Police discover body believed to be missing girl

Saturday, July 27, 2002

VALLEY PARK, Mo. -- A body believed to be that of a 6-year-old girl who vanished Friday morning was found in an abandoned glass factory in the afternoon, and police arrested a man who spent the night at her father's home where she was staying.

St. Louis County Police Chief Ron Battelle said Johnny Johnson, 24, was arrested in connection with the killing. The chief described Johnson as "a local transient." He would not say if Johnson confessed, but said he was cooperating with police.

His voice breaking, Battelle said the body has not been positively identified, "but we feel certain it is her."

Battelle said it appeared Johnson is the only person involved in the crime.

The body was found late Friday afternoon after a door-to-door search in the neighborhood around Cassandra's home, the nearby Meramec River and wooded areas near the town, about 20 miles southwest of St. Louis.

Johnson had spent the night at a home shared by Cassandra's father, Ernie Williamson, and a roommate. Ernie Williamson said he had only known Johnson for a few days.

Ernie Williamson and Cassandra's mother, Angela Williamson, had separated but still spent some nights together at the home. Last night, the entire family was at the home -- Ernie and Angela Williamson, Cassandra, her two sisters and her brother.

Police using helicopters, bloodhounds, boats -- along with volunteers -- searched throughout the day for Cassandra, who was reported missing at around 7:30 a.m. The search was called off about 4 p.m. after the body was found.

Asked for breakfast

Ernie Williamson told police that when he got up in the morning, Johnson was asleep on the couch and Cassanda was asking for breakfast. Williamson was about to pour his daughter a bowl of cereal and left the room briefly to go the bathroom. When he returned, his daughter, dressed in a white nightgown and barefoot, was gone. So was Johnson.

"The guy was sleeping on the couch," Williamson said while the search was in progress. "I don't know nothin' about him. He wasn't there when I got out of the bathroom."

About a half-hour later, Williamson said, Johnson returned to the house, wet and muddy, and said he had been swimming in the nearby Meramec River. Police began questioning him soon after he returned.

Jim Wideman, Cassandra's grandfather, said he was there when Johnson returned.

"I saw the look in his eye when he walked down the street," Wideman said. "He looked guilty, like he had just done something brutal. I just had a feeling about it."

Police felt almost immediately Cassandra had been abducted -- she had a history of staying close to home and keeping her parents informed of where she was going, officer Rick Eckhard said.

Johnson told police where Cassandra could be found, Battelle said, and a group of volunteers who were searching got to the glass factory at about the same time investigators did.

Battelle said an autopsy was planned to determine the cause of death for the girl known as Casey to family and friends. He did not describe the condition in which the body was found. Formal charges against Johnson had not yet been filed.

After learning the body had been found, relatives and neighbors stood in the yard at Angela Williamson's father's home in the same neighborhood where the abduction occurred, hugging and crying. A child's scooter sat in the front yard, along with a stroller. Angela had three siblings, Chelsea, 11, Elizabeth, 4, and Ernie Jr., 2.

Bad company

Battelle said the case was a sad reminder about the company people keep.

"You need to know somebody and what they're about if they're going to stay with you," Battelle said.

Several cases of child abductions involving young girls have been in the news in recent weeks.

On Tuesday, police said a kidnapped 7-year-old girl, Erica Pratt, escaped from an abandoned rowhouse in Philadelphia. Also this week, a man was charged with kidnapping and killing 5-year-old Samantha Runnion of Stanton, Calif.

It also follows the high-profile kidnappings of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart in Salt Lake City and of two San Diego children, 7-year-old Danielle van Dam and 2-year-old Jahi Turner. Elizabeth and Jahi remain missing; Danielle was slain.

Cassandra had just finished kindergarten and would have been a first-grader in the fall. Valley Park School District spokeswoman Barbara Roux said the girl was the centerpiece of a post-Sept. 11 remembrance ceremony at school.

She was chosen as the kindergartner representing a new generation.

Dressed in a red T-shirt with "I Love USA" printed on its front, Cassandra launched a handful of helium-filled balloons with messages from students tied to them.

"She was thrilled. She just wanted to do it perfectly," Roux said. "She kept asking, 'Am I standing right?' She just wanted it to be perfect, and she was perfect."

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