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Elected leaders and community struggle to comprehend recent deaths of two children

Syracuse Police Chief Joe Cecile addresses the media, as Mayor Ben Walsh, left, and Onondaga County District Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick look on. Mar. 26, 2024.
Scott Willis
Syracuse Police Chief Joe Cecile addresses the media, as Mayor Ben Walsh, left, and Onondaga County District Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick look on. Mar. 26, 2024.

The disturbing circumstances surrounding the deaths of 11-year-old Ashton DeGonzaque and five-year-old Nefertiti Harris in Syracuse have shaken the community and its top elected officials. 

Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh says the alleged beating death of Nefertiti by her mother and disposal over her body in a wooded area is impossible to justify. But at the same time, he says it’s also important to add some context. For example, he says one quarter of the city’s 146,000 people move at least once a year. Walsh says combined with other factors, that’s incredibly disruptive to families and puts immense pressure on the systems that support them.

“When we talk about the level of poverty in the city, when we talk about the level of addiction in this community, the level of mental health issues," Walsh said Tuesday. "This is how it manifests itself. I think oftentimes people lose sight of how that, what that actually means in people's lives. It's chaos.”

Walsh says it’s critically important that the institutions entrusted with the care of these vulnerable residents get it right regardless of the circumstances. Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon agrees. He says Child Protective Services is doing intense casework to prevent deaths like Ashton DeGonzaque's. He died of an accidental drug overdose in a filthy home used for drug dealing.

“Our community is not immune from all these issues," McMahon said. "I can't tell you why, but everyone can have their theories on why there is an intensity related to the danger with kids in certain conditions and that's why you see our foster care numbers going through the roof.”

McMahon the county has zero room for error as the safety net, even as he acknowledges the egregious mistakes made by the case worker whose job it was to ensure DeGonzaque was safe.

NEW INFORMATION reports the caseworker and supervisor who handled DeGonzaque's case have resigned just as the county was preparing to terminate their employment. Neither employee has been identified.

Meanwhile, the medical examiner's office said in an email Wednesday that preliminary autopsy results confirm the identity of the remains recovered Tuesday as 5-year-old Nefertiti Harris.

The autopsy also determined the cause of death to be blunt force injuries, and the manner of death was determined to be homicide. District attorney Bill Fitzpatrick said Tuesday that Nefertiti's mother Latasha Mott would face murder charges if the autopsy results indicated her death was an intentional act.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at