GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Police on Monday arrested the mother of a missing 5-year-old Arizona girl on child abuse charges “directly related” to the girl, and said they don’t believe they’ll find the child alive.
In a news conference that offered the most detail yet about what investigators think happened to Jhessye Shockley, Glendale police said the girl’s mother, Jerice Hunter, was now the investigation’s “No. 1 focus.”
Hunter was booked Monday into Maricopa County jail. A sheriff’s spokesman said Hunter was unable to talk to reporters because she had not yet been assigned a housing unit.
However, Hunter previously told The Associated Press she had nothing to do with Jhessye’s disappearance and was highly critical of the department’s investigation.
Glendale police Sgt. Brent Coombs said at the news conference that new information in the past few days led police to serve another search warrant on Hunter’s Glendale apartment and arrest her Monday. He wouldn’t elaborate.
He also said Hunter has not cooperated with investigators who have been trying to set up a lie-detector test with her.
Coombs ended the news conference when a reporter asked him directly whether investigators believe Hunter killed Jhessye, saying: “I am going to have to end those questions right now.”
But Coombs said investigators don’t believe Jhessye is alive.
Investigators spent Monday searching Hunter’s apartment, where Jhessye was last seen Oct. 11 after Hunter said she went out for an errand and left the girl in the care of three older siblings. It was the second time police searched the home.
State Child Protective Services removed Hunter’s other children, including a newborn, from the apartment last month but declined to say why. Glendale police said they had no part in the decision to remove the children.
Police previously said they had no evidence, suspects or promising leads in the case. They also said they interviewed Hunter on several occasions and had no reason to suspect her in Jhessye’s disappearance.
Hunter came under scrutiny during the investigation for an October 2005 arrest with her then-husband, George Shockley, on child abuse charges in California. Hunter pleaded no contest to corporal punishment and served about four years in prison before she was released on parole in May 2010.
Hunter’s oldest child, 14 at the time, told police his mother routinely beat the children.
George Shockley is a convicted sex offender and is still in a California prison. Hunter has told reporters she didn’t know about his past until they were arrested and now has nothing to do with him.
Hunter’s mother, Shirley Johnson, has said her daughter was a changed woman after she got out of prison and was a good mother.
Hunter was eight months pregnant when Jhessye disappeared. While still pregnant, she demonstrated at the state capitol in Phoenix, saying her daughter’s case wasn’t getting the attention it deserved because she is black.
At the Oct. 24 demonstration, Hunter condemned members of the media for focusing too much on her past, and said she had nothing to hide and would gladly submit to a lie-detector test.
“I have been forthcoming with law enforcement from day one. I let them turn my home into a crime scene hours after I reported that I couldn’t find my daughter,” she said. “They didn’t find anything, but they’re holding my children hostage.”
She also criticized the Glendale police department’s investigation.
“We feel that law enforcement is not active in finding Jhessye and that they’re more active in persecuting me instead of finding out where she is,” Hunter said.
In the days after Jhessye’s disappearance, more than 100 officers and volunteers searched for her in pools, garbage bins and shrubs. They interviewed and searched the homes of registered sex offenders in the area, and stopped at every door to spread news about the missing girl.
Police also cordoned off an area of a local landfill where garbage from Jhessye’s neighborhood would have been taken the day of and day after her disappearance, but have not searched it.