HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) — On the night before Kayra Armstrong lost her parents, she said she and her mom shared some queso in the kitchen before they went upstairs. Then, Kayra set the house alarm and went to sleep in the room across the hall from Dawn and Antonio Sr. on the second floor.
The next thing Kayra remembers was being shaken awake by her brother, A.J. Armstrong.
“He rushed me downstairs. He was frantic,” she recalled.
Kayra was 12 years old at the time. A.J. was 16.
For an hour on the stand Friday, Kayra shared her story of that morning.
She remembered A.J. leading her down the stairs, turning towards the front door, and seeing police officers and flashing lights through the window.
Kayra had no idea then that her life would forever change.
Now 19 years old and a sophomore at LSU, with a striking resemblance to her mother, a composed Kayra recounted how officers separated her and A.J. that morning, putting them in the back of police cars. A.J. was handcuffed and driven to Houston police headquarters, where he was charged with capital murder hours after their parents had been shot. At the same time, Antonio Sr. was fighting for his life in the hospital.
It had been a normal night that ended in a nightmare.
But, before the murders, Kayra said the relationship between her, her siblings, and their parents was “normal.”
She testified that Josh – older half-brother to A.J. and herself – moved back home from college a few weeks before the murders and wasn’t doing well.
“(Josh) had escalated down the wrong path,” Kayra said. “He wasn’t always there.”
Kayra said Josh had been smoking pot and drinking more often, and his hygiene “had gone downhill.” Josh had a new apartment, but Kayra said he was still staying at the Armstrong house with A.J. on the third floor in the loft.
Kay Winston, Kayra and A.J.’s grandmother, and Antonio Sr.’s mother, said Josh was “just different” when he came home.
“He was in a dark place,” Winston said.
Josh’s mental state during and after his parents were killed was discussed at length Thursday, when prosecutors introduced thousands of pages of his medical records. Josh checked himself into Ben Taub Hospital, nearly five months after the murders, suffering from severe paranoia and depression. It was the first time he was treated for the condition.
Winston acknowledged A.J. “wasn’t perfect” in July 2016 but said he wasn’t a killer.
“He was a 16-year-old boy. He did what boys did. What kids do. Did he lie? Yes, he did,” Winston said. “But he was very respectful to his parents.”
When Winston showed up to the Armstrong house before 3 a.m. on July 29, 2016, she recalled to jurors feeling panicked seeing Kayra in the back of an HPD car. Minutes after arriving on scene, Winston said to police, “Let me tell you something. If A.J. did something like this, it had to be drugs.”
On the stand, the grandmother told jurors that initial statement was taken out of context.
“My mind was everywhere,” Winston told the jury, tearing up. “We had a loving family. (A.J.) would never have killed his parents.”
Winston said Josh “didn’t have much to say” that morning outside the Armstrong house.
Prosecutor John Jordan pushed back, saying firefighters at the scene described Josh as emotional.
“(Josh) took (the murders) very hard, didn’t he?” Jordan questioned Winston.
“Yes, he did,” Winston agreed. “We all did.”
“You saw it firsthand how it affected him,” Jordan said.
“He did spiral out of control after that,” Winston said.
Winston maintained Josh’s mental health started waning in May 2016, when he dropped out of Blinn College and moved home to Houston. She said Dawn and Antonio Sr. kicked Josh out of the house after he had a party when his parents were out of town.
But prosecutors said Josh wasn’t struggling and his relationship with his parents was solid before the murders.
“The plan all along was for Josh to move back, get an apartment, and work at the (Armstrong) gym,” Jordan said to Winston on the stand.
“I don’t know where you got that from,” she said.
Text messages are where Jordan said he got that from. He read aloud texts sent and received in June and July that seemed to show Dawn and Josh discussing his new start, with plans to attend the Art Institute in Houston.
“I have made your old room into an office, but you can put your stuff in A.J.’s room,” Dawn texted Josh on July 3, 26 days before she was killed.
In June, Dawn sent Josh links to new potential apartments, prosecutors said. Later that month, A.J. texted his girlfriend that Josh was moving into an apartment “right near the house.”
Josh’s mental state continues to dominate testimony with the defense’s psychiatrist taking the stand next week. Dr. Mark Moeller will offer his take on Josh’s extensive medical records when trial resumes for day 11 on Monday.
Closing arguments are expected next week as well, as Judge Kelli Johnson told jurors to “pack a bag.” They will be sequestered if deliberations go into the night.