JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - When a fellow shopper at a dollar store offered to take Rayne Perrywinkle and her three children to Wal-Mart to buy them McDonald's and buy a dress for her 8-year-old daughter, she graciously accepted.
But police say the man was a predator, not a Good Samaritan, who seized the opportunity to snatch the woman's daughter and kill her. The slaying marked a tragic end to Cherish Perrywinkle's short life, most of which she spent with a mother who fought with the girl's father over child support and custody. Cherish's funeral is Friday.
The man accused of killing the 8-year-old, Donald Smith, had a lengthy rap sheet of convictions for sex crimes against children and had gotten out of prison less than a month earlier. And the sheriff in Jacksonville has said hours passed between the time police learned of the girl's abduction and when the first public alerts were sent, which he blamed on a failure in the chain of command.
The case has saddened and angered folks in Jacksonville, leaving some to wonder: How could this have happened?
"Yeah, it hit us hard," said 26-year-old Katie Weaver, who wiped away tears on a recent day as her two children, ages 6 and 4, left stuffed animals at a roadside memorial for Cherish.
Cherish was born after her mother, an exotic dancer, and her father, a sailor, had a one-night stand in 2004. Perrywinkle, 45, sued the father, Billy Jarreau, 43, for child support three years later, and the two fought for custody of the girl for the rest of her life. They traded accusations over how the girl got head lice and how she was dressed, as well as money.
In April 2010, a court-appointed evaluator recommended that Cherish live with her father -- who, by that time, had moved to California with his new wife. The evaluator wrote that "neither parent was perfect" and acknowledged that it was the hardest case he had ever tackled.
The evaluator said that Jarreau "hasn't shown himself to be a real enthusiastic player in terms of parental involvement," and noted that it might be difficult for Cherish to move across the country away from her mother. But Perrywinkle had some troubling issues, the report noted, including eviction, a lack of money and some admitted mental health issues that led her to make poor choices.
"I fear for the child's future living with Ms. Perrywinkle," wrote evaluator Robert Wood. "I do not make my recommendation lightly. I have given many, many hours of thought to the case."
Despite that recommendation, a Jacksonville judge ruled Cherish should live with her mother.
That same year, down the halls of the very same courthouse, another man's case snaked through the legal system. Donald James Smith, charged with impersonating a state child welfare officer and making an obscene call to a young girl in 2009, attended hearings for years and was eventually found guilty -- but with time served he was ordered to spend only a year in jail.
Smith had been arrested 19 times since 1977. He had been found guilty on lewd and lascivious charges, charges of trying to lure girls in a van and charges of showing pornography to minors.
Richard Kuritz, a Jacksonville defense attorney who is not connected to this case, said that Smith's light treatment on the 2009 charge underscores how difficult it is to prosecute some sex crimes. Jacksonville prosecutors, he said, are not known for seeking light sentences.
"Often times the state's hands are tied and the state will resolve a case for less than what they want because the victim doesn't want to go through the process," he said. And with cases such as the one in 2009 -- where Smith was accused of posing as a state worker and then making an obscene phone call to a girl -- there is little physical evidence.
"The fact that this guy got a decent deal, speaks volumes," Kuritz said. "There must have been a problem with the state's case."
Smith was released May 31 but was still being monitored by authorities as a condition of parole. Officers even checked in on Smith the morning of June 21 in the home he shared with his mother. That same evening, he met Perrywinkle and her children.
According to court records and police reports, Perrywinkle didn't have a car. Police said Smith saw she seemed like she needed money. So he offered to buy the dress for Cherish, who was supposed to fly to California the next day to visit her father, and the family climbed into his van and headed to Wal-Mart.
Surveillance video shows they spent a couple of hours in the store, and Smith then took Cherish with him to buy McDonald's for the family. But they never got the hamburgers -- Smith took Cherish outside, got into his van with her and left, said Jacksonville Police Director Mike Williams.
Perrywinkle called authorities, and an all-night search ensued. Officers compiled a list of nearby sex offenders, and Perrywinkle identified Smith as a suspect.
Nine hours later, Cherish's body was found a few miles away, near a church.
Smith is in jail without bail, awaiting his next court hearing. His public defender did not return a call for comment, and his mother was not home when an Associated Press reporter visited.
Gerald Wilkerson, the attorney for Cherish's father in the custody case, said his client is devastated. Jarreau himself posted about the tragedy on his Facebook page, blaming failures in the "system" for his daughter's death.
On a recent day at Rayne Perrywinkle's home, her boyfriend and the father of her two youngest children, Aharon Pearson, walked outside and asked a reporter, "Do you have the number for Child Protective Services?" He initially thought the state's child welfare agency had taken their children, but later explained he misunderstood Perrywinkle and that the children had been taken only for an interview.
Pearson said things had been hectic because of the need to plan Cherish's funeral. He said his girlfriend wasn't doing well and could not talk at the green home, where three faded, plastic children's tricycles were lined up on the porch.
"She won't eat," he said. "She hasn't eaten for four days."
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