What went wrong for Kisha Holmes?
A vet’s search for love, family ends in murder-suicide
For her friends, there were aspects of Kisha Holmes’ life that seemed unshakable.
She was a proud ex-Marine and a devoted, protective mother of three young children. She fiercely guarded her privacy and whatever her personal problems, she projected calm, interrupted only by a laugh that filled the room.
Last fall, however, some in her life noticed that Holmes seemed troubled and at a crossroads. Few knew the mounting stress she was under and the medical problems threatening her future.
In November, she suddenly floated the idea of ceding custody of her middle child, 4-year-old Kai. She surprised Kai’s father, Kendall Holley, in Virginia with a distressed phone call to request he take the boy.
“You could hear she was emotional,” Holley told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I asked her, ‘What’s wrong? What’s going on?’ She just kept crying … She said she was going through something.”
Kai never made it to his father. By Christmas, when the handoff was supposed to occur, Holmes wasn’t answering her phone and never showed up in Virginia.
The next month, Holmes killed Kai and her two other children, then herself in the family’s Cobb County apartment, investigators say.
In addition to Holley, staff at the VA Medical Center in Atlanta knew she was in distress. They had identified Holmes as a high risk of suicide, scheduling her for three appointments that Holmes never made, the last on the day her body was discovered.
The VA has refused to discuss Holmes or say if it failed her or her family, and Cobb investigators have released few details about the deaths.
The AJC reviewed the available public records about Holmes’ case and interviewed a dozen friends, family members and others who knew her.
Their accounts fill in critical pieces of information about her life and some of the personal crises that plunged her into despair.
Behind her outward composure and the toughness she learned as a Marine, Holmes concealed deep wells of pain, according to friends. She yearned for a man to love and a stable family, but found only fleeting partners and broken promises. Hers was a life lived in mostly isolation, given to abrupt periods of complete withdrawal.
She had not spoken to her family in New York in years. One relative compared her to “Zorro” for the way she could suddenly disappear from their lives.
In late 2013, Holmes was pregnant with Faith, her third child, and searching for a home. She sought help at a transitional shelter for female veterans at Mary Hall Freedom House in Sandy Springs. There, she seemed to find support, at least for a time, from a circle of other female veterans.
The group of 10, many of them single moms with children, formed a tight bond that continued after they left the shelter. Many had also suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or other trauma.
“Kisha was very, very good at disguising her struggle because she was such a Marine,” said Dawn L. Jackson, one of the group. “Kisha was the one who never seemed to have anything bothering her, despite the circumstance…She would just listen and have support. Always had words of encouragement. That’s the Kisha we all knew.”
A high suicide risk
On Jan. 27, a maintenance worker entered Apartment 505 at the Walton Crossing complex in Austell to discover the macabre aftermath of Holmes’ final act. Investigators have said the children’s bodies showed no outward signs of trauma or violence, although the Cobb County Medical Examiner is awaiting toxicology tests to determine a final cause of death.
The murder-suicide made national news and Holmes’ status as an ex-Marine placed her among the rising numbers of U.S. veterans who take their own lives. It rekindled questions about the competence of the Atlanta VA’s mental health system, which came under withering criticism two years ago after a series of veteran deaths linked to management failures.
Holmes’ story also made it to the floor of the U.S. Senate. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, mentioned her case last month when he urged colleagues to support additional funding for the VA’s suicide prevention programs.
Signed into law by President Obama on Feb. 12, the legislation is intended to reduce gaps in the VA’s mental health services and curb an epidemic that claims as many as 8,000 lives per year. In Atlanta, the VA counts roughly 300 local veterans who, like Holmes, have been identified as a “high risk” for suicide
Once identified as high risk, these patients are supposed to see the VA’s caregivers more frequently for at least the first month, according to Tousha West, the Atlanta VA’s suicide prevention coordinator
If a patient misses an appointment, the VA is supposed to call the patient. If the VA fails to reach them within a few days, they send a certified letter. In some cases, the VA contacts a veteran’s family, local authorities or community health providers to reach the veteran
The VA only answered general questions about its suicide prevention protocols, and it’s unclear what the VA did after Holmes was identified as a high risk patient and had missed two mental health appointments in December
The same day her lifeless body was discovered in her Cobb apartment, Holmes had an appointment with an infectious disease specialist, an odd medical specialty for a pregnant mother.
At the time, hardly anyone knew that Holmes was pregnant with her fourth child — or that she was carrying a devastating personal secret.
Holmes’ entry to the Marine Corp in 1998 at age 18 and fresh out of Catholic high school carried her away from her childhood home of Brooklyn, N.Y., and ultimately to Atlanta in 2010.
