PHOENIX – Police now believe a 5-year-old Arizona girl missing for more than two months was killed and that her body was dumped in a trash bin across town before her mother reported her missing -- the most substantive information detectives have released about what they think happened to the girl.
Police in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale stopped short of saying who they think killed Jhessye Shockley, but Glendale police Sgt. Brent Coombs reiterated 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.
A month ago, detectives arrested Jhessye's mother, Jerice Hunter, on a child abuse charge related to the girl, announcing at the time that they didn't believe they'd find the girl alive.
Hunter was released from jail days later, and the charge against her was dropped. Prosecutors said at the time that they wanted further investigation and were worried that Hunter would not be eligible for a potential murder charge if she was convicted of abusing Shockley, a situation known as double jeopardy.
A call to Hunter's home was not immediately returned Wednesday, but she has previously maintained her innocence.
Coombs said tips that came in following Hunter's arrest and evidence collected during search warrants led police to believe Jhessye's body was dumped in Tempe. He declined to elaborate.
Coombs did say detectives firmly believe Jhessye's body is now in a landfill south of the Phoenix area, and that detectives are deciding whether to search for it.
"There's such a scientific method behind trying to pinpoint a location within a particular cell within that landfill. It's a very difficult thing to do," he said, also noting that decomposition is an issue. "The reason we're taking such a long time is we want to be as confident as we can be prior to starting any operation that we're going to do the very best job we can."
Hunter reported Jhessye missing Oct. 11, telling police that she left Jhessye with the girl's older siblings while she ran an errand and returned to find her gone.
But 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.
Hunter has said she had nothing to do with her daughter's disappearance, and has been critical of investigators.
"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 October.
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.