Despite no body, child killers can be convicted

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By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- From missing child to murder victim. When Jhessye Shockley disappeared, it seemed the entire community hit the streets searching for her. Eleven months later, there is still no sign of the 5-year-old. Despite no body being found, her mother is facing first-degree murder.

Glendale police Chief Debora Black recently held a news conference explaining, "Despite exhaustive efforts of 280 officers from 13 agencies searching through 9,500 tons of trash, we did not find Jhessye."

Even without her body, Glendale police, the FBI and the county attorney joined together to announce the disappearance of Jhessye is officially a murder investigation. The prime suspect, Jhessye's mother, 38-year-old Jerice Hunter.

When asked shortly after her daughter's disappearance if she had anything to do with it, she responded, "Do I look like I hurt my daughter? Do I look like I hurt my daughter? That's enough. Would you hurt your daughter?"

Hunter has been very vocal since Jhessye disappeared in October 2011, vehemently denying any involvement.

According to County Attorney Bill Montgomery, "My office has successfully prosecuted homicide cases over the last couple of years where the victim's body was never found."  

Hunter is now facing first-degree murder and child abuse charges -- charges Montgomery believes are fitting considering the evidence gathered during the nearly yearlong investigation.

"It is my firm belief that with the investigation done to this point, that we've secured the appropriate charges," he said.

Other missing persons detectives in the Valley will be closely watching this case.

"So we're looking for strategies we can use in our cases, what those investigators did we hope we can apply in our cases," Detective Stuart Somershoe said.

When children disappear and the body hasn't been recovered, detectives focus on those who knew the child because, "a person who kills somebody who then conceals the body has a reason because they think that body is going to be connected back to them," Somershoe said.

It's how other no-body cases in Arizona have been successfully prosecuted. For example, 4-year-old Tyler Payne, 5-year-old Shemaeah Gunnell and 13-year-old Bradley Hanson.

In all three cases, the killers were convicted even though the children's bodies were never recovered.

As Somershoe points out, "Just because a body has been taken away, it's just a piece of evidence in a case, it's not the end-all of the case."

But getting the county attorney to take on no-body homicide cases isn't always easy, especially since Somershoe believes killers who conceal bodies are considered among the smartest criminals.

"It's kind of like the difference between a smash-and-grab burglar and a jewel thief," he said. "They're doing a lot more to anticipate how you're going to catch them."

Regardless of how Jhessye's case turns out, Somershoe said there is a lesson to be learned.

"You can't just let someone get away just because they've been able to dispose of a body and clean up the scene," he said. "They have to answer for this."

As far as recovering little Jhessye, Glendale police contend that will never happen.

"We believe that Jhessye is at her final resting place at the Butterfield Station landfill," Black said.