Two days before Monica Cannady and two of her children were found frozen to death in a Michigan field, worried neighbours began alerting police to a family wandering in the area wearing clothes that couldn’t possibly protect them from the unforgiving cold.
The mother experienced a mental health crisis in the days leading up to the gruesome 15 January discovery and was convinced people were out to kill her, police in Oakland County have said. She reportedly instructed her children — Lilly, 10; Kyle, nine; and Malik, three — to hide if anyone approached them, and told them to lie down and go to sleep in the field.
Only Lilly would escape death from hypothermia, rushing to a nearby home to ask for help after waking up next to the bodies of her mother and brothers.
The local sheriff initially reacted to news of the deaths by condemning the nation’s broken mental health system — largely glossing over the fact that his agency had been made aware of the dangerous situation beginning on 13 January.
Records obtained by The Independent have since revealed that at least one deputy responding to the calls from concerned neighbors is now under investigation for allegedly failing to perform a complete search of an area where the family were spotted.
Two other deputies came into contact with the family — the children only wearing sweatshirts and wrapped in white bed sheets in the 30F temperatures — at three different locations and offered them coats. Authorities did not intervene further because Cannady “did not appear to be suffering from any medical or mental health crisis and asked several times to be left alone.”
On the eve of the tragedy, police conducting a welfare check on Cannady and her children found her apartment empty. Two other calls made by neighbours led to fruitless searches for the family in the area.
Deputies also did not immediately link their previous encounters with an apparently “lucid” Cannady to reports by her family that she was having an episode of paranoia and “believed police was involved in the conspiracy.”
Within the complex web of factors, including police response and a mental health crisis, an impossible question has emerged: Could the deaths have been prevented?
Cannady’s family have said she was just recently showing signs of her struggle with mental health. Her aunt Rodhesa Cannady told The Independent that Cannady did not have a history of mental health problems, and had always cared for her children.
“Whatever transpired in the last few weeks was her first onset. This tragedy was clearly out of character for her and just came out of the blue,” Rodhesa Cannady said. “She loved her kids and that was just the bottom line, that was just who she was. She was the epitome of a [great] mom.”
Here’s what you need to know about the case so far:
A shocking discovery
At 3.10pm on Sunday, 15 January, Oakland County deputies were called to an overgrown field near Pontiac, where three bodies were discovered.
Police identified the deceased as 35-year-old Cannady, and her children Kyle and Malik Milton.
Their deaths were determined to be an accident resulting from hypothermia.
Deputies were alerted to the scene when Cannady’s third child, Lilly, knocked on a stranger’s door and said that “her family was dead in a field,” Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said.
The weeks leading up to the tragedy
Cannady was an attentive and competent mother, who had only recently started exhibiting signs of mental health struggles, according to her aunt.
“Whatever transpired in the last few weeks was her first onset. This tragedy was clearly out of character for her and just came out of the blue,” Rodhesa Cannady told The Independent on Wednesday. “Kids were always dressed nice, hair always combed. She was a great provider and support for her children.”
Rodhesa Cannady said her niece was a hard worker and the sole provider for her children.
“She loved her kids and that was just the bottom line, that was just who she was. She was the epitome of a [great] mom. A single mother just raising her kids, doing what she needed to do,” she added.
“She was perfectly fine. I don’t live in Michigan and we went home back in August for a family reunion, and she was just her normal, quiet self, a really neat girl.”
In the last three weeks, however, Cannady’s family had begun noticing an alarming change in her behaviour. Her loved ones attempted to get her help but the mother-of-three had refused, Mr Bouchard said during a press conference on Monday.
Timeline of police response
The Oakland County Sheriff’s department said in a statement to The Independent that a comprehensive review of the events was conducted at the request of Mr Bouchard.
Mr Bouchard said the department analysed calls, radio traffic, canvasses of the neighbourhood and deputies’ interactions with the family “that [could] potentially find ways to prevent such a tragedy in the future.”
The review found that local police attempted to assist Cannady several times on Friday after receiving calls from neighbours. They did not receive reports on Saturday or Sunday, before Lilly alerted neighbours.
