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St. Louis Area Girl Found Dead After Disappearing From Home

July 27, 2002|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — The body of a 6-year-old girl was found Friday afternoon, several hours after she vanished from her father's home in a St. Louis suburb, police said. A transient who had spent Thursday night on the father's sofa was arrested in connection with what appeared to be the murder of Cassandra Williamson.

The first-grader, who went by the nickname Casey, disappeared from the kitchen of the home in Valley Park shortly after 7:30 a.m., police said. Her father, Ernie Williamson, said he was just about to pour his daughter a bowl of cereal when he left the kitchen to go to the bathroom.

When he returned, the girl was gone, he told police.

Casey's disappearance drew national attention Friday because of several recent child abductions. Missouri authorities immediately took the case seriously.

Before noon, local police, St. Louis County deputy sheriffs, FBI agents as well as residents of the town of 6,500 were combing parks and waterways and knocking on doors in the town. Helicopters and bloodhounds were also used in the search.

In the early afternoon, police discovered Casey's tiny white nightgown with red flowers. A short time later, police found an unclothed body believed to be Casey's in an abandoned glass factory a few blocks from the home after they were directed there by the transient.

And Friday night, Casey's parents identified the girl's body. The parents, hugging and crying, were driven away behind the coroner's van carrying the body.

St. Louis County Police Chief Ron Battelle did not describe the condition of the body but said an autopsy was planned to determine the cause of death.

Authorities arrested Johnny Johnson, 24; no charges have been filed.

Ernie Williamson and Casey's mother, Angela Williamson, had separated, according to police, with the mother taking up residence at a home nearby, along with the couple's four children, as she and her husband tried to reconcile. However, the entire family occasionally spent the night at the father's house. That, police say, is what happened Thursday night.

Casey Williamson spent the night in the same room as her father, police said. Johnson slept on a couch in the living room. It is unclear how the red-haired, boyish-looking Johnson knew Ernie Williamson or his roommate.

"She never walks off without telling me she's going somewhere," Angela Williamson said before the body was found. "She doesn't even go to her friend's house without telling me she was going. I just want my baby."

Early in the day, police began questioning Johnson.

When Ernie Williamson returned from the bathroom to find his daughter missing, police say, he also noticed that Johnson was gone. Half an hour later, Johnson returned to the home, wet and muddy. He had been swimming in the nearby Meramec River, he allegedly said.

Johnson, police say, has been cooperating in the investigation.

Friday's was the latest in a series of high-profile kidnappings of young girls from their homes in recent months.

In San Diego, 50-year-old David Westerfield is on trial, accused of kidnapping 7-year-old Danielle van Dam from her bed on Feb. 2. The girl's decomposed body was found three weeks later near the side of a road.

On June 5, Elizabeth Ann Smart, 14, was taken from her bedroom in her family's Salt Lake City home. Elizabeth is still missing and no one has been arrested in connection with her disappearance. Richard Ricci, 48, a handyman who once worked for the Smart family and who was charged with stealing jewelry and a perfume bottle from the home, is among several people police say they are looking at, but he has not been named a suspect.

Five weeks later, on July 15, 5-year-old Samantha Runnion was snatched near her home in Orange County by a man who said he was searching for a lost puppy. A person using a hang glider found her body the next day in the Cleveland National Forest.

It had been placed in the open and positioned, police say, as if to taunt officials.

Alejandro Avila, 27, of Lake Elsinore, was arrested a week later and charged with sexually assaulting and killing Runnion.

And on Tuesday, 7-year-old Erica Pratt was abducted from the yard of her grandmother's South Philadelphia home by two men who later demanded a $150,000 ransom. Pratt's is the only case thus far to have ended well, when she escaped from the North Philadelphia house where she was being held.

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