MOBILE, Ariz. -- Nearly four months after a Glendale 5-year-old was reported missing, a special team started searching a Mobile landfill for her body.
The Glendale Police Department has spent the past few weeks putting together the operation to search a section of the Butterfield Station Landfill for the body of Jhessye Shockley.
The search officially got under way Monday. It was the first of many difficult days to come. Landfill searches are massive operations; the work is painstaking and tedious.
“It is monumental," said Sgt. Brent Coombs of the Glendale Police Department. "It's a physically and mentally draining task."
Investigators officially announced their intention to launch the landfill search on Jan. 10, nearly three months to the day after Jhessye was reported missing.
The girl's mother, Jerice Hunter, said she left Jhessye with her older siblings while she went to run some errands. Hunter said her little daughter was gone when she returned.
Since that report on Oct. 11, the little girl has been the center of a massive search.
According Coombs, detectives developed information that the girl had been killed and her body dumped in a Tempe trash bin prior to the first report that she had vanished. Trash from that Tempe location is taken to the WMI Butterfield Station Landfill in Mobile, which is about an hour southwest of Phoenix.
Officers arrested Hunter on Nov. 21, but later released her when the County Attorney's Office decided it needed more evidence to move forward with any potential prosecution. She has not been charged in connection with the case, but Glendale detectives say she is the focus of their investigation.
Court documents released the day after Hunter's arrest detailed a litany of accusations, including allegations by Jhessye's teenage sister that Hunter locked the little girl in a closet. The teen also said Hunter told her and her siblings to lie to the police about Jhessye being missing.
Hunter, who was released on parole in May 2010 after serving prison time in California for child abuse, has maintained her innocence.
Hunter's lawyer insists police have nothing linking her to Jhessye's disappearance and presumed death.
"They have to have evidence," Scottsdale criminal defense attorney Scott Maasen said a couple of days after police released his client from jail. "If they had evidence she has anything to do with a murder, she would be arrested and in jail right now, today."
While police believe they will find Jhessye's body in the landfill, they have not released any information about what led them there. They also have not said exactly when they believe the little girl was killed.
According to Coombs, there will be more than 40 people on site at the Butterfield Station Landfill every day of the search. Sworn officers, detectives, FBI agents and members of the Child Abduction Response Team (CART) will be involved.
Coombs said analysis and research have led investigators to narrow down the search grid to a specific area that's about 180 feet by 200 feet. This area is more than 20 feet deep and contains about 6,000 tons of trash. According to Coombs, that's the equivalent of one day's waste.
Before the operation got under way, Coombs explained how teams will sift through every bit of trash in the designated search area.
"That means ripping every single bag open, going through everything" he explained.
The search carries some inherent risk to the officers who make up the team.
“They could be punctured or suffer a laceration,” Coombs explained. “They're wearing an inner layer glove and outer layer puncture-resistant glove.”
Each member of the two 12-man search teams wears a haz-mat suit and mask while working.
While not on site with the crews, a forensic pathologist is on call in case officers come across something they can't immediately identify.
The landfill search is a major operation and could take as long as six weeks.
"As long as it takes for us to get through every last bit of that trash in that area is as long as we will be out there,” Coombs said. "It's extremely important to investigators to find those remains because no 5-year old-should be left in a landfill."