The search for 11-year-old Terry Smith ended tragically Wednesday when investigators found a buried body on the rural Menifee property where he lived with his family, leading to the arrest of a teenage family member in his killing.
About noon, investigators found a slight body believed to be Terry’s in a shallow, dirt-covered grave. The discovery put a stop to a desperate search for the boy that ended up covering a roughly 55-square-mile area near Lake Elsinore.
News that a body had been found was a crushing blow to a tight-knit community near Lake Elsinore and the roughly 1,000 searchers who had been looking for Terry since his disappearance was announced Sunday.
“He was a very good kid, very nice and sweet, never did anything wrong,” said a sorrowful Dallal Harb, the owner of the Menifee Market, a convenience store near the Smiths' property. Harb, 31, said Terry attended the same school as her two sons and she would sometimes pick him up after school and bring him to her store for a snack before sending him home.
Riverside Sheriff’s Capt. John Hill, who announced that the body had been found, would not give the name of the arrested teenager, saying only that he was a family member. “This was a domestic issue within the residence,” he said at a news conference. During the search, investigators said one of the last people to see Terry was a 16-year-old stepbrother who lived at the house. The boy’s name was never officially released.
Investigators found the buried body near a tree not far from the beige and brown home where Terry lived with his mother.
The small, sandy-blond boy was said to have last been seen wearing blue basketball shorts and was described by his mother as a “high-functioning” autistic. Starting Sunday, search crews fanned across the Menifee area, aided by bloodhounds, helicopters and horseback riders. There were fears that without his autism medication Terry could become overly sensitive and afraid of people yelling his name.
Aiding the search team — which included Riverside County Sheriff’s deputies and FBI agents — were scores of volunteers, many of them offering assistance after finding out about the case on a Facebook site. A lack of medication was only one of the worries for the boy. Each day since he was last seen in the rural, sparsely populated area surrounding his home, temperatures hovered near 100 degrees.
On Wednesday, hope for Terry turned to deep sadness. With word spreading among volunteers that a body had been found, dozens gathered in a circle, bowing their heads and prayed.
“We will find a way to remember him in our hearts,” said Jenny Smith, who taught Terry for part of the day when he was in fourth grade. Smith remembered her student as a little hyper, suffering from attention issues, but otherwise not too different from her other students.
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