SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) – Family and friends remembered 10-year-old Hailey Owens as a vivacious spirit – a trusting little girl whose cheery disposition only deepened the heartbreak after police say she was snatched off a southwest Missouri street and killed by an abductor.
Memories of Hailey mixed with anger and shock in Springfield on Thursday, as the community tried to make sense of the brutal crime that took her life. She went missing on Tuesday, taken in daylight from a neighborhood street less than two blocks from her Springfield home as she walked back from her best friend’s house.
Craig Michael Wood, 45, a longtime employee of Springfield’s public school system, is charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping and armed criminal action in the fourth-grader’s shooting death. His initial appearance in court was postponed Thursday and rescheduled for Friday.
Hailey’s mother Stacey Barfield, aunt Sara Wells and a third relative gathered at the abduction site Thursday morning to retrieve some of the dozens of floral arrangements and stuffed animals left by well-wishers. Barfield broke down sobbing as she knelt beside the memorial.
“She’s in heaven. With angel wings,” Barfield told KYTV. “At least she’s not hurting.”
Wells called her niece a bubbly girl who loved to laugh, smile and dance. “She was pure gold,” Wells said.
Gary Tew, principal at Westport Elementary School, said Hailey was a “happy-go-lucky kiddo” who made sure new students felt welcome and belonged to an afterschool club that taught character lessons through a local church. He last saw her on Valentine’s Day, recalling Hailey’s enthusiastic dancing at a class party.
Even as many grow inured to all-too-frequent reports of child kidnappings, the horrific circumstance of Hailey’s abduction resonated far beyond Missouri’s third-largest city. A Facebook event that encouraged people to turn on their porch lights as a show of support drew thousands of participants Wednesday night and was extended through the weekend.
In Springfield, thousands are expected to attend a downtown candlelight vigil scheduled for Saturday night that began as a private effort but now has city support to temporarily close several main streets.
Public anger was also palpable on Thursday, as questions persist about the suspect’s background and motive. Wood, a 16-year football coach at a middle school who also worked as a substitute teacher and teacher’s aide overseeing suspensions, was allegedly found by police holding duct tape as he left his father’s pickup truck parked outside his home Tuesday night.
Court records indicate the girl’s body was found stuffed in two trash bags inside plastic storage containers in the basement of Wood’s home, which was damp with bleach – presumably used to clean the crime scene.
Greene County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Patterson, who filed charges against Wood on Wednesday, said he may consider seeking the death penalty. He said Hailey was shot in the back of the head and had ligature marks on her wrists, suggesting she was tied up.
“I’m furious,” said Jerry Tiffany, a retired construction worker who stood outside the Greene County courthouse on Thursday holding a handmade sign that read, “Child killer. Hang ‘em.”
“I’ve been up all night, with tears in my eyes,” he added. “Kids can’t even go out and play anymore.”
At least three people told police they saw Hailey as she was pulled inside a pickup truck that had driven back and forth several times down the street before the driver stopped to ask the girl for directions. One homeowner gave chase on foot, and another followed the fleeing truck in his own car.
Wood is being held in the Greene County Jail without bond and will appear at a Friday morning arraignment by video. An attorney for Wood’s parents said that he has been assigned a public defender. Officials with that office could not be reached for comment late Thursday.
Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams defended his officers’ response time as well as efforts by the Missouri Highway Patrol, which didn’t issue an Amber Alert until 103 minutes after the girl’s kidnapping was first reported to 911.
“It’s a time-consuming process,” he said.
Wells reiterated previous statements by officials that despite Wood’s status as a school employee, he and Hailey apparently didn’t know each other. Hailey’s home and Westport Elementary are on the city’s west side; Wood worked at Pleasant View School, which is 12 miles away north of Springfield, and lived on the city’s east side.
Springfield School District officials have said their employment screening process found no warning signs when hiring Wood – first as a temporary employee in 1998 and then full time eight years later.
Wood had little criminal history, according to online court records. He pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance in 1990 in Greene County and was fined $100. Wood also was convicted in 2001 for illegal taking of wildlife, a misdemeanor. Friends said Wood is an amateur musician and avid hunter.
James Dishman, whose son attended high school with Wood in the nearby town of Marshfield, told the Springfield News-Leader that Wood was an animal lover and “gentle type of man.”
Police spokeswoman Lisa Cox said there is no indication that Wood is a suspect in any other violent crime involving children.
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