Mother of 3-year-old who was burned to death demands change in Family Court law

Queens

JAMAICA, Queens — A Queens mother whose 3-year-old daughter was burned to death by her ex-fiance’ two years ago shared her story on television for the first time, hoping to effect change in the Family Court system.

“Everyone went on with their life,” Cherone Coleman told PIX11, from inside her Jamaica apartment, where she was surrounded by reminders of her only child, Zoey Autumn Pereira. 

Coleman, who called her daughter by her middle name, said the judge in the case was still working and that laws needed to be changed.

“My daughter’s story needs to be told,” Coleman said. “And she needs a voice.”

The story of how the toddler’s life ended is horrific.

On Sunday, May 5, 2019, the girl’s father–Martin Anthony Pereira–was finishing up his second, unsupervised visit with his daughter, an arrangement Coleman had tried to modify in a conversation with the Family Court judge in Queens.

“I told her about him stalking me,” Coleman remembered.  “I told her about me coming outside and he’s parked right next to my car.  He even scratched my car from the back trunk to the front fender.”

But Pereira was allowed to take his daughter for a second, weekend visit on Friday, May 3, 2019. The visit ended with Pereira Facetiming the mom from his car near Baisley Pond Park in Springfield Gardens on Sunday.

“And when he calls me, on video chat, I see a video of my daughter burning in the f–king background,” Coleman told PIX11 through tears, the unbelievable scenario still fresh in her mind. “Burning in the background,” she added.  “I saw that.”

The relationship between Coleman and Tony Pereira, as he was known, had started out nicely in 2014. 

Coleman, a long-time medical assistant, met Pereira, a construction worker from Guyana, near her job.

“He was really kind,” Coleman recalled.  “If I needed groceries, he’d take me shopping. Definitely good company, good conversation.”

Coleman said even though she was on birth control, she got pregnant fairly soon with Pereira’s child, but miscarried.  Then, in 2015, she conceived Autumn, and was later traumatized when she lost her father–a Marine who had served in Vietnam–on the day of her baby shower.

On March 16, 2016, Coleman’s daughter was born given the formal name Zoey Autumn Pereira.  Coleman had developed heart trouble during the pregnancy, but she rallied back to better health.

The grieving mother told PIX11 she was upset when she found out Pereira’s niece had picked out the infant’s first name. She always called her little girl Autumn.

“She went to school, she flourished, she knew the days of the week,” said Coleman, who told PIX11 her daughter had turned 3 in March 2019.  “Very independent, very smart, knew how to count up to 13.”

Yet while the toddler was developing well, Coleman’s relationship with Pereira was failing.  Coleman complained he spent too much time at his family’s home in Valley Stream, where he had contributed towards the mortgage.

“He wanted me to move into their house,” Coleman said.  “We would have no privacy.”

Coleman said Pereira started yelling at her, claiming she was bringing their daughter around bad influences.

“He would accuse me of letting people smoke weed in front of her, things like that,” Coleman said.  “Nobody’s smoking weed in front of my daughter.”

That’s when Coleman decided to break up with her fiance’ in late March 2019, and she recalled Pereira was enraged.

“”I’m going to make sure you don’t see your daughter anymore,'” she said Pereira threatened.

The case moved to Family Court, along with 50,000 other custody and visitation cases in New York City that year.

“He would call ACS [Administration for Children’s Services] saying I was drinking, that I was doing drugs in front of her,” Coleman recalled.  “I passed the drug tests because I’m not on drugs.”

Coleman asked or custody and for Pereira to have visitation.

“I thought that he was basically a good dad,” she said.

Yet Coleman was troubled that Pereira tried to move the proceedings to Nassau County, where he was staying with his family.   The Nassau judge wouldn’t permit it.  The Queens judge granted Pereira unsupervised visitation every other weekend in April 2019.

The final weekend Pereira spent with his daughter had a bad start.  Coleman said she braided the little girl’s hair, because the child had come home unkempt after the first visit.

