Police believe Jhessye Shockley, a 5-year-old Glendale girl missing for more than two months, was killed and that her body was dumped in a trash bin across the Valley in Tempe.
Glendale Police Department officials released details Wednesday of what they believe happened to Jhessye, who was reported missing Oct. 11; her mother, Jerice Hunter, was arrested a month ago on a child abuse charge related to her daughter.
A release distributed by Glendale police stated that investigative leads have led the department to believe Shockley’s “body was placed in a trash receptacle located in the City of Tempe” before the date she was reported missing.
Trash from that Tempe location, the release said, is sent to a transfer station before it is ultimately taken to the Butterfield Landfill — located south of the Valley, about 20 minutes west of Maricopa.
The department is considering the case an active homicide investigation, and investigators are still determining “the viability of a landfill search” at the Butterfield location, according to the release.
“That includes conducting analysis to determine the likelihood of success of recovering Jhessye’s body. The decision whether to search will be finalized in the coming weeks,” the release said.
Butterfield is the same landfill police searched for two full months more than a decade ago after the 1998 disappearance of Cookie Jacobson, of Tempe. Authorities were unable to recover Jacobson’s remains.
Police have said previously they are not confident they will find the Jhessye alive, and Wednesday’s new information did not specify who they think killed her.
But Glendale police Sgt. Brent Coombs told the Associated Press again Wednesday that the girl’s mother is the “No. 1 focus.”
“We’re in what we believed to be the worst-case scenario from the beginning,” Coombs said.
Hunter, released days after her Nov. 21 arrest when prosecutors said they wanted to investigate further, has maintained that she had nothing to do with her daughter’s disappearance, and has been critical of investigators.
Jhessye was last seen at her family’s apartment in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale after Hunter said she went out for an errand and left the girl in the care of three older siblings.
A court document released last month says Hunter’s teenage daughter later told police that she hadn’t seen Jhessye since September. She told them that a few days before Hunter reported the girl missing, she saw Hunter cleaning her shoes and a closet where she kept Jhessye.
Police said they found a receipt that showed Hunter bought food and a bottle of bleach Oct. 9.
The teen also told police that Hunter deprived Jhessye of food and water while keeping her in the closet, and that she saw the girl with black eyes, bruises and cuts to her face and body.
“(She) reported that Jhessye’s hair had been pulled out and described Jhessye as not looking alive and that she looked like a zombie,” the document said. “(She) said that the closet where Jhessye had been looked like a grave and smelled like dead people.”
The teen also said Hunter became angry with Jhessye sometime in September when she returned home to find the girl wearing a long T-shirt while watching TV with a neighbor boy. Hunter told Jhessye she was a “ho” before taking her into a bedroom, according to the document. The teen said she then heard her sister screaming and crying in the room.
Police say Hunter has declined to submit to a lie-detector test.
A call to her home was not immediately returned Wednesday.
Child welfare workers removed Hunter’s other children, including a newborn, from her apartment the day after she reported Jhessye missing.
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, has told police his mother routinely beat the children. George Shockley is a convicted sex offender and is still in a California prison.
Hunter’s mother, Shirley Johnson, has said her daughter changed after prison and became a loving mother.