Let’s do a little math problem:
16 police visits to the home in the past 7 years +
25 police reports on various members of the family +
Various allegations of child abuse and neglect +
A 13-year-old charged with the murder of her 18-year-old half-sister =
A story that simply doesn’t add up.
A tragedy in Gouverneur, New York last week has the community reeling. At 2:53 AM on Monday, June 22, a 911 call summoned Gouverneur Police to 135 Rowley Street, where 38-year-old Lashanna Charlton lived with her husband, 45-year-old Rhodney Charlton, and her two girls, 18-year-old Treyanna and 13-year-old Rhianna.*
(*Note: I am only naming Rhianna, a minor, because her name has been shared in multiple social media posts demanding justice for both Rhianna and Treyanna.)
A news reporter on the scene reported a heavy police presence at the scene, including a New York State Police forensic investigation unit, a drone, and authorities in white hazmat suits. Police would not comment on whether or not the situation was a criminal investigation.
Well, evidently it was.
At around 5:00 PM, it appeared that police were focusing on a dark-colored Chevrolet vehicle with New York State license plates that was parked inside a garage adjacent to the home.
The following day, on Tuesday, June 23, New York State Police announced in a morning press release that they were investigating the murder of 18-year-old Treyanna Summerville, who was a Gouverneur High School Senior. They also announced that they had charged a 13-year-old victim with second-degree murder in the case.
The teen’s arrest took place at the police station at 1005 State Highway 11.
The 13-year old suspect, who many have identified as Treyanna’s younger half-sister, was arraigned in St. Lawrence County Court’s Youth Pat before Judge Morris; she is being held in a facility controlled by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services.
As I mentioned, Gouverneur Police had responded multiple times to Lashanna Charlton’s residence over the past several years for a variety of reasons. According to village police Chief Laurina Greenhill, the first of those visits was in response to a child abuse/neglect complaint on March 28, 2013. Besides child abuse/neglect, which was the reason for other visits, some of the other reasons included welfare checks, domestic abuse, a juvenile runaway, disorderly conduct, and criminal mischief.
Treyanna herself called the police on January 4, 2020, to report a missing juvenile, who I assume was her younger sister.
In a statement, St. Lawrence County District Attorney Gary M. Pasqua said, “This investigation is not done. The state police continue to work on the investigation. There will be many more people interviewed regarding the entire situation revolving around this victim.” In that vein, he added, “If you have any information or tips for law enforcement, please call your local police agency or the State Police to report relevant information, anonymously or otherwise, so the appropriate action may be taken.”
Treyanna’s autopsy was conducted on Tuesday, June 23, but her cause and manner of death have not yet been released.
The Gouverneur community has been abuzz since the news broke of Treyanna’s death, and a vigil even took place for her at Gouverneur Village Park on the evening of Monday, June 22, even before her name was officially released pending notification of her father, Cedric Summerville, in Seattle.
Attendees at the vigil surrounded the gazebo in the park, sang “Amazing Grace,” and spoke of a life they said was full of tragedy and abuse, describing Treyanna as a physically abused young woman who was more like a mother to her younger sister.
The vigil lasted about an hour, during which community members made tearful prayers and condemned the system that they said failed Treyanna Summerville. Attendees wrote messages for Treyanna on slips of paper to place into an “Angel Jar,” which would be placed on her seat at the Class of 2020 graduation ceremony at the end of the week.
Resident Kayla D’Agostino helped organize the vigil. In fact, she has really taken the #JusticeForTrey movement by the horns, and she deserves a lot of credit for that. Kayla worked at a local supermarket called Price Chopper, where she saw Treyanna weekly, often accompanied by her younger sister, although she did not know Treyanna’s name until she found out about the girl’s death. Kayla told NNY 360 it was obvious that Treyanna was burdened with most of the responsibility in her family; she walked about a half mile to Price Chopper every week, even when there was “25 inches of snow on the ground or a day hot like today.” Kayla added, “She was determined to get those groceries home.”
