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Crime

Neighbor of Chicago Grandma Who Tortured Granddaughter Says ‘I Wish I Had Known’

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To the people living in the South Austin area of Chicago, Helen Ford was an enigma.

“Sometimes, she’d be really nice,” neighbor Anitra Watkins tells PEOPLE. “She’d smile and say hello. But then sometimes she looked angry and you’d know to stay away.”

Despite Ford’s often gruff demeanor, none of her West Adams Street neighbors knew anything about the horrors taking place in her trash-strewn second-floor apartment.

That’s where Helen Ford’s 8-year-old granddaughter, Gizzell Ford, died a brutal and lonely death in 2013. Helen Ford has been convicted of the first degree murder in the girl’s death.

Gizzell Ford
Handout

“If I knew what that baby was going through, I’d have called the police,” says Watkins, who was aware that Ford looked after her grandchildren. “No one knew. You don’t know what’s happening inside anyone’s house.”

The details are horrific. According to court testimony last week, the 8-year-old was often tied to a bed and denied food and water. She was routinely beaten and tortured, being forced to contort into uncomfortable positions for hours. She was verbally berated and burned with cigarettes. If she cried out, a sock was stuffed in her mouth. When her bruised body was found, there were open wounds infested with maggots.

“Pure evil,” says Watkins. “Anyone would would do that is just evil. I didn’t know we had that type of evil on this street.”

Watkins is not alone in her assessment of Ford. When she was convicted last Thursday, Judge Evelyn Clay did not try to hide her outrage as she addressed Gizzell’s death.

“This murder was torture,” Clay said. “That child suffered a slow and agonizing death. That little body looked like it had been pulverized from head to toe. Her treatment of this child was evil.”

Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney Ashley Romito agreed. “What happened to Gizzell was an abomination,” Romito said in court. “It makes you lose faith in the human race.”

Helen Ford
Cook County Sheriff

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The extent of that treatment was well-documented by Ford and her son, Andre. (Andre, a bedridden convicted felon, was also charged with murder but died in 2014 while awaiting trial.) Several cell phone videos of the torture were played in court last week, showing the terrified girl being brutalized.

Even more chilling, authorities released Gizzell’s rainbow-colored diary, which documented her descent from a straight-A, sunny third-grader to an abuse victim.

“I know if I be good and do everything I’m told I won’t have to do punishments,” Gizzell wrote one day. Later, she scrawled, “Not true. I failed.”

Gizzell described how she had been forced to squat for hours and told to stand in one place for “an hour or two.” Even as she documented the abuse, Gizzell expressed hope for her future. “I am going to be a beautiful smart and good young lady,” she wrote one day. “I can do anything I put my smart mind to. People say I’m smart and courageous and beautiful.”

But days later, she wrote, “I hate this life because now I’m in super big trouble.”

The next day, July 12, 2013, she was was strangled to death.

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Ford’s appointed attorney argued at trial that Gizzell’s injuries were actually self-inflicted and that the grandmother was “overwhelmed” by caring for her bedridden son and three grandchildren. Her defense lawyers have not returned PEOPLE’s request for comment.

Ford faces life in prison. She will be sentenced later this month.

The murder has shaken up the community, and left many people feeling sad and powerless. “I wish I had known,” Watkins says. “I wish I had known. No baby should ever go through that. It breaks my heart.”