As the small Missouri town of Senath prepares to say goodbye to Breeann Rodriguez, police are trying to determine what allegedly drove a neighbor to suffocate the 3-year-old girl.
Breeann's body was found in a remote floodway about eight miles from the family home in Senath, a town of 1,500 residents in far southeastern Missouri. Her funeral is scheduled for Saturday afternoon at the Senath Church of Christ.
A Missouri State Highway Patrol officer searching by boat found the body Tuesday on the bank of a wide drainage ditch, Julie Crowder of the Dunklin County Sheriff's Department said Wednesday.
"We are saddened to confirm our fears but glad we have been able to recover her for her parents," Sheriff Bob Holder said in a statement. He was out of the office and unavailable for comment Wednesday.
Breeann, who weighed about 30 pounds and wore her dark hair in pigtails, had been the subject of a frantic search since her parents reported her missing on Aug. 6. She was last seen riding her small pink bike with training wheels in front of the family home on Ode Johnson Street.
A week after her disappearance, a neighbor from the same street, Shawn Morgan, 43, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, armed criminal action and tampering with evidence. A probable cause statement said Morgan confessed to finding the girl standing on the ladder at the pool in his yard, grabbed her and took her inside the house, where he suffocated her with a white plastic trash bag.
Morgan told investigators he "felt like it took an hour for the girl to die," according to the statement.
What wasn't clear was why he allegedly did it. Crowder said Morgan did not disclose a motive.
"It's all a mystery," she said.
Morgan made a brief court appearance Tuesday but did not enter a plea. He is due back on court for arraignment on Aug. 30. He is jailed without bond and does not yet have an attorney. Phone messages left on his home phone were not returned.
Crowder said authorities are taking precautions to ensure Morgan's safety. "Put it this way: He went to court in a bulletproof vest," she said.
Neighbors who also live on Ode Johnson Street described Breeann as a quiet, happy girl, always outside tagging along with her brothers, always on her pink bike.
"I've seen her riding that bicycle up and down the street so many times," said Ronnie Newman, 66. "She would wave as she'd pass by. This street is always full of kids."
Newman said his own son went to high school with Morgan. He said Morgan is married with three children ranging in age from about 8 to about 14. He works at a factory in Paragould, Ark., Newman said.
Neighbors described Morgan as quiet but not standoffish. Estelle Floyd, 90, said he comes from a good family and she was not aware of Morgan being in trouble before.
Newman said FBI agents and police knocked on doors throughout the neighborhood at around 2 a.m. Aug. 7, the day after Breeann went missing, then searched the homes. The next morning, as neighbors were gathering to talk about the search, Morgan joined them, he said.
"He came down and talked to us, talking like nothing was going on," Newman said. "We were all wondering how somebody could do something like that, and he was saying the same thing."
Neighbors said the Rodriguez family is friendly but reserved.
"I would see her (Breeann) out in the yard all the time," said next-door neighbor Sharon Haddock, a retiree in her 60s. "She was such a sweet little girl. It's just so tragic."
Floyd said that if such a crime can happen in Senath, it can happen anywhere.
"All I can say is everybody be careful and watch your children," she said.