ST. PETERSBURG — Sherry Ford heard screams coming from outside her home Friday evening and stepped out the front door.
On the sidewalk across the street, a woman held her 4-year-old son in her arms. His head rested against her shoulder, his bottom was cupped in her hands.
The boy didn't move. The mother held a kitchen knife.
"Let him go, let him go, let him go," said the boy's grandmother, who stood next to the woman and child.
The mother responded by pressing the knife against her son's ribs, Ford said.
Neighbors flagged down nearby police officers, who arrived and saw the boy was significantly injured. Officers told the woman to hand over the child. She laid him on the grass. The officers took her into custody and began treating the boy.
"She just laid him on the ground," Ford said. "She just politely laid him on the ground. She still had the knife in her hand."
The boy, Joseph Artis, who neighbors said went by the nickname Turtle, was pronounced dead at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg less than an hour later.
Police said he suffered multiple stab wounds inflicted by his mother, Tasha Trotter, 40. Investigators on Friday night were trying to sort out why Trotter killed her son. She refused to talk to detectives and later was taken to the Pinellas County Jail on a first-degree murder charge.
Police said family members told investigators that she has a history of mental illness and has been in and out of several treatment facilities.
Police and neighbors said Joseph's grandmother, Carolyn Trotter, 64, who lives at 2427 13th Ave. S, has had custody of him for at least three years. Police said the mother, who was recently believed to be living in a halfway house, was allowed to visit.
Ford said Trotter would come see her son, but often visited with him on the front porch — and always with the grandmother present.
According to police, Trotter was waiting on the apartment's porch Friday evening when Joseph and his grandmother arrived home. The boy may have been just picked up from day care, police said.
Trotter came inside and was acting odd, police said.
She suddenly grabbed a knife, rushed into a room where her son had gone and started stabbing him repeatedly. The grandmother tried to stop her, but couldn't.
Moments later, Trotter carried her son in her arms out the front door.
"That image, I know I'll just never forget," said Ford. "I'm used to seeing the little boy playing on the street."
Trotter does not appear to have a previous criminal record in Pinellas County. In September 2009 and February 2010, she sought domestic violence injunctions against Joseph Artis III. Both were eventually dismissed.
Linda Maibauer, who lived in the room across from Trotter in the 2400 block of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street S, said in the past few weeks she heard the woman screaming inside her room or throwing things against the walls. Maibauer said Trotter would sit outside on a couch with a kitchen knife cutting up clothes and stabbing the knife into the ground. "She was off her medication," Maibauer said, "because she threw them out on the ground a month ago."
Weston Phippen can be reached at (727) 893-8321.