New details emerged Tuesday about the child abuse case against the mother of a missing 5-year-old Arizona girl, including allegations that the girl was kept in a bedroom closet, deprived of food and water, and beaten.
A court document detailing the allegations was released minutes after the girl's mother, Jerice Hunter, 38, had her first court appearance, during which she proclaimed her innocence. It included claims that Hunter told the girl's siblings to lie about her disappearance.
"I'd just like to be given the chance to prove my innocence," Hunter told a judge, who ordered that she be held on a $100,000 bond because of her history of child abuse and the seriousness of the charge against her.
Hunter was arrested on a felony count of child abuse Monday, more than five weeks after she reported her daughter Jhessye Shockley missing. Police said at a news conference that they received new information in the case that led to her arrest and to a second search of her apartment in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale.
Investigators declined to say what that information was, but the court document details a recent interview they conducted with Hunter's 13-year-old daughter, who was removed from the home by state Child Protective Services the day after her sister was reported missing.
The document, a probable cause statement, said the teenager recently began to talk to her foster mother about Jhessye, saying that "she was told by her mother, Jerice, to lie to police about Jhessye being missing."
Police then interviewed the teen, who told them that she did not see Jhessye the day she disappeared, reversing her previous story to authorities that she had seen the girl.
She also said that several weeks ago Hunter became angry when she returned home to find Jhessye wearing a long T-shirt while watching TV with a neighbor boy, telling the girl that she was a "ho" before taking her into a bedroom, according to the document.
The teen said she could hear her sister screaming and crying in the room, the document said.
She also told police that Hunter kept Jhessye in a bedroom closet and deprived her of food and water, and that she had seen the girl with black eyes and bruises and cuts to her face and body, according to the document.
"(She) reported that Jhessye's hair had been pulled out and described Jhessye as not looking alive and that she looked like a zombie," the document said. "(She) said that the closet where Jhessye had been looked like a grave and smelled like dead people."
The teen said that a few days before Jhessye disappeared, her mother spent the entire day cleaning the apartment and cleaning her shoes from the closet with soap and bleach. Police said they found a receipt that showed Hunter bought food and a bottle of bleach two days before she reported her daughter missing.
Hunter told police that she last saw Jhessye on Oct. 11 after she left her in her older siblings' care while she ran an errand.
At a news conference Monday, Glendale Police Sgt. Brent Coombs said authorities do not expect to find Jhessye alive, but he didn't explain why. He also said Hunter is the investigation's "No. 1 focus."
Hunter, meanwhile, has maintained her innocence, telling The Associated Press she had nothing to do with her daughter's disappearance. She also has criticized the Glendale Police Department's investigation.
"We feel that law enforcement is not active in finding Jhessye and that they're more active in persecuting me instead of finding out where she is," Hunter said last month.
State Child Protective Services removed Hunter's other children, including a newborn, from her apartment last month but declined to say why. Glendale police said they had no part in the decision to remove the children. Hunter was eight months pregnant when Jhessye disappeared.
Hunter came under scrutiny during the investigation for an October 2005 arrest with her then-husband, George Shockley, on child abuse charges in California. Hunter pleaded no contest to corporal punishment and served about four years in prison before she was released on parole in May 2010.
Hunter's oldest child, 14 at the time, told police his mother routinely beat the children. George Shockley is a convicted sex offender and is still in a California prison.
In the days after Jhessye's disappearance, more than 100 officers and volunteers searched for her in pools, garbage bins and shrubs. They interviewed and searched the homes of registered sex offenders in the area, and stopped at every door to spread news about the missing girl.
Police also cordoned off an area of a local landfill where garbage from Jhessye's neighborhood would have been taken the day of and day after her disappearance, but have not searched it.
Hunter's father, Jesse Johnson, said outside of Tuesday's court hearing that his daughter was innocent.
"It's a witch hunt," he said. "I don't believe the police got this right. They're not going to find anything."
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