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Friends defend woman charged with murder of 15-year-old son

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    MOLINE, Illinois (Quad-City Times) — The mother of a 15-year-old boy who died in November is charged with first-degree murder, but those who know the family say it was the teen’s mother who kept him alive.

Joseph “J.J” Hammond was pronounced dead Nov. 3 at a local hospital. Emergency room staff contacted police because he was “extremely dehydrated, emaciated and had severe open wounds that had not been properly treated,” according to the Moline Police Department.

Jennifer Keim, his mother, was charged Monday with first-degree murder, and the boy’s stepfather, Justin Keim, was charged Tuesday afternoon with criminal neglect of a disabled person, a felony. Both are currently being held in the Rock Island County Jail. Jennifer is being held on a $2 million bond and Justin on a $500,000 bond, according to a news release from the Moline Police Department.

Jennifer Keim is scheduled to have her next court appearance on Apr. 6.

Born with severe cerebral palsy, J.J. required extraordinary care. One of his mother’s oldest friends said Keim did everything she could to prolong his life, which was sometimes in jeopardy, because of complications from his condition.

Christa Axnix said she met Keim when the two were in second grade. When Axnix was stricken six years ago with a neurological disorder that paralyzed her lower body, she said, Keim was the first one to visit her at the hospital.

She brought J.J. with her, she said, which was typical.

“I know this family intimately,” Axnix said. “Everyone who knows Jennifer knows the hard work and dedication she put into keeping J.J. alive.

“She spent holidays alone with him in the hospital in Peoria more than one Christmas when he had pneumonia.”

It was his frequent bouts with respiratory infections that made Keim fearful, Axnix said, of taking her son to doctors’ offices or the hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At the start of the pandemic, she didn’t want people in the house because it’s a respiratory virus,” she said. “With this disease, people die from complications, and she was terrified of that.

“I’m always on the side of children and, being disabled myself, I would be the first one to scream foul play. I saw firsthand how hard it was to keep J.J. healthy.”

Axnix said she saw him a couple of weeks before J.J. died.

“He looked like he’s always looked. I’d be the first one to tell Jennifer she needs to have him checked out. He may very well have died from malnutrition, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t feeding him. Of course she was feeding him,” she said.

“He had weight issues and pressure sores all his life. When you don’t have circulation, those sores take forever to heal. I’ve had them myself, and I’m much more independent than J.J.

“He had weight, bowel, bladder and pressure-sore issues. He had been to the ER many times. She tried her best. He was a teenager, and he was in a growth spurt, and I wonder if that was part of the problem with his weight. It’s not that they weren’t feeding him, though.”

Rock Island County State’s Attorney Dora Villarreal said Tuesday that she was surprised to hear that anyone who saw J.J. in the weeks leading up to his death would not detect something was seriously wrong. Though 15 years old, she said, the boy weighed just 38 pounds.

She said the “very careful and long investigation” into the death included “several different medical reports,” none of which indicated the death was a result of natural causes.

“It was a very disturbing case for law enforcement and for personnel from my office,” Villarreal said.

Axnix said she could understand, given J.J.’s condition at the time of his death, if his mother was charged with neglect. But Keim would not have intentionally neglected his needs, she said.

“I’m not saying she was a perfect mom. I’m not saying there aren’t things she could have done differently. I wonder if there were some missteps with the doctors. She was afraid to take him to the hospital because of COVID. Before the pandemic, J.J. went everywhere with her.

“I know he was in bad shape when he passed. It wasn’t the first time, but it wasn’t because of anything Jennifer did.

“First-degree murder is so wrong. I’ve never seen anything but love and compassion for J.J. She worked so hard to keep him alive all these years. It makes absolutely no sense.

“Maybe Jennifer made a wrong turn somewhere in the past few months, but it wasn’t intentional. Maybe she was trying something new with his feeding tube, because his weight was always a struggle.

“He suffered, but it wasn’t because of Jennifer. There’s no way she wasn’t feeding him. He was under weight almost his whole life. His medical records should reflect that.

“With severe cerebral palsy, you have a 50% chance of making it to age 13. He’d been on the brink with respiratory issues, and she got him back. She kept him alive. He was loved, cherished, talked to and sang to. Kids in that position can be kind of forgotten about, but it wasn’t like that.”

“I’m not saying she did everything right. She did what she thought was right.”

Charles and Chanea Drummond said they were shocked when they heard Keim had been arrested for first-degree murder.

The Drummonds have lived next door to the Keim family for five years, and they said they don’t believe Jennifer Keim would do anything to hurt one of her children.

“I’ve never seen her do anything neglectful of any of her kids,” Charles said.

Chanea said she would keep Keim and the rest of her family in her prayers.

“I pray that everything works out for them. I pray that they get through this. I pray that the facts get sorted out and she can come home,” Chanea said.

The Keims have four other children.

Another neighbor, who declined to share his name, said Jennifer Keim was a great mom who had always taken care of her kids.

“She doted on that little boy. She dotes on all her kids,” the neighbor said. He added that his own daughter often plays at the Keim house with their children.

“If she was bad to the kids, do you think I’d let my daughter over there? Not going to happen,” he said.

Axnix said Jennifer Keim had been providing foster care for another child until the day of her arrest. She said she was deeply worried about Keim’s mental state in the county jail.

“She is a grieving mother,” she said. “She cries over J.J. every single day. She did her best. This is absolutely heartbreaking.”

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