UPDATE: Mo. coach charged in girl's death heads to court

2014-02-21T04:30:00Z 2014-02-21T05:31:17Z UPDATE: Mo. coach charged in girl's death heads to courtThe Associated Press The Associated Press
February 21, 2014 4:30 am  • 

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) — A middle-school football coach accused of kidnapping and killing a 10-year-old girl is scheduled to make his first court appearance on Friday, as her southwest Missouri community struggles with a mix of anger and memories of a vivacious, trusting little girl.

Craig Michael Wood, 45, is accused of snatching Hailey Owens as she walked home from her best friend's house Tuesday evening in Springfield. Neighbors said they watched in horror as Hailey, just two blocks from her home, was pulled into a pickup truck that quickly sped away.

Her body, with a gunshot wound to the head, was found in Wood's basement. Wood is charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping and armed criminal action.

Community members were trying Thursday to make sense of the brutal crime, their memories of the bubbly fourth grader now mixed with shock and anger. Family and friends were remembering Hailey for her cheery disposition, a child who loved to laugh, smile and dance.

"She was pure gold," said her aunt, Sara Wells.

Gary Tew, principal at Westport Elementary School, said Hailey was a "happy-go-lucky kiddo" who made sure new students felt welcome and belonged to an afterschool club that taught character lessons through a local church. He said he last saw her on Valentine's Day, recalling her enthusiastic dancing at a class party.

Thousands are expected to attend a candlelight vigil in her honor Saturday night.

Public anger is palpable in Springfield, about 160 miles southeast of Kansas City, as questions swirled about the suspect's background and motive. Wood was a 16-year football coach at a middle school who also worked as a substitute teacher and teacher's aide overseeing suspensions.

Police said they found Wood holding duct tape as he left his father's pickup truck parked outside his home Tuesday night, just hours after Hailey went missing. Court records indicate the girl's body was found stuffed in two trash bags inside plastic storage containers in the basement of Wood's home, which was damp with bleach — presumably used to clean the crime scene.

"I'm furious," said Jerry Tiffany, a retired construction worker who stood outside the Greene County courthouse on Thursday holding a handmade sign that read, "Child killer. Hang 'em."

"I've been up all night, with tears in my eyes," he said. "Kids can't even go out and play anymore."

At least three people told police they saw Hailey as she was pulled inside a pickup truck that had driven back and forth several times down the street before the driver stopped to ask the girl for directions. One homeowner gave chase on foot, and another followed the fleeing truck in his own car.

Law enforcement officials and family members said that despite Wood's status as a school employee, he and Hailey apparently didn't know each other. Hailey's home and Westport Elementary are on the city's west side, while Wood worked at Pleasant View School, which is 12 miles away north of Springfield, and lived on the city's east side.

Springfield School District officials have said their employment screening process found no warning signs when hiring Wood, first as a temporary employee in 1998 and then full time eight years later.

EARLIER STORY

Thursday: Neighbors unable to stop Missouri girl's abduction

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Neighbors watched in horror as a 10-year-old southwest Missouri girl was snatched off the street just blocks from her home.

Some had spotted a man in a gold Ford Ranger pickup truck driving down the road in Springfield several times before taking off with the girl, investigators said. The residents even called 911 to report the truck's license number.

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 Wednesday, they alleged that the 45-year-old middle school football coach and teacher's aide abducted Hailey as she walked home from a friend's house Tuesday.

A probable cause statement said the fourth-grader's body was found stuffed in two trash 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 won't officially confirm that the body is Hailey's until after an autopsy, but Springfield Police Paul Williams said "we have a high degree of confidence" in the preliminary identification, which indicates that it is the girl.

According to the probable cause statement, resident Michelle Edwards told police she and her husband were in their garage when saw a pickup truck approach the girl, who was holding a cellphone. 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 pickup in his car after a neighbor tried to pull the girl away.

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

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

The truck is registered to Wood's father, Jim Wood, who told police he loaned the vehicle to his son. The father, who lives in nearby Ash Grove, declined an interview request from The Associated Press.

He and the girl apparently didn't 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," Williams said.

Springfield school officials said 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 Wednesday that Wood began working for the district in August 1998. He said Wood has been suspended since his arrest.

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 later Wednesday. 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," 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 Wood had little criminal history. He pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance in 1990 in Greene County and was fined $100. Wood also was convicted in 2001 for illegal taking of wildlife, a misdemeanor.

Williams said police have no idea of a motive for the killing. He said Wood has not talked to investigators since his arrest.

Joe Bridges, a local music promoter who organized a candlelight vigil for Hailey scheduled for Saturday, told The Associated Press that 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 Bridges, who described himself as a distant relative of Hailey but said he didn't know her well. "Everybody is just speechless."

EARLIER STORY

ST. LOUIS (AP) — A grade school coach has been jailed on suspicion of first-degree murder in the abduction and death of a 10-year-old girl in southwest Missouri, police said Wednesday.

A body believed to be that of Hailey Owens was found Wednesday at a Springfield home owned by the suspect, Police Chief Paul Williams said at a news conference. Official confirmation won't occur until after an autopsy, but the chief said police "have a high degree of confidence" in the preliminary identification.

Police say Craig Michael Wood, 45, is jailed on suspicion of first-degree murder but formal charges have not been filed. The Greene County prosecutor is reviewing the case.

Hailey was walking to a friend's home in Springfield just before 5 p.m. Tuesday. Witnesses told investigators that a man in a gold, 2008 Ford Ranger drove down the street several times before abducting the child.

Wood was arrested late Tuesday inside a vehicle parked outside his small single-story home.

The Springfield School District said Wood is a coach and teacher's aide who supervises in-school suspensions at a school for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Hailey did not attend that school, and Williams said the two apparently didn't know each other.

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

Williams said police have no idea of a motive for the killing. He said the suspect has not talked to investigators since his arrest.

The suspect's father, Jim Wood of Ash Grove, Mo., told The Associated Press that the girl's disappearance was "a tragedy" but declined further comment.

About 30 Springfield police investigators along with an FBI evidence response team searched the area near Wood's home Wednesday morning, as well as a nearby coin-operated laundry.

A records search shows Wood had little criminal history. He pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance in 1990 in Greene County and was fined $100.

Springfield School District Superintendent Norm Ridder said in a statement Wednesday that Wood began working for the district in August 1998. He is a paraprofessional and coach at Pleasant View K-8 School. Ridder said Wood has been suspended since his arrest.

Hailey did not attend the school where Wood worked. She was a student at Westport Elementary School this year, and was at Bowerman Elementary School last year. Springfield, with 162,000 residents, is Missouri's third-largest city.

"Student and staff at three of our schools are coping with this situation," Ridder said. Additional counselors and police were on hand at all three schools.

___

Associated Press reporters Margaret Stafford in Kansas City, Mo., and Jim Suhr in St. Louis contributed to this report.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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