“I didn’t know her name until this morning,” Kayla said. “I’d leave work and I’d ask her if she wanted a ride back with all those groceries. With the most sweetness a child could have, she’d say, ‘no, thank you,’ and turn and go on her way.”
Kayla spoke with other community members, who confirmed that others had offered help to the family before Treyanna’s death, “There were signs that this girl was in distress, and many people reached out to try to get her help.”
“She didn’t have a chance to be a child. That child was in that house playing the parent,” Kayla said. “And it’s devastating how many people I’ve heard from that called and tried to get this child help, and to hear that with every call, nothing was done. I hope to God something like this never happens to any of our children in this community ever again. This should not have happened.”
Staci Serviss, a home health aid in Gouverneur with family who lives next door to Treyanna’s home, said she saw the young girl, who she did not know personally, at the laundromat three weeks prior to her death. Along with a friend, Staci noticed Treyanna sleeping with cuts on her face and blood on her shirt. When they woke her to ask if she needed help, Treyanna told them she was okay. “You could tell she was scared of what was going to happen now that I’d seen her like that,” Staci said.
Concerned, she called the police, and when Officer Jason Whitton responded shortly afterward, he entered the laundromat to speak with Treyanna. When he exited the laundromat, he informed Staci that the girl was known for walking around town and digging at the scars on her face to make them bleed.
“I explained to him, that’s not just a little scratch,” Staci said. “Her face looks tortured. The pictures you see online, and on Facebook, that wasn’t her face when I saw it. She had no hair on her head. It was shaved-looking. You know how hot it is, and she’s wearing winter hats to cover her, with hoods up and arms covered.”
Many on social media have suggested that Officer Jason Whitton’s alleged racism was the impetus for his willingness to dismiss the incident out of hand.
It has been suggested that both Treyanna and Rhianna’s social media accounts were strictly controlled by their mother. It also appears that whenever Lashanna had an issue with one of the girls, she was quick to make manipulative posts on Facebook.
“I’ve known her my whole high school career,” said Riley Storrin of Treyanna. “She was sweet. She was genuinely sweet. Quiet. Got more quiet towards the end.” She described a classmate who was obviously living her life in misery. “I mean, it was physically visible that she was being mistreated. I just don’t think enough was done to help stop it. And it was going on for so long.”
Treyanna was once a vibrant and bubbly girl, according to three of her classmates, Taylor Hance, Alexis Stevens, and Emily Burgess, who spoke with the Watertown Daily Times.
“When she was in school, she felt safe. School was her home,” said Alexis. After schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “it just made everything so much worse. She didn’t have a safe place to go anymore.”
The three young ladies described Treyanna as a dedicated student and a track athlete. When she began high school four years ago, she earned high grades and enjoyed school; however, after her first year in high school, the spark in her eyes seemed to dim.
Taylor said, “She stopped doing track, her grades started slipping, and she slowly started to not come to school, to where she’d be gone for weeks. She’d come back looking horrible. I feel like the days she missed were because she physically couldn’t come.”
By the beginning of the girls’ senior year, the three of them were so concerned about Treyanna, who had started wearing hats, leggings, socks, and long sleeves, that they reached out to adults for help.
In September, Taylor went to their high school principal, Cory Wood, school resource officer Robert Klimowicz, and even the Gouverneur Police Department, but she and the other two teens felt their concerns were always “brushed off.”
Emily recalled that on April 30, Treyanna asked her for a ride to pick up some food from Mullin’s Family Restaurant in Gouverneur. When Emily agreed to the ride and offered to pay for the food, Treyanna declined both offers and apologized for asking for a ride in the first place.
Treyanna apologized a lot, they said, which made them think she saw herself as an inconvenience. Taylor said, “Someone who says ‘sorry’ a lot usually feels like a burden.”
“People assumed she was a ‘troubled child’ and that she wasn’t coming to school because she didn’t want to,” Emily said. “But they don’t know Trey.”
