By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - An Arizona mother pleaded not guilty on Monday to first-degree murder over the presumed death of her missing 5-year-old daughter, Jhessye Shockley, whose body has not been found despite massive search efforts, court officials said.
Police believe Shockley was killed and dumped in a landfill south of Phoenix, but authorities who conducted a search of her neighborhood and spent four months sorting through some 9,500 tons of trash failed to find her remains.
Authorities have said they were confident they have the person responsible for the little girl's death and can prosecute the case without finding her body.
Jerice Hunter, 38, entered her not guilty plea through her attorney in a brief arraignment in Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix, officials said. She remains in jail on a $500,000 bond.
Hunter, who also pleaded not guilty to child abuse charges, was arrested without incident on September 6 after being indicted by a state grand jury. Her attorney, Scott Maasen, said his client continues to maintain her innocence.
Hunter first reported Shockley missing in October 2011, telling police she left the girl in the care of her older children while out running an errand and that when she returned home the child was nowhere to be found.
The mother was arrested in November on suspicion of child abuse in connection with the disappearance, but no formal charges were filed at the time, and she was released.
Police said investigators continued to build their case with interviews of additional witnesses and family, leading to the indictment.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)