But the distance never fully removed her from the trauma she suffered in early life.
She had a difficult relationship with her mother, Orvalnett Holmes, and sometimes told friends she’d been adopted.
Orvalnett Holmes, who goes by “Bunny,” told the AJC that her daughter entered the foster care system at an early age after the state deemed her a neglectful parent. Kisha’s father died in jail, her mother said. Eventually, aunts from both sides of the family stepped in and helped raise Holmes.
She served in the Marines for fours years, working as an administrative supply clerk in San Diego, according to her resume. When she left in 2002, she served in the Army National Guard until early 2004. By that time, she had moved to Norfolk, Va., and was pregnant with her first child, Justin, who was born in March that same year.
Her marriage to Justin’s father, Rafael Medina, ended in November 2007 after Medina filed for divorce, according to records in Virginia Beach Circuit Court.
Ronald Johnson, a Navy veteran and neighbor in the family’s small apartment building in Norfolk, struck up a friendship with Holmes after the divorce. Johnson said he initially had a romantic interest in Holmes, but when she did not reciprocate, the two became friends, almost like family.
Johnson said Justin called him “Uncle Ron” and the boy developed a close relationship with his own son. The families went out to dinner and to movies or sporting events, and exchanged Christmas gifts.
Strong, but down-to-earth, Holmes was not shy about discussing her Christian faith, Johnson said. She often called herself “blessed,” he said. She focused on raising Justin, stayed in shape and went to college at Old Dominion University, graduating in 2009 with a degree in criminal justice. She set lofty goals, including one to attend the University of Georgia Law School and become a lawyer, and discussed those dreams with Johnson.
For all of her positive qualities, however, Holmes seemed at times to have an out-sized response to life’s challenges, he said. She took disappointments hard. Small disagreements or rejections for Holmes could be “really personal,” Johnson said, and he recalls her expressing betrayal over the way her marriage ended.
Holmes periodically changed her phone number or did not answer her phone for weeks — a signal that she was in some disagreement with a family member or one of the fathers of her children. Her response to personal conflicts surprised Johnson, a divorced father. He recalled one instance, many years ago, when Holmes considered a custody dispute with Justin’s dad almost as a “personal attack,” when it seemed to Johnson that Medina was simply trying to do what was best for his son.
He said he didn’t press Holmes to talk much about her relationships.
“I think she thought that was personal and she could deal with that,” Johnson said. “But I got the sense her relationships, when they didn’t work out the way she wanted, that they kind of took their toll on her.”
A big dream unravels
In early 2010, just weeks after moving with Justin to Stone Mountain, Holmes received news that threatened to sidetrack her plans for law school. She was pregnant.
Holmes seemed conflicted about the timing of the pregnancy and, in a conversation with Johnson, she wondered how she was going to manage raising two children while also trying to achieve her professional goals. Kai was born in October 2010, and the family moved to Athens around the same time.
Kai’s father, Holley, initially doubted that the boy was his son because he and Holmes had not dated exclusively while in Virginia. A test later confirmed his paternity and Holley said he started sending Holmes child support.
Their relationship sometimes frayed over visitation with Kai. On the rare occasion Holmes visited Virginia, she had a list of rules about who Kai could be around, Holley said. Holley said she would sometimes ask him if he had feelings for her. Their relationship became tense if he didn’t give her the answer she wanted. Holley said he wanted to stay in contact with her to stay in Kai’s life, but Holmes sometimes changed her phone number to block him out.
“Her ultimate goal was to have a complete family,” Holley said. “I don’t think she ever had that.”
By early 2013, Holmes had been living in Athens for roughly two years.
Living in Parkview Homes public housing project, her dreams of law school had been all but dashed. She told friends she wanted to become a state trooper.
Her resume shows only volunteer work during this period, mostly connected to working with young children at a local community center or at a daycare. The last entry on her resume is volunteer maintenance work at a local health club in July and August 2013.
Then she suddenly packed her possessions in her Toyota Camry, loaded up Justin and Kai, and moved back to the Norfolk area. They lived with a girlfriend and she found a good job, according to Holley.
In October, Holley called Holmes to arrange a visitation around Kai’s birthday. Holmes had some dramatic news: She had moved back to Atlanta.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Holley said. “But that’s how she was. It was one of those things you don’t want to make her mad, especially being away, because she could block you out.”
Holmes’ sudden decision to move back to Atlanta also surprised Johnson. She assured him she had arranged for a place to stay with the kids, reminding him that she was a Marine.
But he was still concerned. He gave her money for a hotel in case her plan in Atlanta fell through.
