Thursday, July 27, 2006
Missing girl found alive; two arrested
By SUE WATSON
While a 6-year-old Marshall County girl held on to life following her weekend disappearance, two suspects in the case made initial appearances before Justice Court Judge Ernest Cunningham Monday.
A massive 18-hour investigation and search for Morgan Shaw in the Laws Hill area that began early Saturday morning ended when Sheriff Kenny Dickerson and other law officers were taken by one of the suspects to where she was dumped and left for dead with a gunshot wound, Dickerson said.
She was found lying face-up in tall weeds behind a dirty shed and run-down house on a dusty gravel road about 2:30 a.m. Sunday morning, according to Dickerson.
Michael Wallace Pruitt, 28, of 323 Leewood Road in the Red Banks area, faces charges of kidnapping, aggravated assault and sexual battery, the sheriff said. Pruitt pleaded not guilty in an initial appearance Monday after assistant district attorney Lani Hill filed a motion to hold Pruitt without bond on grounds he is dangerous to the victim and to the community. Circuit Court Judge Andy Howorth signed an order to hold a bond hearing for Pruitt Thursday, July 29, at 9 a.m. in Oxford.
Also charged with accessory-after-the-fact of the criminal charges against Pruitt in the case is Jason Eugene Reaves, 26, of 591 Deer Creek Road, Dickerson said.
Dickerson recommended bond for Reaves be set at $100,000.
Dickerson said a large turnout of community support brought forth information helpful in the investigation. Hundreds of trained search and rescue volunteers and officials with numerous law enforcement teams helped develop a suspect in the case late Saturday, leading to the location of the child. He acknowledged to media crews Monday that, at one point, he feared the girl was dead.
Dickerson offered the following summary of the investigation as it developed up until the finding of the child.
Search and rescue
“During the early morning hours around 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. Saturday, to the best we can determine, Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Shaw Jr. of the Laws Hill area of Marshall County discovered Morgan was missing from the house,” he said. “The child had earlier been sleeping in the bed with her parents and was discovered missing from the bed and house by her mother who had gotten up around 4 a.m. in preparation to go to work.”
An immediate and thorough search of all areas in the house and yard area outside the house by the parents revealed no presence of the missing child.
“The child was of normal and good behavior and well above average intelligence and had no history of routine disappearance according to her parents,” Dickerson said.
“This prompted law enforcement to authorize an immediate search conducted by the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office and hundreds of volunteers in hours following her disappearance, all to no avail.”
A command post was set up on Highway 310 in a field across the road from the entrance to the Shaw’s driveway.
Early investigations indicated that the child was often kept by a babysitter in the Laws Hill community, and the babysitter on Saturday was out of town.
“We learned from witnesses that Pruitt had probably gained a high degree of trust with the child from his prior relationship with the babysitter,” Dickerson said.
Law enforcement reached Pruitt, an acquaintance of the babysitter, by phone and requested numerous times that he come to the scene for questioning, Dickerson said.
A concerned citizen, who Dickerson believed highly credible, provided the sheriff with a statement that Pruitt allegedly had made to the effect that something was going to happen that would rock or upset the world of the Laws Hill community, Dickerson said.
“I believed the person who gave me this information to be highly credible and that the information he gave me was credible,” Dickerson said.
He dispatched officers to locate Pruitt and bring him to the command post after the suspect refused several requests by law enforcement by telephone to come to the post.
“I also received information from two other highly credible persons in the Laws Hill community that a gray Ford pickup witnesses believed to belong to Pruitt was spotted in the Laws Hill community during the early morning hours consistent with the time of the disappearance of the child,” Dickerson said.
Pruitt’s alibi doubted
Dickerson said, in his opinion, Pruitt was on drugs or alcohol when officers brought the suspect to the command post and adamantly denied being present in the Laws Hill community in the early morning hours Saturday.
“Pruitt stated he had been to a local beer joint in Marshall County and from there had spent the rest of the night with Reaves, who resides on Deer Creek Road in Marshall County,” Dickerson said.
Realizing the immediate need to quickly access the phone records of Pruitt, at the request of Sheriff Dickerson assistant U.S. attorney Jimmy Warren and another assistant U.S. attorney began the task of tracing the phone calls from Pruitt’s cell phone and determined at least four of five calls made from the suspect’s phone during early hours of the child’s disappearance went through the Sardis relay tower in Panola County.
Dickerson said the cell phone call record, tower of call relay and other information law enforcement had already received caused him to doubt Pruitt’s account he was not in the area during the hours that the child was discovered missing.
Calls made on Pruitt’s cell phone that hit the Sardis relay tower caused investigators to disbelieve Pruitt’s alibi that he was elsewhere than in the area south of Holly Springs.
“Without question he had to have been in the immediate area for his cell phone to hit the Sardis tower,” Dickerson said. “There’s no way he could have been hitting the Sardis tower if he had been at Deer Creek Road.
Calls made from Pruitt’s cell phone would indicate he was in the Laws Hill area or somewhere south of Holly Springs from about 6:30 a.m to 7 a.m., Dickerson said.