“And one of his family members took a picture of him taking her hair out, and he sent it to me” Coleman recounted. 

Coleman said she was at her local salon the next day, when she heard her daughter’s cries.

“I open my eyes and see them trying to wash her hair.  She’s crying and scared.  So I walked over to her, and he picks her up and he’s like, ‘Get away from her,'” she remembered. “I couldn’t do anything, because if I react, I’m going to lose custody.”

Coleman left the salon.

“They cut my daughter’s hair, straightened my daughter’s hair, had her looking like a grown girl,” she said.

Soon after, Coleman said Pereira called her and said the child was having abdominal pains and accused the mom of punching their daughter in the stomach. He took the little girl to Cohen Children’s Hospital in New Hyde Park and Coleman met him there, remembering the child wanted to sit on her lap.

“He was very jealous of me and my daughter’s relationship,” Coleman said.  “That was super clear.”

The couple came to blows in the emergency room, but Pereira was allowed to take the toddler back to his family home for the rest of the weekend.

Then, on Sunday, May 5, Coleman recalled Pereira repeatedly tried to call her, in advance of their first child support hearing on Monday.  Coleman didn’t want to talk on the phone.

But then, she got a troubling call.

“I get a call from my cousin in California,” Coleman remembered.  “He said he [Pereira] was going to kill her and he’s going to kill himself.”

Coleman summoned the police to her house and received the horrendous video chat call.

“I’m like, ‘I think he’s burning her, there’s a fire,'” Coleman remembered.

Coleman was taken by police to a Queens hospital.

“And the detective comes in and he’s like ‘I’m really sorry about your daughter….your daughter passed away,” the mom recalled.

Struggling to keep her composure through tears, Coleman’s mouth shook as she remembered that day.

“After he set himself on fire, he jumped out of the car and tried to run into the pond,” she said. “Left my daughter burning in the f–king car.”

Pereira was charged with his daughter’s murder in the hospital, with burns over 60 percent of his body.  He died nine months later.

“I wanted to see how he looked,” Coleman said.  “And I can’t even give you a real reason why.”

Coleman said a clinical social worker from Brooklyn, Emma Hare, reached out to her after her daughter’s tragedy and offered to counsel her for free for a full year.   She accepted the offer.

She was comforted by the football team at August Martin High School, which honored her daughter.

“They dedicated their whole season to her,” Coleman told PIX11.  “And all of their jerseys had Autumn’s name on the back.”

Visiting Coleman in her apartment, we noticed all the tributes to her daughter that surrounded her in the living room: autumn leaves frame a beautiful photo of the little girl on the coffee table; there’s an angel statue next to a portrait of Coleman’s daughter and a candle burns near a lovely poster of Autumn Pereira that’s close to the girl’s baby picture.

The mom also had Autumn’s name tattooed on her back with the leaves of fall. There’s another tattoo on her arm, and one on her neck.

“It’s an autumn leaf, with her bending, blowing bubbles,” Coleman said, showing us the child’s birth date tattooed on the nape of her neck.

Coleman keeps the front page headline from the New York Post called “Monster Dad” among her belongings.

She also has the Family Court ‘Order of Protection’ and the request for modification of the custody arrangement.

“I tried to sue the city,” Coleman told PIX11, “and they told me I couldn’t.”

Coleman is now in contact with another mom who lost her young daughter to violence, Jacqueline Franchetti, who is working to change Family Court law on the training of forensic evaluators who make custody decisions.

“Jacqueline, to me, is like a motivating force,” Coleman said. 

It was Franchetti who encouraged Coleman to share her story with PIX11–and the joy she received from her little girl, who was “so loving to me.  She just made me feel so happy.”

Coleman also shared the last cell phone video she took of her daughter: all dressed up, with her hair braided, leaving her Jamaica building to meet her father for the last visit.

The final image is Autumn Pereira turning back to her mother and blowing a kiss.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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