SANDUSKY — The small gray house at 723 John St. was Heather Jackson's "safe haven."
A week ago, she moved in with her two children, Celina, 3, and Wayne Jr., 18 months, hoping to get on her feet while in the midst of a divorce from her high school sweetheart.
Saturday, at 6:34 p.m., Sandusky police went to the home for a "well-being check" because Mrs. Jackson, 23, hadn't been heard from or seen all day.
Inside, officers found a horrific scene: Mrs. Jackson's lifeless body was jammed between a mattress and a bed frame; her children, also dead, were found inside a closet.
Police on Sunday declined to discuss the case further; they did not comment on a motive, cause of death, or suspects.
Sitting outside the family home in nearby Castalia, Ohio, a tearful, tired-looking Jody Lynch said, "I'm not going to comment because I don't want to say anything wrong. All I know is that my babies are gone."
Mrs. Lynch was described by another family member as Mrs. Jackson's adoptive mother.
Karlee Tomek, 17, Mrs. Jackson's second cousin, said police briefed the family and said there were no signs of forced entry into the home and that the three victims appeared to have been strangled.
The victims' bodies reportedly had no signs of trauma.
The children might have been deliberately placed in the closet; Miss Tomek said she thinks more than one person was involved in the attack.
Authorities did say that the bodies have been turned over to the Lucas County Coroner's Office and autopsy results are expected Tuesday.
"I just hope to God they didn't make her watch those kids die," Miss Tomek of Sandusky said.
Debbie Howman, who lives next to the home Mrs. Jackson rented, said she and her family were up until about 3 a.m. Saturday.
Everything — except for the sound of a truck coming and going from Mrs. Jackson's house between midnight and 2 a.m. — was quiet, Mrs. Howman said.
"We never heard a call for help — we would have helped her if we could," she said.
"Yesterday [Saturday] was just overwhelming," she said. "Nobody wanted to sleep last [Saturday] night."
Police set up a large perimeter around the house with crime-scene tape, officers coming and going until the early morning hours on Sunday.
A makeshift memorial on the front porch and a small piece of the yellow tape tied to a chain-link fence in the back yard were the only signs Sunday that something horrible had happened inside.
Friends, family, and co-workers stopped to drop off stuffed animals, flowers, and balloons. Some needed to ask, "Is this real?"
"I can't even believe it," said Amanda Thoren, 22, a friend of Mrs. Jackson.
"I woke up and called her this morning. I called her, like, 50 times last night and it just kept going to voice mail. I was like, ‘Someone is playing a joke on me.'?"
Friends and family said Mrs. Jackson's husband, Wayne Jackson, is living in North Carolina; the two stopped talking after a fight on Mother's Day and were in the process of divorcing.
The two had been married for about four years and were high school sweethearts, Miss Tomek said.
Years ago, Miss Tomek alleged, Mrs. Jackson started to abuse "pills" and became addicted. Eventually she started abusing cocaine, the teen said.
Mrs. Jackson moved around a lot, Miss Tomek said.
Just before moving into the house in Sandusky, Mrs. Jackson was living out of her car — her children were with relatives — because of her battle with drug addiction, Ms. Thoren said.
Both Ms. Thoren and Miss Tomek said they believe Mrs. Jackson's death was drug-related and that the children became victims simply by being there.
"She didn't keep good company," Ms. Thoren said. "She had a problem but that never stopped her from being kind.
" … She was a really good girl — I don't understand who would do that to her," Ms. Thoren said. "She was outgoing and happy; a really lovable person."
Ms. Thoren said she and Mrs. Jackson met about two years ago after learning they were both dating the same man. A competitive rivalry turned into a lasting friendship between the two women, whose children are about the same age.
Almost two weeks ago, Mrs. Jackson's car was reportedly impounded because she was caught driving with a suspended license and for having drugs in the car; Ms. Thoren said she started driving Mrs. Jackson around and the two spent more time together.
"She had just showed me around the house and kept saying, ‘It's my safe haven,'?" Ms. Thoren said; she added she never understood what her friend meant by that.
Miss Tomek said Mrs. Jackson never mentioned that she felt fearful of anyone, but she reportedly told family recently that there was an older man whom she felt was "stalking" her.
Mrs. Jackson, others said, operated her own company, Diamond's Cleaning Service, and worked at a pizza parlor in Huron, Ohio.
Tonya Randleman of Sandusky, who stopped at the house on Sunday morning, said she worked with Mrs. Jackson at a Tiffin Avenue factory in Sandusky, a city in Erie County, 55 miles east of Toledo.
"She had a lovely spirit," Ms. Randleman said.
Ashley Walls, one of Mrs. Jackson's high school friends, said the two reconnected last week at Mrs. Walls' wedding.
When Mrs. Walls found out about the deaths she took her children, 4 years old and 8 months, and "held them in my bed last night."
Mrs. Walls owns Generations, a hair salon at 1822 Milan Rd. Starting today she is holding a "Hair for Heather" event in which all money made will go to Mrs. Jackson's family to help with funeral costs.
"We all found out last night and I'm still in shock," Mrs. Walls said. "We all just woke up this morning praying that it was a nightmare. She was a really, really nice person."
Although Mrs. Jackson lived on John Street for only a short time, she was busy making the house into a family home.
On the back deck was a plastic toy chest, and a pacifier was on the deck railing.
On the ground was a baby's bottle, with just a bit of formula inside.
Every room inside the house was painted a different color, Miss Tomek said.
"She loved to decorate," she said. "She painted all the rooms different colors. When I asked her why she said because the outside is gray and depressing and she wanted the inside to be happy."
Blade staff writer Ashley Sepanski contributed to this report.
Contact Taylor Dungjen at: email@example.com, 419-724-6054, or on Twitter @tdungjen_Blade.