Alexis Stevens shared a handwritten letter with the Watertown Daily Times, reading, “I knew Trey was hurting. Our class has tried multiple times to get Trey peace. This was not the peace we wanted for her. Her story was not supposed to end here.”
On social media, Emily Burgess has shared several stories of examples of Treyanna’s abuse. Emily became friends with Treyanna part way through high school, and the girls sat next to each other in class, but she never visited Treyanna’s house, and Treyanna was never able to hang out after school. She started noticing Treyanna appear with bruises and lacerations on her face and body. Once, she came to school with chunks of hair and a tooth missing.
“We went for years trying to report it and no authority figures really stood up or really took it seriously,” Emily said. “Nobody wanted to hurt Trey’s feelings for like, assuming something was happening. But that’s what we did, and we kind of pushed at her and was like, ‘Trey, is something happening at home?’ and she wouldn’t say anything about it. And I feel like we should have pushed more, but we went to authority figures in her life, we went to the principal, we showed people the emails and messages, but I don’t know what else we could have done at the time.”
Another young friend made a passionate post the day after Treyanna’s death:
A woman named Tabitha Bernard posted about meeting Treyanna, who was clearly abused and in need.
Alexis posted this the evening of Treyanna’s death.
Emily, Alexis, and Taylor, who is also a member of the graduating class, all described Lashanna Charlton as manipulative, telling a reporter that they believed Treyanna’s mother controlled her daughters’ cell phones, messaging apps, email accounts, and social media profiles.
Tae’von Isiah Charlton Samuels, who goes by his middle name, is Treyanna’s stepbrother and the half-brother to her 13-year-old sister. He told 7 News reporter Keith Benman that he lived in the home with Lashanna Charlton, his father, Rhodney A. Charlton, Treyanna, and their younger half-sister from 2011 until 2015, when he ran away and stayed away.
Isiah described his stepmother as a woman who ran a grim household in which she doled out years of abuse, all too often crossing the line. “There’s a point at which discipline is no longer discipline,” he said, telling the reporter that Lashanna would hit Treyanna with a bat. He, too, felt the wrath of the bat: “I got hit in the arm with a bat, too. And I thought it was odd. But again, me being young… but I don’t think I deserve to get hit with a bat for eating a snack.”
Another time he got whacked with the bat, Isiah limped outside and got beaten again for limping.
After that incident, which took place in March of 2013, police got involved, charging Lashanna with felony second-degree assault and endangering the welfare of a child. The records for that case are sealed, so its disposition is unknown. What is known is that the children were not removed from the house.
“That’s when she started using the blunt objects more,” Isiah said. “They took the bat away; she found something else. She would strangle us. She would beat Treyanna’s fingers with a belt buckle. She put knife marks on me.”
Isiah explained, “She was just mad abusive for no reason. She would get ticked off about the littlest stuff. If we ate snacks without permission, she was mad. We couldn’t brush our teeth or shower without permission; we couldn’t have friends over; we couldn’t do anything.”
“If I drank water without permission, I got beat,” Isiah said. “That’s the house I lived in… I made the mistake of assuming that it ended when I left.”
He decided to leave, he said, because of his stepmother’s abuse. “I was 18, and she was being abusive, so I said, ‘I’m not a kid anymore so this isn’t discipline; this is assault at this point,’” he said. “I ran… I decided to remove myself from the home, and I was told that because I was the cause of the family problems, that when I left, this would all stop.”
He called the house for the first time in years on Sunday after receiving a call from his father, Rhodney, who said that something was going on at home. Rhodney, an active member of the United States Military, is currently deployed in South Korea. Isiah called the house and spoke with Rhianna, who, he said, told him her mother was not around, although he could hear the woman in the background. At that time, Isiah said, he did not speak with Treyanna, and he said it sounded as if Rhianna was “reading from a script.”
By Monday, Treyanna was dead.
Isiah is adamant in his belief that his 13-year-old half-sister did not kill Treyanna. “There’s just no way,” he said, saying that his sisters “always got along.” He fondly remembered the two girls dancing together in Treyanna’s room.
