A week after Mariah Woods’s mother said the 3-year-old vanished in the middle of the night, divers found what they believe is the girl’s tiny body in a creek 20 miles from the family’s home.
The discovery was a grim but not unexpected turn in what is now a homicide case. On Saturday, investigators told reporters that they didn’t expect to find the girl alive.
Police and the FBI are waiting for the medical examiner to confirm the body’s identity and have not said what led them to search that area, nearly 40 miles north of the eastern North Carolina city of Wilmington.
“I’m very sad to report to you that we have recovered what we believe are the remains of little Mariah Woods.” Onslow County Sheriff Hans Miller told reporters, according to Wilmington NBC affiliate WECT. “We have made appropriate notifications to the family.”
The recovery comes a day after Kristy Woods’s live-in boyfriend was arrested in connection with Maria’s disappearance. Authorities announced the arrest Saturday morning, at the same time that they said Mariah is probably dead.
Earl Kimrey, 32, is in jail charged with concealing a death, obstruction of justice, second-degree burglary, felony larceny and possession of stolen property.
He was being held in the Onslow County Detention Center with bail set at $1,010,000. Authorities haven’t said what led investigators to identify Kimrey as a suspect, but other charges could be coming.
According to search warrants obtained by the Jacksonville Daily News, Kimrey is accused of “removing Mariah Woods body from the scene of her death, and did conceal Mariah Woods death and body.”
The warrant says that Mariah died of “unnatural causes” and that Kimrey “acted with deceit and intent to defraud,” but it doesn’t provide details about how Mariah died.
Mariah’s disappearance prompted a days-long, widespread search, with law enforcement, the military and volunteers from the community looking for the child after her mother’s plea for her safe return.
“Please, bring her back,” Kristy Woods told CBS affiliate WNCT. “I love her. I’ll do anything that I can, whatever you want. Please just bring her back safe and sound — she’s my baby; she’s my everything.”
Woods said she would give “everything in the world” to have her daughter back, “just to be able to touch her and hold her and not let her go again.”
The Onslow County Sheriff’s Office released surveillance photos early Wednesday showing a woman with a child at a Walmart in Morehead City on Monday morning and asking the public to help determine whether the child may be Mariah. WCTI later reported that a woman in Newport said the photos show her and her own daughter — not the missing girl.
The woman, Jetta Long, told the news station Wednesday morning that she was frustrated that the surveillance photos “may have gotten the hopes of the family up.”
As the search for Mariah intensified, questions swirled about the mother’s account.
The girl was shy and had an orthopedic leg problem, her grandmother said during the search, according to CBS News. She wore braces on her leg and wobbled when she walked. It was unlikely that she would simply wander off, family members said, and that if she did, she wouldn’t get far.
“She’s a sweet child, but she’s shy with strangers. So, she wouldn’t just go with a stranger,” the grandmother said, according to the news station.
Moreover, there were no signs of a struggle or forced entry in Mariah’s bedroom.
Alex Woods, Mariah’s biological father, told WCTI that he had suspicions about the story of her disappearance. “Someone just walked right up in there, grabbed the 3-year-old out of the bed, and she didn’t cry; she didn’t scream?” he said. “Nobody heard anything? Four people in the house, two adults and two kids, someone just comes up and snatches the baby and walks out?”