child protection services recommended that Ezekiel be removed from the home, but the Attorney General's Office denied the action because investigators found no indication at the time that the toddler was being abused.
A judge ordered Davis to keep Kirkland-Williams away from the toddler and "to comply with an agreed-upon safety plan that was then monitored by another agency," said Jenn Meale, spokeswoman for the attorney general.
Kirkland-Williams didn't go anywhere. On the day Ezekiel died, caseworkers visited and noted that he was in the apartment with the toddler.
"They saw him and took no action, signed no papers," Mary Davis said.
Swazikki Davis said she trusted Kirkland-Williams and wanted him there. Issues of trust have haunted Davis since she was a child.
Davis said Tommie Reeves, a family friend, sexually abused her from the time she was 7 until she was 10. Mary Davis said she wasn't aware of the abuse because she was working three jobs and caring for three other children.
Reeves, 42, was convicted of three counts of rape in 2000 and sentenced to life in prison.
The abuse caused Swazikki Davis to become depressed, a condition she still lives with and takes medication for.
"I don't go outside. I'm a stay-at-home person," she said. "It made it hard to trust people. Meeting friends and getting close to friends was hard."
But there was something about Kirkland-Williams that convinced her to trust him, she said.
He prepared baby bottles, changed diapers and cleaned the apartment. Kirkland-Williams was sweet to her, she said, writing her notes and serving her breakfast in bed.
"I was on medication for anxiety and anti-depression," Davis said. "I had to depend on him to help take care of my baby."
Mary Davis said she was suspicious of Kirkland-Williams, who her daughter had dated on and off for several months before getting back together with Swazikki Davis at Ezekiel's first birthday party.
Davis said she confronted her daughter's boyfriend on the morning Ezekiel died.
"I told Damarcus, 'She wants you here, but I don't. If anything happens to Ezekiel, I'm going to know who did it,'" Mary Davis said. "I pleaded with Swazikki to please, please love Ezekiel and take him everywhere she went. Then, in the run of the day when I'm telling her this, he was dead the same night."
Kirkland-Williams told deputies he became angry at his girlfriend on May 18 and intended to throw the Ezekiel onto the bed, but the boy struck a dresser, the sheriff's office said. He told deputies he then put the child onto the bed, and when the boy wouldn't stop crying, struck him twice on the back.
The blows Ezekiel suffered ruptured his spleen and liver, according to deputies. Swazikki Davis said she was in the bathroom when Kirkland-Williams banged on the door and told her Ezekiel stopped breathing. Paramedics rushed the toddler to the hospital, but Ezekiel was pronounced dead at University Community Hospital.
Kirkland-Williams was arrested May 19 on charges of murder and child abuse at Davis' apartment. He is also being held on warrants charging him with burglary, petty theft and violation of probation.
DCF officials took the blame for the lack in communication that prevented Ezekiel's removal from the home.
"It's human nature to keep families together," DCF spokesman Joe Follick said. "Ultimately, the department is responsible. If a child is in this situation, their safety is paramount."
Follick said DCF has made changes to prevent miscommunication from happening again between the main office in Tallahassee and contract workers in the field. If a recommendation comes in that a child needs to be removed from a home, DCF will now "step in and be prompt" to do so, Follick said.
Attorney General Pam Bondi has also asked her investigators to look into Davis' case. Bondi has appointed her statewide prosecutor Nick Cox, a former regional director of DCF, to look into her agency's role and procedures in child protection services.
While those changes are discussed, Swazikki Davis said all she can do is grieve and hold up a cardboard sign with a photograph of her baby. She said she still can't believe her boyfriend would harm her child.
"I can believe it if I hear it out of his mouth," she said. "I want to ask him, 'Is it true you did that to my baby, that you did that to my child? Just tell me the truth.'"
For now, she said, she has to endure the upcoming funeral and life without her son.
"I know Ezekiel wants me to be happy," she said. "He wants me to be strong for his sister. I'm going to go to college and move on with my life."
The family of Ezekiel Mathis says donations for the toddler's funeral can be made at Aikens Funeral Home, 2708 E. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Tampa, 33610. The funeral home can be reached at (813) 232-8725.