The day after reporter Keith Benman spoke with Isiah Samuels, he caught up with Treyanna’s mother, Lashanna Charlton, who looked “exhausted and distraught, but her words were calm and polite.”
Mr. Benman asked Lashanna for her comment on the allegations of her stepson, as well as other allegations swirling around from community members and classmates of her daughter. Lashanna told him that Isiah had moved out of the house seven or eight years ago and that she hasn’t spoken with him since.
Remember, Isiah told Mr. Benman he ran away in 2015, which is only five years ago.
As for Isiah’s allegations, Lashanna said that she doesn’t know anything about them and gave Mr. Benman the name and number of Melissa Swartz, who is a Syracuse criminal defense lawyer that she has retained.
Why would she need a criminal defense lawyer if she hasn’t been charged with anything? Hmm…
Mr. Benman asked District Attorney Pasqua if anything is being investigated in addition to Treyanna’s murder, such as child abuse. Pasqua replied, “We are investigating the entirety of the situation.”
Gouverneur Police have denied Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests made by the press in regard to files and reports relevant to the case, saying that disclosure of the records “would interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings” and could “deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or impartial adjudication.”
Neighbors of the family and classmates of Treyanna claim they contacted St. Lawrence County Child Protective Services multiple times over the years to report that she was being abused; just last year, however, the county added three additional positions to CPS after it was determined the agency was understaffed and that case workers were burdened with twice the recommended number of cases. It is unknown if the positions have been filled since they were created, and it is also unknown what the outcomes of the reports to CPS were, if anything.
The Gouverneur High School class of 2020 graduation ceremony was held on Friday, June 26. The senior class had spent the week campaigning as hard as they could to include a meaningful tribute to Treyanna during the ceremony, including having her diploma accepted by her stepbrother, Isiah.
Gouverneur Central School District Superintendent Lauren French and school board president David Fenlong gave brief remarks about Treyanna at the beginning of the ceremony. Ms. French told the graduates, “Celebrating graduation does not minimize how much some of you loved Trey. You should not feel guilty for celebrating anything. You have spent years getting to this point.”
After speaking about Treyanna for “a moment,” the ceremony proceeded. In a controversial decision by the school district, Treyanna’s name was not listed among the graduating students on the program; a symbolic chair was not left empty for her; nor was her name called during the ceremony. Isiah was not permitted to receive Treyanna’s diploma on her behalf.
Later, the school explained that due to absences from school, Treyanna had not met the requirements to graduate. I’m sorry, but this girl died four days before graduation, and the school couldn’t find it in their hearts to whip up an honorary diploma for her? In my opinion, that’s nothing but outright, blatant disrespect.
And another thing: the only reason Treyanna missed as much school as she did was because she was being horrifically abused at home! The more I think about this, the angrier I get at the Gouverneur School District.
School officials said they included an insert honoring Treyanna in the evening’s graduation program. Many recipients of the program did not receive the insert.
After receiving their diplomas, the seniors walked from the football field behind the school to the village park, where they reconvened at the site of Monday’s vigil, lighting a ring of candles around the tree that has served as a makeshift memorial to Treyanna before sharing pizza in the park.
Classmates said that Treyanna loved cheesecake and encouraged others to eat “lots of” plain cheesecake in her memory.
On Saturday, the community of Gouverneur took part in a nearly two-mile silent march for Treyanna around the village, walking wordlessly through the streets, pausing in front of the Gouverneur Police Department building before continuing on to Treyanna’s memorial.
The silent march concluded with a rally in the park, where Jennifer Baxtron of the Black Lives Matter North Country Organizing Collective set up a table of cheesecakes and water bottles. Jennifer was the driving force behind Saturday’s demonstration, including the march and the rally. She believes Treyanna’s race played a part in the failure of CPS to protect the young girl for over seven years.
