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Arizona landfill search for girl, 5, to end in June

PHOENIX – The methodical search of an Arizona landfill for the body of a
5-year-old girl missing for about eight months and now believed to be dead is
expected to finish by the end of June, police said Thursday.

More than 180 volunteer police personnel have sifted through 75 percent of a
36,000-square-foot area of the Butterfield Landfill in Mobile, south of the
Phoenix area, Glendale police Officer Tracey Breeden told The Associated Press.

The search for 5-year-old Jhessye Shockley’s body began Feb. 6 as dozens of
officers donned protective gear, masks, and boots and used rake-like tools to
sift through about 6,000 tons of trash.

Breeden said that the only items the search has turned up are documents from
the date police believe Jhessye’s body was dumped in a garbage bin in Tempe,
which means police know they’re looking in the right spot.

She said searchers likely will be finished by the end of June but that there
was no set end date to the search.

As the search turned from weeks to months, police have moved up their hours to
begin at 6 a.m. and end at noon to avoid peak daytime highs in the triple
digits.

“You’re out there in a pile of compacted trash, so it takes a very long
time,” Breeden said. “Every inch of it has to be gone through. It’s a landfill
so it smells, and it’s very physically intensive in the heat. It takes its
toll.”

Glendale police believe Jhessye’s body was dumped in Tempe a few days before
her mother, Jerice Hunter, reported the girl missing on Oct. 11.

An exhaustive search of her neighborhood began immediately, but police found no
sign of Jhessye or any evidence indicating what might have happened to her.

In the weeks that followed, information about Hunter’s past abuse of her
children came to light and the investigation turned to her, with police calling
her the “No. 1 focus.”

Hunter’s attorney, Scott Maasen, said Thursday that she is innocent and
criticized the police investigation.

“They have certainly spent a long time and a lot of taxpayer money on the
search,” he said. “And the public at large and myself haven’t seen one shred
of evidence that connects Jerice Hunter to the disappearance of her daughter,
period.”

Police arrested Hunter in November on suspicion of child abuse related to
Jhessye. They released her from jail a day later and dropped the charge against
her after prosecutors said they wanted to investigate further and were worried
that Hunter would not be eligible for a potential murder charge if she was
convicted of abusing Shockley, a situation known as double jeopardy.

Police have been hoping that finding Jhessye’s body would be the key piece of
evidence to strengthen their case.

Hunter’s 13-year-old daughter, who had been removed from Hunter’s home with her
other siblings Oct. 12, told police that a few days before her mother reported
Jhessye missing, she saw Hunter cleaning a closet where she kept Jhessye.

The teen also told police that Hunter deprived Jhessye of food and water while
keeping her in the closet, and that she saw the girl with black eyes, bruises
and cuts to her face and body. When she last saw Jhessye, the teen said that the
girl’s hair had been pulled out, that she didn’t look alive, and that the closet
where she was kept “looked like a grave and smelled like dead people.”

Maasen said that Hunter’s children have told police varying stories, making
their statements unreliable.

He also questioned why it took police four months to begin searching the
landfill, saying they must not have been sure she was there.

Police have said that they needed to properly prepare for the search, which
includes teams for hazardous materials and heavy equipment, and paramedics.

Hunter has declined to submit to a lie-detector test by police but has told
reporters that she had nothing to do with her daughter’s disappearance. She also
has been critical of investigators, who she said wrongly focused on her instead
of looking for Jhessye.

Maasen said he has advised Hunter not to submit to a lie-detector test because
he wants the police to share more information about their investigation with him
and because they “are pointing the finger” at her.

In October 2005, Hunter was arrested with her then-husband, George Shockley, on
child abuse charges in California. Hunter pleaded no contest to corporal
punishment and served about four years in prison before she was released on
parole in May 2010.

Shockley is a convicted sex offender and is still in a California prison.

Hunter’s oldest child, 14 at the time, told police that his mother routinely
beat the children. Hunter’s mother, Shirley Johnson, has said that her daughter
changed after prison and became a loving mother.

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Follow Amanda Lee Myers on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AmandaLeeAP