The family was first located by police around 1pm on Friday (13 January) near Water Street and Mill Street.
“The Deputy asked if Cannady needed help and where she was travelling. Cannady responded that she was OK and did not need any help and quickly walked away from the Deputy,” the report reads.
A second deputy approached Cannady five minutes later, while she was inside the McLaren Oakland Hospital in downtown Pontiac. She reportedly said her family was at the hospital for an appointment while being questioned “in-depth,” and left the facility after claiming she was waiting for a ride outside.
The same deputy followed her outside the hospital and reiterated that he would not ask for her identification and that she was not in trouble. The officer then walked with the family to a nearby school and offered Cannady to go to the police station to get coats for the children, who were wearing sweatshirts and bed sheets.
Cannady reportedly refused once again, saying that she was okay and had family in the area.
“The Deputy spent approximately 20 minutes with Cannady until 1:30 p.m. on Friday. In those conversations, she was lucid, did not appear to be suffering from any medical or mental health crisis and asked several times to be left alone,” the review stated.
Two hours later, Cannady visited her mother’s home before an argument about her mental health between the two unfolded. Cannady left the apartment and a welfare check was conducted at her own residence but she was not found.
While a family member spoke with detectives later that day about possibly committing Cannady to a mental health facility, a resident reported seeing a woman wandering in the cold with children near Franklin and Rapid.
“The caller noted the children were not properly dressed for the cold temperatures,” the department said.
A deputy dispatched to the area “did not completely search the area as he was expected to and did not find or make contact with the family.” He is now under investigation by the Sheriff’s Office Special Investigations Unit.
A commanding officer dispatched five other deputies in two other instances but they were unable to locate the family after canvassing the area.
No reports were made on Saturday (14 June), but investigators later learned from a resident that Ms Cannady had knocked on a door before walking away.
Throughout the weekend, Cannady reportedly knocked on random homes asking for food, but wouldn’t accept money.
“They were hungry,” resident Charles Witherspoon, whose neighbour interacted with Cannady and her family in the days leading up to the deaths, told Click On Detroit. “I said, ‘What did you do?’ She said, ‘I didn’t let them in,’ but her brother Arthur said he tried to give the young lady some money and she wouldn’t take it.”
Police said they didn’t understand the situation was a mental health crisis at play.
“From our side, we were not called about a person or kids in crisis,” Mr Bouchard said on Monday. “We would get an occasional call, ‘Hey, there’s somebody in the area that doesn’t look like they’re appropriately dressed.’ Deputies would go there and look, and they weren’t there.”
He added: “We later learned from the surviving daughter that [Cannady] had told her kids anytime anybody approached, to run.
“This tragedy was fundamentally evidentiary of the breakdown of our mental health system in America.
“We don’t give our mental health providers and systems enough support and have enough resources at their fingertips.
“The state and the federal government need to provide us with funding that allows us to perform more mental health services in partnership with the mental health community, including having more mental health practitioners on our team that can be part of a holistic response to mental health calls.”
The investigation into the deputy’s response was announced on Wednesday.
‘She was a loving, caring mother’
Family members said Cannady’s children were her top priority and they do not know what triggered her seemingly sudden crisis episode.
“She was a loving, caring mother and she wasn’t troubled or had dealt with mental health issues [in the past],” Rhodesia Cannady told The Independent. “A single mother just raising her kids, doing what she needed to do.”
The family has created a GoFundMe to cover the funeral expenses.
Cannady’s surviving child, Lilly, is in the hospital in stable condition. Child Protective Services is investigating the case, and she will be released to family members.
Ms Cannady said that while her niece had been impacted by the killing of her children’s father in 2021, she was making the best out of her situation and did not seem to be struggling until recently.
“We don’t get to define what a crisis is, so if you feel you are in a crisis, or someone in your immediate family or friends notice that something is off, then you could be in crisis,” Kristin Blevin, with the mobile crisis team at Common Ground, said during the press conference on Monday.
“We can help and we can connect you to those resources. We can help you navigate through the system.”
Josh Marcus contributed to this report.