“For that many years, for someone to go unhelped and get what they need, a whole family,” Ms. Baxtron said, “to me, yes, it does have something to do with the color of their skin. And now there’s a black girl dead. And a black girl in jail.”
The fact that the Black Lives Matter movement was in any way involved in Treyanna’s march ruffled more than a few feathers in the village, a fact that horrifies but certainly doesn’t surprise me. Outside the police department, a single counter-demonstrator stood with a cardboard sign reading, “Sick of your ignorance.” (That would be hilariously hypocritical if it wasn’t utterly disgusting.) His neon yellow t-shirt read, “Hello? Don’t all lives matter WTF?”
My head exploded at that point, because I’m severely allergic to stupidity, but once I pieced it back together, I managed to resume the same level of anger at the fact that people still don’t understand the point of the BLM movement. Un-freaking-believable.
Prior to the march, one of the organizers, John Youngblood, who is an associate professor at SUNY Potsdam, told participants in the march not to acknowledge any dissenters protesting against or yelling at them. “We are not responding,” he said. “This might be the most difficult thing you’ve ever done. If you talk as much as I do, it’s definitely the most difficult thing you’ve ever done. It will be challenging, but we are going to honor Treyanna’s life and her death in silence.”
Plenty of people expressed their negative opinions on Facebook about the rally being affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement. Ms. Baxtron said, “People in the town thought because Black Lives Matter organized it that we were coming in to burn their town down and cause a ruckus. Having a quiet [protest] is more powerful. Let the words on the signs speak… No matter where it’s at, kids are getting lost to the system, killed by the system, and not getting what they need.”
Ms. Baxtron let village police know ahead of time about the silent march and rally in the park, as she always does before scheduled events. She even invited officers and Police Chief Laurina Greenhill to participate. It did not appear that Chief Greenhill attended, and no uniformed police officers participated in the march, although officers in patrol cars did direct traffic and guide marchers along the route.
A few houses and businesses along the march route, including Aubuchon Hardware, boarded up their windows in anticipation of rioting and looting. The extent of the prejudice and stupidity involved in boarding up your windows to “protect yourself” from a peaceful rally for a murdered teenager actually boggles my mind.
The organizers of the protest said that Black Lives Matter being involved does not cancel out the importance of the march also representing child abuse awareness. Black Lives Matter is about more than just police killing black people; it’s about how black people across the country are treated unfairly in all areas, from health care to education to law enforcement to child welfare.
According to North Country Public Radio, Gouverneur’s population is 87% white. In September of last year, the village stepped in its proverbial 15 minutes of
fame infamy when a 10-year-old black girl was physically and verbally assaulted on a school bus by two white girls, ages 10 and 11, who yelled racial slurs at her, punched her in the face, tore her hair out, and kicked her; Tiffany Spicer, the 28-year-old bus monitor, was charged with endangering the welfare of a child for not intervening other than telling the girls to “take a chill pill.”
How charming and all-American! Maybe don’t put that on the tourism brochures, though.
*Non-racist residents of Gouverneur: please don’t get me wrong. I’m not making fun of you or your town! I’m just a smart-ass who gains life force from picking on stupid people, and I’ve yet to witness an example where racist =/= stupid.
Gouverneur village Mayor Ron McDougall and his wife participated in the silent march, later telling the crowd gathered in the park that he is heartbroken over Treyanna’s death. He lived near the house where she died, and he said that over the years, he frequently saw her walking in the neighborhood. She even became comfortable enough to say hello to him after a while, he said.
Mayor McDougall’s aim, he said, was “peace and justice for everyone. And let’s not rest until we get it.”
Treyanna’s father, Cedric, who traveled from Seattle to be in town, spoke before the approximately 100 attendees. With his arm around Isiah’s shoulders, Cedric passed the microphone back and forth with his daughter’s stepbrother. “You give me the strength to go on, thank you,” Cedric said. “And I’ve got more family coming. We’re coming.”