“This disrupted his alibi of where he was,” the sheriff said.
Also, no signs of struggle were found inside or outside the Shaw home.
“The chance the child got out and walked off was highly unlikely,” Dickerson said. “My instincts told me at this point that the child probably left the home with someone she knew and trusted.
“Without question, having this cell phone information greatly enhanced our positive efforts in the investigation.”
Dickerson said his “internal feeling” was the child probably did not simply wander away by herself.
All the aerial searches and grid searches in and around the house produced no clues to where the child was. As darkness approached Dickerson said he became “very fearful that something bad had possibly happened to the child.”
Locating the child
In the wee hours Sunday, Dickerson and other officers assisting with the investigation were 99 percent sure that Pruitt had, in fact, taken the child and possibly put her in harm’s way, he said.
A final interview with Pruitt that finished up around 2 a.m. Sunday morning ended with Pruitt agreeing to accompany the sheriff in his car and to direct law officers to a location on Dogwood Road - an abandoned house surrounded by dense and high weeds.
“It was at this location to the back of the house that officers and myself found the 6-year-old child lying face up and having what appeared to me and others a gunshot wound to the head,” Dickerson said.
“When we approached the child we saw signs of life. I touched her head, put my hand on her left wrist and and determined she did, in fact, have a heartbeat,” he said. “She whispered.”
Emergency medical help was summoned immediately, they responded quickly and did what they could do until Air Wings arrived and airlifted the child to LeBonheur where she later had surgery.
Dickerson said the child was listed in critical condition with brain swelling Monday but was responsive.
After the child was airlifted, Pruitt led Dickerson and other officers to a separate location where a double-barrel, .32 caliber derringer was located.
“I highly believe that was the weapon that fired the projectile that entered the child’s head,” Dickerson said.
For numerous hours during the day Saturday, Reaves continued to support Pruitt’s alibi that he spent the remainder of the night following a visit to a local tavern at Reaves home and was in fact there during the time-frame of Morgan’s disappearance, Dickerson said.
“The support of Pruitt’s alibi greatly frustrated and hindered the cause of justice in the investigation of this very serious case at hand,” the sheriff said. “Much later in the day Saturday, Reaves did admit that he had lied for his friend Pruitt and that Pruitt did not arrive at his home until approximately 8 a.m. Saturday morning.”
After Morgan was located and well on her way to the hospital, Reaves met with Dickerson and other law officers and agreed to a search of his mobile home on Deer Creek Road in an effort to locate a handgun believed to have been used in the aggravated assault of Morgan Shaw, the sheriff said.
“Reaves accompanied us inside the mobile home and at this point told us he had in hours earlier moved the handgun to another location in the Victoria area,” Dickerson said. “He later accompanied us to a location where the weapon was found inside the toolbox on the fender of an older model tractor parked outside his father’s residence.”
Reaves was arrested coincidentally with the recovery of the weapon believed to have been used in the shooting, Dickerson said.
In answering questions from television news reporters Monday, Dickerson said investigators believe Pruitt drove up to the Shaw home about 3:30 a.m. Saturday morning.
“The best we can determine, she went out with him to the truck,” he said.
Dickerson described the event as “just a terrible weekend, very disturbing and very emotional but joyful in that the child is alive.”
Dickerson offered sincere thanks and appreciation to several hundred volunteers who signed up to help in the searches by ground and air.
Assisting Marshall County with search and rescue were teams and equipment from Lafayette, Benton, DeSoto, Shelby and Panola county sheriff’s departments, Mississippi Fisheries and Wildlife, Holly Springs Fire Department, and officers with the Olive Branch, Holly Springs, Memphis and Byhalia Police Departments, and Marshall County Emergency Management teams, and a search team from Parchman. Three airplanes and two helicopters providing aerial searches Saturday.
Assisting Marshall County Sheriff’s Department with the investigation were several county sheriffs and officers from Lafayette, Tippah, Panola, Shelby counties, officers with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Marshal’s office and Mississippi Highway Patrol, and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation from Harrison County, and planes and personnel from the Civil Air Patrol.
Newton County Rescue Response Team provided a communications trailer and Mississippi Fisheries and Wildlife helped block off and preserve crime scenes.
Sixty-five trained search and rescue personnel volunteered to help out at the mobile command post set up at Laws Hill.
There was abundant community support from individuals, churches and other organizations who brought water, food and ice and who prayed.
Major Randy Harper with the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department told television news crews the incident is “one of the worst things that’s happened in Marshall County in a long time.”
Deputy David Cook with the department described the weekend as “emotional taking a toll on everybody involved.
“It was a young child,” he said. “Everybody gave 110 percent. It was a collective effort.”
“Big time,” Harper added.
Fund set up to help victim
Anyone who wishes to donate to a fund to help defray the costs of medical care for the child will be able to do so at the main office or any branch of Merchants and Farmers Bank.
Sheriff Dickerson has agreed to hold a benefit fish fry in the near future for the Shaw family and Morgan Shaw.
(662) 252-4261 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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