“As far as I knew, she didn’t really have anyplace to go back to,” said Johnson. “To me, logically, my thought was why don’t you stay here and tough out whatever it is that’s going on until you get yourself on your feet and you’ll be fine.”
A secret revealed
Holmes moved into the Mary Hall Freedom House that fall.
She received structure and support through group counseling. They sometimes started a group session by going around a circle and each woman rated how she felt on a scale of one to 10. Holmes often said she was an “8,” according to Jackson, her friend in the program.
In one session, Holmes broke down in tears of joy when she found out the sex of her baby. She named her Faith because she felt like finally having a baby girl was a gift from God. Heidi Day was one of her counselors in the program, and described Holmes as an amazing parent. She was very loving and spoke to her kids in a calming voice.
“Certainly she battled with being in dark places,” Day said. “Everyone I work with kind of has that struggle. That was not unique to her….She certainly had a feeling of being very isolated and not feeling supported. That was a struggle for her.”
Sonia Simon, an Army veteran who shared an apartment with Holmes for a couple of months at the Mary Hall program, said some women called family or friends, but not Holmes. She didn’t seem to have much connection to anyone outside of the circle of friends in the program.
Holmes was distrustful at first, but as they got to know each other she opened up, Simon said. Holmes seemed scarred by her experiences as a foster child, according to Simon, and struggled with feelings of abandonment.
“I don’t know if it was the shock and blow of being (in foster care) or what happened while she was in there,” Simon said. “She never wanted (her kids) to experience that.”
Holmes secured the apartment at Walton Crossing in Austell through a homeless voucher program for veterans and moved in around the holidays.
Simon returned one afternoon and found Holmes gone. She’d left no note and hadn’t even bothered to say goodbye. Simon cried.
“She was just gone,” Simon said. “Everything was gone. All her stuff was gone.”
Holmes spoke to Johnson in Virginia sometime early last year and said she’d never been happier.
Faith was born on March 31 and about a month later she was in tears when she spoke to Jackson by phone. She told Jackson that Faith’s father, who she had not spoken of before, was a married man living in Athens. They had an affair and he had promised to leave his wife for Holmes, but he didn’t follow through.
“They were going to be a family,” Jackson said. “She thought if she gave him a baby they would live happily ever after.”
Meanwhile, Holmes was becoming more isolated, in part because her location in Cobb put her miles from her circle of friends from Mary Hall. Many of them secured apartments in Fulton and DeKalb counties and saw each other regularly.
On top of the rejection from Faith’s father, Holmes received more bad news in the middle of last year. Over the summer, she called Johnson and calmly told him that she’d recently been diagnosed HIV-positive and was being treated at the VA.
Johnson said Holmes didn’t know how she had contracted the virus, but she seemed to be taking it in stride. She told him she was having good days and bad days.
“I was more depressed about it than she was,” Johnson said. He recalled her saying: “I’m going to be all right. Whatever time God has left me on Earth, I’m going to live it to the fullest.”
Johnson, a native of Douglas, Ga., made plans to visit Holmes in December when he came to Georgia for Christmas. But as the date approached she seemed to be in one of her phases of social withdrawal. He didn’t think much about it until January, when he still hadn’t heard from Holmes.
A Cobb County detective left him a voice message in late January. Johnson called back a couple times with no response. It was many days after the deaths before he learned that Holmes had hanged herself.
In the weeks since then, Johnson has struggled to reconcile the actions of a woman he believed to be a diligent and dutiful mother, and cope with his own grief, sadness — and his anger that she didn’t come to him for help.
“It was kind of a selfish act if she couldn’t have it her way that it was going to be her way or no way at all,” said Johnson. “I think maybe she felt like if she couldn’t be the one to raise her children the way she wanted to, then they would just be better off with her.
“That’s only thing I can think of.”
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Investigative reporter Brad Schrade spent weeks digging into the elusive history of Kisha Holmes, the Marine veteran who police say killed her three children and then ended her own life. Investigators and VA officials have declined to release much information about the case since the bodies were discovered Jan. 27 inside the family’s Cobb County apartment. Troubled by the story, Schrade had a host of questions. How could someone described as a devoted mother carry out such a dark final act? Did the Atlanta VA Medical Center fail in its treatment of a veteran it deemed as a “high risk” for suicide? Who was Kisha Holmes? Schrade secured the first exclusive interview with Holmes’ mother. He tracked down other family members, friends, a former boyfriend and women who knew Holmes while she lived in a shelter for homeless female veterans. He reviewed available records and also interviewed VA officials in Atlanta about their suicide-prevention protocols.