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Mother of missing Arizona girl arrested, charged with murder

Posted at 8:45 AM, Sep 07, 2012
and last updated 2012-09-07 08:45:15-04

By the CNN Wire Staff

(CNN) – The mother of Jhessye Shockley — a young Arizona girl last seen 11 months ago — was arrested and charged Thursday with murder in her daughter’s case, authorities said.

A grand jury indicted Jerice Hunter on Thursday and, later that day, she was arrested “without incident” around 1:30 p.m. (4:30 p.m. ET) at her home in Mesa, Arizona, Glendale interim police Chief Debora Black said.

“We are confident, with the indictment and arrest of Jerice Hunter today, we will achieve our … goal of securing justice for Jhessye,” Black told reporters.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery noted that Hunter faces two charges: felony child abuse and first-degree murder.

Hunter had said her daughter Jhessye, then 5 years old, wandered out of the family’s Glendale home on October 11. The girl went unnoticed by her 13-, 9- and 6-year-old siblings, who were supposed to be watching her, according to her mother.

Jhessye hasn’t been seen since, and while authorities long ago opened a homicide investigation, her body hasn’t been found.

The girl’s mother came under suspicion early in the investigation, and she spent a week behind bars in November 2011 after being arrested for alleged child abuse. Police said reports from the girl’s siblings led them to believe Hunter had abused Jhessye.

Late last year, Glendale Police Department spokeswoman Tracey Breeden called Hunter “our primary focus” in the investigation. But while Breeden insisted then “we’re getting closer to solving the case,” no further arrests were made at the time.

The mother’s attorney, Scott Maasen, said late last year that Hunter “certainly declares her innocence.”

Maasen said his client’s children were playing in the backyard behind their apartment complex when Hunter went out to a store. When she came back, she found that her daughter was missing, the lawyer said.

“She’s been steadfast in every conversation we’ve had,” said Maasen, who has accused authorities of “stonewalling” and failing to share information with his client. “She wants to find Jhessye, wants to know where her daughter is.”

In a press release issued last December, Glendale police said they believe the girl’s body was dumped in a trash bin in nearby Tempe “prior to the report of Jhessye’s disappearance on October 11.”

Trash from the location is taken to a transfer station and ultimately to Butterfield Station Landfill, police said.

Some 280 law enforcement officers from 13 agencies went through 9,500 tons of trash, but ended their search weeks ago without finding any sign of Jhessye, Black said Thursday. The police chief added that there are no plans to look further for the girl.

“We believe that Jhessye is at her final resting place at the Butterfield Station Landfill,” Black said. “There’s nothing to be gained by continuing to search.”

After that search was finished, police and the Maricopa County Attorney’s office worked together in preparing a case, which they then presented to a grand jury. Montgomery, the county attorney, said the fact authorities haven’t found Jhessye’s body didn’t prove to be an impediment in securing an indictment nor did he expect it would prevent a jury from convicting Hunter.

Black, police chief for the city of about 225,000 just northwest of Phoenix, acknowledged the toll Jhessye’s disappearance has taken on residents, grief and frustration that now may be tempered with Hunter’s arrest.

“Our hope is that the announcement today will allow the healing process to begin for everyone who knew Jhessye, who loved Jhessye and all those who have been touched by her story,” she said.