The words were desperate and pleading.
"I am very afraid for my child's safety and mental development with her deranged father," Cherone Coleman wrote to Family Court in Queens in late April. "Father is losing a grip on reality and I honestly feel my child is in danger while in his care."
Coleman and her fiancé, Martin Pereira, had recently broken up, and he had weekend visitation rights with their 3-year-old daughter, Autumn. But his behaviour had grown erratic and frightening, and Coleman was hoping the judicial referee would stop the visits.
The referee declined to intervene. Less than two weeks later, on May 5, firefighters were called to a gruesome scene not far from Coleman's co-op apartment in Queens. Pereira's Audi had been set ablaze, with Autumn strapped in a car seat in the back. Chains had been looped through the rear doors to keep the toddler from getting out, or firefighters from getting in.
The 3-year-old girl, who had wanted to be a princess-doctor when she grew up, had died of burns and smoke inhalation.
Pereira, 39, was found nearby and charged with murder; he remains in the burn unit at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. His family did not respond to requests for comment.
A medical assistant who has worked in the same office for nearly two decades, Coleman had waited until she was in her 30s to become a mother. After miscarrying four years ago, she was elated to be pregnant with Autumn.
In their one-bedroom apartment, Autumn slept in a large crib next to Coleman's bed, where the mother would hold hands with her only child as they fell asleep.
Now, Autumn's memory remains everywhere in the apartment. Her rain boots are next to the door. Her bunny slippers are a few feet away. Her name is monogrammed in green letters on a bulging toy box sitting near a toy stove and a bright pink vanity.
"She was too perfect for this world," Coleman, 36, said one recent evening.
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In interviews, Coleman could barely talk about Autumn's death without lacing every sentence with an expletive. She was angry and numb.
Family Court is full of emotional quicksand. Judges in custody disputes are charged with balancing the best interests of children with the rights of parents while trying to sort through allegations made by desperate or angry ex-partners.
But Coleman said she had tried to tell the court that her daughter was in danger. No one would listen.
"He's freaking me out"
Coleman was outside with friends when she met Pereira, who was walking by. After they had been together about a year, Coleman became pregnant. Her sister, Nicole, planned the baby shower, an elaborate affair in an event hall bathed in pink-coloured lights.
Pereira proposed to Coleman at the party, but the celebration turned mournful when her father had a fatal heart attack that night. His death put wedding plans on indefinite hold and strained the couple, who were already having problems. They could not even agree on Autumn's name. Pereira called the girl Zoey and gave her his last name.
Years of tension escalated inside Pereira's car on March 13, when Coleman returned the engagement ring. Two days later, Coleman's mother, Denise, was alarmed to see that he was wearing the ring on his pinkie finger when he picked Autumn up for a visit.
"He kept twisting that ring," she said. "I called my daughter and told her, 'He's freaking me out.'"
Coleman did not know that before she had met Pereira, he had been arrested in October 2013. He was charged with aggravated assault against his ex-girlfriend, a 21-year-old woman who said she feared for her life, said a law enforcement official familiar with the case.
"These are things I'm finding out now," Coleman said.
Coleman and Pereira fought for custody. Two judges from Family Court in Nassau County, where Pereira had relatives, and a judicial referee from Queens were involved in a flurry of court appearances and petitions.
After the breakup, Pereira repeatedly used New York's child protection safety net against Coleman, suggesting she was capable of harming their daughter, records showed.
Based on Pereira's allegations, a child welfare investigator arrived at her home to make sure it was clean, that she had enough food and that she was not on drugs. At a hospital, Autumn's tiny body was inspected for bruises. They found nothing wrong.
After the case was transferred from Nassau County to Queens, Margaret Mulrooney, the judicial referee, ordered Coleman to take a drug test based on Pereira's claims. When the test came back negative, Pereira demanded a hair follicle test, which Mulrooney declined to order, records show.
Which was why, Coleman said, it was all the more enraging that when she turned to the same system for help, she was spurned.
The credibility battle
Increasingly worried about Pereira's aggressive behaviour, Coleman took a day off from work on April 23 to try to persuade Mulrooney to end the weekend visits.
Her lawyer was on vacation, so Coleman wrote out the plea herself, making sure to use black ink because she thought it would look more professional than blue. She waited for hours, she said. But Mulrooney adjourned the issue until June. Mulrooney declined to comment for this article, citing the pending criminal case.
Some advocates calling for changes in Family Court said judges tend to distrust the abuse claims of mothers, which they sometimes view as a tactic to alienate fathers from their children.
"When women lose on the credibility battle, they lose the custody battle," said Joan S. Meier, a professor of clinical law at George Washington Law School in Washington, D.C.
The wrong decision can have disastrous consequences. About 700 children have been killed by their parents during a divorce or separation since 2008, according to the Center for Judicial Excellence, a California-based nonprofit that wants to hold courts more accountable for decisions that can have fatal outcomes.
John J. Romero Jr., president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges who is a judge in New Mexico and was involved in custody disputes for 18 years as a lawyer, disagreed that judges are biased against the abuse claims of mothers.
"We are human. We're not computers. We make mistakes sometimes," he said. "The good decisions that are made regularly and routinely, those never stir controversy or end up reported by the media."
Coleman said she let the weekend visit go on as scheduled, worried that otherwise, she could harm her pending custody case.
On that final weekend with the girl he called Zoey, Pereira seemed to be acting strangely. He repeatedly called and texted Coleman, she said. Early Saturday morning, he visited the same salon where Coleman was getting her hair done and demanded that Autumn's braids be taken down and her hair changed to a different style. Hours later, he took his daughter to a hospital with the unfounded claim that she had been punched in the stomach.
Coleman stopped responding to his calls and texts, until Sunday evening, when a cousin from California told her that Pereira had contacted him and threatened to kill Autumn.
The next moments still remain a jumble of confusion and disbelief. Coleman reached Pereira on the phone. "I bet I have your attention now," he said, adding an expletive.
She and her mother and sister did not know what to do, but ended up at the hospital, where they were told that Autumn had died. Coleman shook in disbelief.
No way to comfort
On a recent Saturday, Coleman laughed a handful of times, when her sister shared an inside joke or when she remembered how much of a prankster Autumn could be. She smiled when she unveiled her new license plates personalised with Autumn's name.
Coleman has turned Autumn's crib into a shrine, mixing her stuffed animals with tributes from family and friends: a white rose from her funeral service, a blanket emblazoned with mother-and-daughter photos, a jersey from a local team bearing the number three.
Whenever Coleman became overwhelmed, she excused herself to another room. She would return, her face dewy from tears she had wiped away with one of Autumn's burp cloths.
At one point, she came back into the room and began to feed the fish in a tank atop a wooden cabinet that Pereira had made. As Coleman sprinkled flakes into the water, watching clown fish dance toward it, Nicole Coleman began to sob. She had no way to comfort her sister, she said.
"He tortured his own daughter just to make a point to my sister," Nicole Coleman said.
Stoic, Cherone Coleman excused herself from the room again. When she returned, a burp cloth was flung over her shoulder.
It was decorated with a mother bear and her cub, both in pink bows.
Written by: Nikita Stewart
Photographs by: Elizabeth D. Herman
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES