Neighbours helpless as girl snatched

Last updated 18:53 21/02/2014
Hailey Owens
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COMMUNITY MOURNS: Hailey Owens was abducted and murdered just blocks from her home in Missouri.

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Neighbours watched in horror as a 10-year-old US girl was snatched off the street just blocks from her home.

Some had spotted a man in a gold Ford Ranger pick-up truck driving down the road in Springfield, southwest Missouri several times before the driver took off with the girl, investigators said.

Residents tried to pull the girl away and chase the truck. But the vehicle moved too quickly.

And Hailey Owens was gone.

Now prosecutors have charged Craig Michael Wood with first-degree murder, kidnapping and armed criminal action. In filing the charges they alleged the 45-year-old middle school football coach and teacher's aide abducted Hailey as she walked home from a friend's house on Tuesday.

A probable cause statement said the fourth-grader's body was found stuffed in two rubbish bags inside plastic storage containers in the basement of Wood's Springfield home. She had been shot in the head, according to Greene County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Patterson.

The basement floor was still damp from bleach, according to the probable cause statement.

Authorities would not officially confirm that the body was Hailey's until after an autopsy, but Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams said "we have a high degree of confidence" in the preliminary identification, which indicates that it was the girl.

According to the probable cause statement, resident Michelle Edwards told police she and her husband were in their garage when they saw a pick-up truck approach the girl, who was holding a mobile phone.

She said the driver asked the girl for directions before he grabbed her with one hand and threw her into the truck "like a rag doll".

Another resident, Ricky Riggins, told the Springfield News-Leader that he chased the fleeing pick-up in his car after a neighbour tried to pull the girl away.

"I couldn't keep up," Mr Riggins said. "He was probably five to six cars ahead of me ... It was so fast."

Mr Wood was inside a truck parked outside his home when police arrested him on Tuesday night. The probable cause statement said he was holding a roll of duct tape when officers arrived.

The truck is registered to Mr Wood's father, Jim Wood, who told police he loaned the vehicle to his son.

Mr Wood and the girl apparently did not know each other. Hailey attended Westport Elementary School. Wood worked at Pleasant View School.

"There's no connection that we've been able to determine at this time between the victim and the suspect," Chief Williams said.

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Springfield school officials said Mr Wood is a seventh-grade football coach and teacher's aide who supervises in-school suspensions at Pleasant View, which has students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Norm Ridder, the Springfield district's superintendent, said in a statement that Mr Wood began working for the district in August 1998. He said Mr Wood has been suspended since his arrest.

Mr Wood was initially hired as a temporary employee who worked as a substitute teacher before he was hired full-time in 2006, school district spokeswoman Teresa Bledsoe said. He has coached football at Pleasant View since 1998 and was also an assistant boys' basketball coach.

"He met all of our qualifications for employment," Ms Bledsoe said, noting that the Springfield district has a more rigorous background check requirement than state law, with an additional screening designed to detect substantiated allegations of child abuse or neglect as well as any past criminal violations.

Online court records show Mr Wood had little criminal history. He pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance in 1990 in Greene County and was fined $100. Mr Wood also was convicted in 2001 for illegal taking of wildlife, a misdemeanour.

Chief Williams said police have no idea of a motive for the killing. He said Mr Wood has not talked to investigators since his arrest. Mr Wood's first court appearance will be on Friday. Online court records do not list an attorney for Mr Wood, who is being held in the Greene County Jail without bond.

Joe Bridges, a local music promoter who was organising a candlelight vigil for Hailey scheduled for Saturday, said residents in the city of 162,000 are collectively mourning the child's abduction and death.

"The community is walking around right now with a very heavy heart," said Mr Bridges, who described himself as a distant relative of Hailey but said he did not know her well. "Everybody is just speechless."

- AP

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