Princess Anne - A divorced kitchen worker and his seven children were accidentally poisoned to death by carbon monoxide from a generator they used to keep warm after their electricity was cut off, police said on Tuesday.
The Delmarva Power company said it cut off power to the house on 25 March for safety reasons and not because the family was behind on their utility bills.
Delmarva Spokesperson Matt Likovich said the utility discovered a stolen electric meter had been illegally connected to the rental home in the small town of Princess Anne on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where the family was living since November.
Maryland law bars utilities from terminating electric service for nonpayment of bills from 1 November through 31 March without an affidavit filed to the Public Service Commission.
Rodney Todd, aged 36, and his two sons and five daughters were last seen alive on 28 March.
Police responding to a missing persons report found their bodies Monday after friends, school workers and Todd's supervisor at work had knocked on the door with no answer.
"The children were all in beds and it appears as though they were sleeping," Princess Anne Police Chief Scott Keller said. "They didn't have electricity. Probably it was bedtime and they decided they needed some light and probably some heat, because toward the end of March even though it was spring we were having some pretty chilly nights."
Why Todd ran the gas-powered generator inside his kitchen was not clear. The chief speculated that the noise would have bothered neighbours, had it been outside.
"I'm just numb. I'm just numb. Like it's a nightmare but it's not," the children's mother, Tyisha Luneice Chambers, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "If I had known he was without electricity, I would have helped."
Lloyd Edwards said his stepson had bought the generator after the power was shut off because of unpaid bills at their one-story wood frame home.
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"It's so hard. How can you understand something like this?" Edwards said. "He was an outstanding dad. To keep his seven children warm, he bought a generator, and the carbon monoxide consumed them."
Matt Likovich, a spokesperson for Delmarva Power, said on Tuesday that the utility was not contacted to have power restored in the home after the illegal meter was removed. "We had no record of who was living there," Likovich said. "There was no way to determine what their situation was."
Likovich said customers are encouraged to contact the utility if they are having difficulty paying their bill. He says there are options for such customers, including partnerships with social service agencies. But, he said, the customers "have to contact us."
Todd got help paying utility bills in the past, but did not apply this year, said Tom VanLandingham, who directs the Office of Home Energy Programmes in Somerset County. Families can apply once a year, and assistance is based on household income and energy use, among other factors.
"We're all kind of baffled as to why he did not apply this year," VanLandingham said. "That's the million-dollar question."
Todd was a utility worker at the nearby University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
He retained full custody of his children when his divorce from Tyisha Luniece Chambers was finalised last September.
Court records identified the boys as Cameron and ZhiHeem, and the girls as Tyjuziana, Tykeria, Tynijuzia, TyNiah and Tybreyia. Bonnie Edwards said her grandsons were aged 13 and 7, and granddaughters were aged 15, 12, 10, 9 and 6, respectively.