Vigils held after body of missing NC girl found

November 17, 2009 7:02:51 AM PST
When 5-year-old Shaniya Davis was reported missing, suspicion turned to a man described as her mother's boyfriend. As he was let go, police targeted another man spotted on hotel surveillance footage holding the child. Then, authorities arrested the girl's mother and accused her of offering her daughter for prostitution.

The arrests offered a glimmer of hope Shaniya would be found alive. But on Monday, searchers discovered the girl's body off a rural road, nearly a week after her mother reported her missing from a mobile home park in Fayetteville.

Shaniya's father, Bradley Lockhart, arrived at a vigil Monday night with help from friends gripping his arms. Tears flowed from his face as he looked up and spoke.

"Lord, I come to you with open arms and it is hard. It is hard," Lockhart said as he stood among a crowd of about 500 gathered in a store parking lot. "Don't give up on me and don't give up on Shaniya. She's right there with you."

At a second memorial about 40 miles away in Sanford, where Shaniya's body was found, dozens of people attended a Baptist church.

"We have kids and it just hit so close to home. It's unbelievable how somebody can just do something that horrible to something so precious," said organizer Crystal Godfrey.

Hundreds of volunteers who helped look for Shaniya left the search area dejected, unable to bring her home to her father, 7-year-old brother and the dolls she so loved.

"I still feel kind of sick to my stomach," said Angela Jackson, 27, of Sanford, who has a 2-month-old daughter and searched for consecutive days.

Particularly disturbing were the accusations against Shaniya's mother, 25-year-old Antoinette Davis. Police charged Davis with human trafficking and felony child abuse, saying Shaniya was offered for sex.

Davis was calm and quiet during a court appearance. She provided one-word answers to the judge's questions. She requested a court-appointed attorney and did not enter a plea.

Her sister, Brenda Davis, 20, said she does not believe the charges.

"I don't believe she could hurt her children," said Brenda Davis, who spoke with her sister at the jail Sunday. Davis' aunt, Yvonne Mitchell, said the mother had two jobs and would never harm the child.

Authorities also charged Mario Andrette McNeill, 29, with kidnapping after they said surveillance footage from a Sanford hotel showed him carrying Shaniya. Authorities said McNeill admitted taking the girl, though his attorney said he will plead not guilty.

Fayetteville police spokeswoman Theresa Chance declined to talk about additional charges. She also wouldn't comment on a cause of death or the condition of Shaniya's body, except to say that investigators planned to retrieve it about 100 feet off the road.

"Detectives have been running off adrenaline to find this little girl and to bring her home alive," Chance said. "You have a lot of people in shock right now."

Davis reported Shaniya missing from a mobile home park Nov. 10. Authorities first arrested Clarence Coe, but charges against him were dropped a day later when investigators tracked down McNeill after receiving a tip from a hotel employee.

Additional information led investigators to a search site near Sanford on Sunday. They continued searching Monday, scouring miles of landscape, roads, ravines and fields on four-wheelers and with helicopters.

"We were hoping that someone could carry her home," said Syd Severe, 42, who came from Raleigh to help with the search. "It's just sick."

A cluster of emergency vehicles and law enforcement gathered where Shaniya's body was found. Authorities blocked access to the road, a rural area popular with hunters that is less than a mile from a lakeside community.

Shaniya's father said he raised his daughter for several years but last month decided to let her stay with her mother. He had pleaded for her safe return.

Lockhart told The Associated Press on Saturday that he and Davis never argued about him raising Shaniya, and Cumberland County courts had no record of a custody dispute. He described his relationship with Davis as a "one-night stand" and said he did not know McNeill.

Davis struggled financially over the years, but she recently got a job and her own place, so Lockhart said he decided to give her a chance with their daughter.

"I should've never let her go over there," he said Saturday night.

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Waggoner reported from Fayetteville. Associated Press writer Mike Baker in Raleigh contributed to this report.


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