ST. LOUIS – A southern Illinois man was ordered jailed on $5 million bond Wednesday on charges he slashed and stabbed his 7-year-old niece after claiming, according to prosecutors, that she fell and pierced her neck on a stick and needed to be put "out of her misery."
Justin DeRyke, 22, faces three counts of first-degree murder. Prosecutors allege he stabbed Willow Long in the chest with a knife Sunday.
As first reported by the Effingham Daily News, Effingham County State's Attorney Bryan Kibler said DeRyke told investigators he was baby-sitting Willow and her 3-year-old brother. His sister and the children's mother, Ciara DeRyke, lived at the Watson home with them and her and Justin's parents.
Kibler, who spoke during DeRyke's court appearance Wednesday, said DeRyke claimed Willow grabbed his arm, wanting him to watch television with her, but accidentally scratched him and drew blood. The prosecutor said DeRyke told investigators he became angry and chased the girl from the home before she fell onto a brush pile, piercing her neck on a stick.
DeRyke, according to Kibler, said he "believed he had to put her out of her misery" when she began twitching. Kibler said DeRyke retrieved a knife from his bedroom, knelt beside the girl and cut her throat before stabbing her repeatedly.
Four of the hundreds of searchers who scoured farm fields, sheds and other rural structures in the area over a 30-hour span discovered Willow's body Monday night. They found it a few miles from her family's home, wrapped in several garbage bags and sealed with duct tape. DeRyke was arrested the next morning.
Watson, a village of about 730 residents, is about 100 miles northeast of St. Louis.
Kibler said an autopsy Tuesday identified the body as Willow's and revealed numerous knife wounds, including a slash across the child's throat and a stab wound that severed a vein. He said cuts on her hands perhaps suggested there had been a struggle.
Kibler's probable cause statement recited in court and obtained by The Associated Press made no mention of any autopsy findings of a possible neck wound caused by a stick.
Kibler did not immediately return phone messages to the AP on Wednesday seeking comment.
DeRyke's father, Dale DeRyke, has told media outlets since his son's arrest that Willow's death was a tragic accident and that Justin panicked and hid the girl's body.
"He's thinking, 'Oh my God, I killed her or she's died. They are going to blame me,'" Dale DeRyke, a truck driver, told St. Louis' KSDK-TV. "He's not thinking correctly ... He tries to hide her. He's scared."
Kibler said in court Wednesday that Justin DeRyke drew suspicion during questioning by Illinois State Police. The prosecutor also pointed out that DeRyke went to his restaurant job Sunday in Effingham instead of helping search for his niece.
Kibler declined to address other aspects of the case when talking to reporters later Wednesday — most notably claims by Willow's mother that she last saw her daughter alive watching television Sunday morning and that she fell asleep and woke up to discover the girl was gone.
While an estimated time of Willow's death based on the condition of her body hasn't been released, her mother's version appears to contradict DeRyke's account that the girl already was dead when the mother claimed to have seen her.
"What is a lie is not always clear," Kibler told reporters, according to the Effingham newspaper.
No plea was entered by DeRyke or on his behalf Wednesday. A judge gave him additional time to hire an attorney and scheduled his next court appearance for Sept. 19.