Cedric had not lived with his daughter since she was a young child, but he told those in attendance that she had a good heart. “This doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “I want some answers. I need answers. I don’t understand. You can knock on my door and notify me that my child is gone, but you can’t knock on my door and notify me that my child is being abused.”
Cedric also provided a window into the culture of abuse inside the home at 135 Rowley Street, describing Treyanna’s mother as controlling and manipulative. “I got a one-way ticket here. I’m not leaving until she is locked up,” he said of Lashanna Charlton. “I can’t even mourn my daughter… we all know why Trey didn’t leave. She didn’t want to leave her sister. I can’t let that lie.”
Isiah spoke of Treyanna, saying that she was born in Alaska, where she loved the cool weather and beautiful landscape. He said the family moved to New York State in 2011, consisting of Lashanna, Rhodney, Treyanna, Isiah, and their young half-sister. Rhodney Charlton, who was born in Jamaica, was often away from home due to his military service, either training or deployed.
Both Cedric and Isiah believe Rhianna is innocent, instead believing that Lashanna is responsible for the abuse and neglect of her children, as well as manipulation.
Cedric continued, “Trey was isolated from me. She was isolated from all of our family. We tried so hard to reach out to her, but the only way we could reach out to her was through social media. But when somebody’s controlling that, what can they do? Those kids are coached to say stuff to protect somebody that shouldn’t be protected.”
The Reverend Katrina Hebb of the First Presbyterian Church in nearby Potsdam gave a prayer toward the end of the rally that asked for protection, healing, and the truth to come to light. “Not for the purpose of vengeance,” she said, “but for the purpose of making a better way.”
A scholarship has been established in the memory of Treyanna Summerville. A local business, Sunflour Cafe and Bakery, brought in approximately $600 on Friday, June 26 by selling mini cheesecakes decorated with blue icing for child abuse awareness. They said the proceeds will be donated to the scholarship fund.
Others designed #JusticeForTrey t-shirts to be sold; the proceeds from the t-shirts will be used for Treyanna’s funeral and for the scholarship fund.
Another rally, this one called “Protect the Children: Rally at DSS – Organized by BLM and Community Foster Parents,” took place today (Wednesday, July 1) from 11:30 AM to 1:30 PM outside the Department of Social Services building in Canton, New York. The organizers wrote on Facebook, “We will be rallying outside the Department of Social Services because they failed at protecting Treyanna Summerville.” Attendees wore masks and practiced social distancing.
During this rally, about 50 people gathered in front of the DSS building carrying signs with slogans such as “Treyanna’s Life Mattered” and “Justice for Trey.”
A Facebook fundraiser has been created to benefit Cedric Summerville and Isiah Samuels. Donations can be made here.
It’s important that we remember who Treyanna was as a person. Isiah remembers living at the house and taking part in typical sibling banter with Treyanna. He said his step-sister loved playing with different hairstyles and listening to music, and in addition to the aforementioned cheesecake, she also loved cheese, sometimes tiptoeing to the fridge to sneak slices.
Isiah remembered Treyanna’s imagination and ability to entertain herself with random objects. “Her superpower was turning anything into a toy,” he said. “She just had a lot of potential.”
Treyanna’s father, Cedric, last spoke with his daughter on the phone about a week and a half before her death. He lives in Washington state, but he was hoping Treyanna would be able to visit him soon. He said his daughter was excited to graduate from high school and that she had not yet decided between going to college or entering the Air Force.
Through the St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES program, Treyanna studied criminal justice. She was also a gifted athlete, excelling in middle school at track and field.
Treyanna was a young woman with hopes, dreams, and aspirations. She was loved by everyone who came into contact with her. She deserved to live.
Treyanna Summerville’s name will live on; she will be remembered, and there will be justice for both Treyanna and Rhianna.
Click here for my ongoing coverage of Treyanna’s story.
Sources: 7 News, North Country Now News, NNY 360, North Country Public Radio, the Gouverneur Tribune Press, Justice for Treyanna Summerville RIP Facebook group, Facebook