Five years after the skeletal remains of Adre'anna Jackson were found in an overgrown vacant lot, Lakewood police still don't know who killed the smiling 10-year-old girl known throughout her Tillicum neighborhood.
Lt. Chris Lawler worries they never will.
“It will haunt me,” Lawler, the lead investigator in the case, said recently. “I worry that by the time I retire, this case will still be open.”
Detectives have a handful of theories about what might have happened to Adre’anna. They also consider two men – convicted child killer Terapon D. Adhahn and a convicted sex offender who was at Adre’anna’s home the morning she disappeared – as “persons of interest.”
But no strong evidence favors one theory – or person – over another.
The case, while still considered active and open, has gone cold from a lack of tips.
Adre’anna’s remains yielded no clues as to what happened to her. Hundreds of pieces of evidence submitted to the FBI crime lab have produced no breaks in the case.
“Short of a full-on, detailed confession from the killer, it would be difficult to make” a case, Lawler said. “Who knows, though? We have always hoped we have a piece of evidence that would corroborate a tip.”
Cases of abducted and missing children being killed are rare. They are estimated to be less than one-half of 1 percent of all slayings in the country, said Katherine M. Brown, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven in Connecticut.
Solving such cases can be particularly challenging. They receive a lot of attention from the media and public, are often complex and can be emotionally taxing on investigators, said Brown, who has studied and written papers on child-abduction murders.
A high percentage of the slayings are solved because of the focus on them, but sometimes the cases go cold, she said.
“It’s not inexperience or skill of the detectives,” Brown said. “There’s a lot of external forces that operate on an investigation.”
For Lawler, the case of Adre’anna’s death has been marked by a series of frustrations.
“I am certain there are people out there still who know important details about the case,” the veteran detective said during a recent interview. “It didn’t touch the community the way I thought it would. It’s a child, for crying out loud.”
The artistic, fiery girl has not been forgotten by those in Tillicum who knew her.
In the years since her death, community leaders and groups have tried to help at-risk youths and create safe places for them to go. A youth drop-in center has opened, and neighbors and community groups have teamed up to make sure children get the clothes, furniture and other things they need.
“There is no doubt that scenario precipitated heightened interest in kids in the community,” said David Anderson, a church youth pastor and citizen activist in Tillicum who knew Adre’anna well. “The net for catching kids (who) otherwise would have fallen through the cracks has tightened considerably.”
Adre’anna was last seen the morning of Dec. 2, 2005, as she headed to Tillicum Elementary School. Her parents sent her off not knowing that a winter blast of snow had canceled classes for the day.
The fourth-grader never made it to the school.
When Adre’anna wasn’t home by mid-afternoon, her mother reported her missing. Hundreds of searchers and volunteers scoured Tillicum for any sign of Adre’anna. They found no trace of her and no witnesses to her disappearance.
Two boys playing in a blackberry-choked lot near Woodbrook Middle School found skeletal remains April 4, 2006. The property, located less than two miles from Adre’anna’s home, was a popular passageway for school-aged children and a hangout for transients and drug users.
The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office used dental records to identify the bones as belonging to Adre’anna. They were not able to determine much more, and how she died remains a mystery.
CASE MOST AT RISK
Adre’anna’s is one of four unsolved slayings in the City of Lakewood since the Police Department was formed in 2004. Detectives are tracking down leads in the other three cases, Lawler said.
“It’s the one that’s at the most risk to be unsolved,” Lawler said. “Those other ones have legs, and this one really doesn’t.”
Lawler, who became a detective in 1999, said the case has been like no other homicide he’s investigated.
“The lack of information we got and the lack of cooperation was unprecedented,” Lawler said.
The frustrations started early on.
Adre’anna wasn’t reported missing until more than 8 1/2 hours after she’d last been seen. There also was some confusion about what the girl was wearing when she left for school. That kind of information is crucial to searchers looking for missing children.
“We didn’t have a good jumping-off point,” Lawler said. “It put us in the minus category from the start.”
Detectives heard an array of rumors about what might have happened to Adre’anna.
Some tipsters reported seeing her near American Lake. Two friends said they saw her near Woodbrook Middle School. Another rumor had her being traded for drugs.
Investigators looked into the tips, even those from psychics that came in before Adre’anna’s remains were found.
Lawler remembers spending a rainy day at a horse pasture off 150th Street Southwest and Woodbrook Road Southwest after a psychic reported Adre’anna’s body might be on the property.
“That’s how desperate we were,” Lawler said.
Detectives suspect some people haven’t been forthcoming with all the information they know. They believe people spotted Adre’anna’s remains in the lot at least a month before they were reported to police.
“Had the information gotten to us sooner, we might have gotten some forensics,” Lawler said.
Detectives tried repeatedly to talk to an older man who lived in a trailer in Woodbrook and knew some of the people whose names have surfaced in the investigation.
Last year, detectives received a tip there might be evidence at the man’s trailer. Lawler and another detective went to Woodbrook and found only empty ground. They later discovered the man died after a terminal illness and his trailer had been gone for several months.
“We missed that opportunity,” Lawler said.
PERSONS OF INTEREST
Adhahn remains a person of interest in Adre’anna’s death.
He’s serving a life sentence at the Washington State Penitentiary for the rape and killing of 12-year-old Zina Linnik, who was abducted from her Hilltop neighborhood July 4, 2007. He also was convicted of sexually assaulting two other girls.
Adhahn worked as a tow truck driver in Lakewood in 2005 and didn’t have any customers the day Adre’anna disappeared.
Adhahn has refused to talk to detectives about Adre’anna’s death. He reportedly got angry after seeing his name mentioned as a “person of interest” in the case, Lawler said.
“We have looked at him extensively and still are,” he said.
The other person of interest was friends with Adre’anna’s parents at the time of her disappearance. He’d been at their Tillicum apartment the morning of Dec. 2 and has a lengthy criminal record, including a conviction for third-degree rape.
Lawler said detectives also haven’t ruled out the possibility that someone who hasn’t been identified could have come through town, killed Adre’anna and left.
“We did not know about Terapon Adhahn until he screwed up in Tacoma,” Lawler said. “How many other Terapons are out there?”