Pastor Dan Thornton talks about helping Zakieya Avery

GERMANTOWN, Md. (WJLA) - Zakieya Avery, 28, and her friend, 21-year-old Monifa Sanford are being charged with murder for allegedly stabbing to death Avery’s one and two-year-old infants.

They also face attempted murder charges for stabbing Avery’s five-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son. Police believe that all of it happened as the women attempted an exorcism to rid the children of demons.

ABC7 has learned that the women met recently at a Germantown church, where services feature the casting-off of demons through dance and prayer. Apparently, not satisfied this was enough, Avery and Sanford then left the church and started calling themselves the “Demon Assassins.”

They allegedly came to believe that one of the children was possessed, and sources say that last Friday morning, they used a knife to cut the demon out of that child’s chest, but then believing that it jumped into the next child, they repeated the cutting again and again until all four had been attacked.

ABC7 spoke to a pastor who says he helped Avery and her children when they lived in Hagerstown.

"We caught them at a low point where they were in great need," explained Dan Thornton, pastor. "And the needs never really went away,"

"We knew her and we don't know why she did this Lord," say longtime family friends, who are struggling to understand what happened.

Vidal Moreto says Zakieya Avery began shutting them out several months ago:

"We never thought this could happen...we thought she loved her kids."

The tragedy began unfolding Thursday night, when a neighbor noticed a child left alone in a car. While he was reporting it to 911, Avery and another woman confronted him:

Caller: You need to back up off me ma'am...I'm being attacked by two females...

Dispatcher: Okay. Why are they attacking you?

Caller: You need to back up off me ma'am.

Dispatcher: Is there an apartment number associated with that...

Caller: That is my business. A kid in the car for an hour is my business.

Then on Friday morning, a second neighbor phoned 911 after making a chilling discovery:

Caller: In the car outside, there is a knife with blood...

The alleged exorcisms are acts so unimaginable that complete strangers are trying to make sense of it all.

"We heard about it and we were heartbroken...just how could something so tragic happen," wondered Darnestown resident Carley Sweeney.

"I wish I knew something to do to make this better for those two little children who survived," added Kristin Sweeney.

One-year-old Norell Harris and two-year-old Zyana Harris died from their injuries, while five-year-old Taniya Harris and eight-year-old Martello Harris are in the hospital recovering.

Avery has a long history of mental illness, including at least two hospitalizations. Sanford has no such history, and authorities are baffled as to how two people could share such a bizarre delusion.

University of Maryland anthropologist William Stuart has studied and written about exorcisms, and says a belief in demonic possession is not unusual – even in a place like Montgomery County:

“Exorcisms are ways of fixing what troubles people, however ignorant they might appear to outsiders and psychologically disturbed. “

Police are charging Zakieya Avery and Monifa Sanford with first-degree murder and attempted murder.