CLEARWATER — Neighbors at Washington Square Apartments saw unit No. 8 as a madhouse. Living there were three adults and six children: all of them toddlers, except for a baby girl.
The man of the house was Joseph Kenneth Oliver Jr., whose girlfriend was the mother of 9-month-old Aaliyah Siler. At 22, he watched Aaliyah and the toddlers as they crawled on the apartment balcony, tracing shapes with sidewalk chalk.
"I thought he was Superdad," said Oliver's neighbor, Denzel White, 31. "He played with his kids like he was a little kid himself."
On Monday, while Oliver watched the children, police said he snapped. Annoyed at Aaliyah's crying, Oliver dropped her face-first onto the bathroom tile, investigators said. Then he picked her up and dropped her again.
After more than a day on life support, Aaliyah died Wednesday, her small body bloodied and broken. Oliver, once her caregiver, is charged with her murder.
Police said it began with a simple act of play. About 9:30 p.m. Monday, Oliver was tossing Aaliyah in the air when he accidentally dropped her, he told detectives, according to an arrest report. Aaliyah cried endlessly. Frustrated and angry, Oliver took her to the bathroom.
Doctors later would find a fracture in her right wrist. Multiple cracks in her skull. Bleeding in her eye, and even worse bleeding in her brain. But at the time, Oliver told detectives, she just seemed drowsy and limp. He laid her in a crib.
Four hours later, he called 911. The baby was rushed to Mease Countryside Hospital, 7 miles from his apartment on Fernwood Avenue off Drew Street, but her injuries were too severe. She was flown to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, but she was not expected to survive.
Oliver was arrested Tuesday night and charged with aggravated child abuse. He admitted to detectives he dropped the girl out of frustration, an arrest report states. When Aaliyah died, nine months after the day she was born, the charge was upgraded to murder.
Oliver has been arrested 11 times —three times on charges of domestic violence. Last year, he was convicted of battery on a law enforcement officer.
Police would not share the identity of Aaliyah's mother. A police spokeswoman said she was classified as a witness in her daughter's death.
Doris Small, 53 and a neighbor at Washington Square, saw Oliver playing constantly with the children outside. She often saw him bring the children food from McDonald's, where he worked.
On Wednesday afternoon, she left a small vase of artificial flowers, bought on sale at Walmart, at Oliver's doorstep. Inside the vase, she left a small stuffed penguin.
"These things can happen to all of us, the best of us," Small said. "He was a responsible young man. He did everything right."
Other neighbors saw a darker side to the apartment. They saw parties and suspected drugs. They saw strangers come and go. They wondered how the children lived, packed into two small bedrooms, 800 square feet.
Audrey Murphy, 83, who has managed Washington Square for 20 years, said Oliver's apartment was infamous for parties and loud music. She said Oliver seemed to care for the children mostly without help. "Taking care of six kids," she said, "is a lot of stress."
She said the five toddlers in the apartment were taken into custody by the state Department of Children and Families.
Donna Jones, 48, who lived next door to Oliver, said she saw him lash out at the children when angry. Once, she said, she heard him scream at the toddlers, "Shut the f--- up."
"He seemed polite, but you never know," she said. "You can't see true colors until they come out."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected]