MENIFEE, Calif. (AP) — Marisa Bell has a 9-year-old son with autism, so when she heard about a missing autistic boy in a nearby town, she dropped everything to join the hundreds of volunteer searchers fanning out in the hills in scorching heat and handing out flyers on the narrow road near his house in this rural town.
Bell, 44, sympathized with the boy’s mother and family, knowing her own son is prone to wandering off due to his autism.
When authorities announced late Wednesday that a body matching 11-year-old Terry Dewayne Smith’s description had been found in a shallow grave behind his home, and a 16-year-old family member arrested on suspicion of murder, Bell was angry. And many others who had searched were somber and reflective, making up much of the crowd at a candlelight prayer vigil for Terry on Wednesday night.
The boy’s mother and other family members were also taken in for questioning, but released, said Riverside County sheriff’s Deputy Albert Martinez.
“The family allowed so many of us to come out and look and to come out and find this little boy,” Bell said. “I said, ‘Oh God, here is a mom and a little boy just like mine.”
Dawn Berning and her two daughters were among the first to volunteer for the search.
“I’m devastated,” Berning said as she and others gathered outside a news conference to announce the arrest. “To see something like that happen in our community tears me up. I’m angry. I feel used.”
The body has not yet been positively identified, Menifee police Chief John Hill said at a news conference. He said the death was the result of “a domestic issue” at the house.
Terry has a 16-year-old half-brother who authorities have said was the last person to see the boy. But Hill identified the suspect only as a “family member” and would not confirm if the suspect lived at the house.
Police responded to a tip about the body early Wednesday before they discovered the body, said Hill. Televised news reports showed sheriff’s investigators concentrating on what appeared to be a small hole by a tree and about 75 feet from the house, which sits in a rambling, weedy lot off a remote road in Menifee, a Riverside County community about 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
Terry had last been seen Saturday night, but his mother, Shawna Smith, said she did not realize he was missing and report it until Sunday morning.
Hundreds of volunteers had helped authorities in the search alongside bloodhounds, horses and helicopters in triple-digit desert heat. But the volunteers were told to stop Tuesday night because they were getting stranded in the desert and causing other problems.
A posting on a Facebook page devoted to the search said Terry’s family worried he might have wandered off without food, water or special medication.
But investigators had never ruled out the possibility of foul play, Martinez said.