GLENDALE, AZ - The grandmother of an Arizona girl missing for more than a week is pleading for more attention from police investigators and the national media, saying that her granddaughter hasn't been made a priority because she's black.
Jhessye Shockley was last seen Oct. 11 by her three older siblings at their Glendale apartment while their mother was out running an errand.
Police believe that Jhessye left the home through the front door but don't know what happened next. They have no suspects, evidence or promising leads.
JHESSYE'S GRANDMOTHER PLEADS FOR HELP
Shirley Johnson, Jhessye's grandmother, and about a dozen of her friends and neighbors went to the state capitol in Phoenix on Thursday to draw more attention to the case in hopes of finding the girl alive.
Johnson is trying to push the case into the national spotlight and is upset that it hasn't gotten the attention of other missing child cases in other parts of the country.
"It is because she is a little black kid," said Johnson as she stood in front of the capitol with a group of people holding signs and passing out flyers. "Arizona is known for this."
Johnson hoped to get the attention of lawmakers and the governor.
The group then went to downtown Phoenix, attempting to hit high traffic areas in hopes of generating new leads in the case.
"The Glendale Police Department has not brought this to the forefront. They botched this investigation," Johnson told reporters. "I believe it's because she's a little black girl."
WHAT POLICE SAY ABOUT THE CASE
Glendale police Sgt. Brent Coombs said that he can't say strongly enough how the girl's race does not matter to investigators.
"What matters is there's a 5-year-old girl missing," he said. "It's the department's No. 1 priority. There's so much mystery around it and we've got an obligation to get to the bottom of it and try our best to bring her back safely or find out where she's at."
Nine days after Jhessye went missing, the department still had dozens of investigators assigned to the case Thursday. They were combing over all the information they've collected and following up on more than 100 leads that have come into the department so far.
The department is offering a reward of up to $10,000 for anyone who leads them to a break in the case, on top of the $5,000 offered by the girl's family and the $1,000 offered by Arizona's Silent Witness tip line.
"It's still as important as it was the first day that we were working the case," Coombs said. "We're never going to stop."
Authorities say that if the girl had some type of accident, they would have found a sign of her by now. They say the fact that they haven't points to a possible kidnapping.
"It is our belief that if she would have just simply walked away and not been interacted with by anybody that might have had the wrong intention, we would have found her by now," Coombs said.
Police say they have no reason to suspect anyone in Jhessye's family in her disappearance, including her mother, Jerice Hunter, who is eight months pregnant.
State Child Protective Services removed Hunter's three other children from the home after Jhessye disappeared but have not said why.
Hunter declined to speak about her other children earlier this week but told The Associated Press that she just wants Jhessye back home.
"If you have my child, please take her to a safe place, a public place where she can be located," she said. "The family will not be the same until the child is returned, and I will be relentless in my search."
JHESSYE'S GRANDMOTHER TAKES ACTION
Johnson said Thursday that she feels that she has to take matters into her own hands, saying her granddaughter's disappearance hasn't gotten the attention that it deserves.
"People in California have barely even heard what's going on," she said. "Somehow, somebody's suppressing something because the local media is keeping it local, and with all due respect to the media, it's not getting out. ... This is about my grandbaby."
Johnson wore a purple T-shirt that said "Grandma won't stop!" She chose the color because it was Jahessye's favorite. Her friends and neighbors showed up at the state capitol to support Johnson, also wearing purple shirts that read, "Hope" and "Bring Jahessye home."
NEIGHBORS HELP IN THE SEARCH
Glenn Johnson, who is of no relation to Shirley Johnson and didn't meet the family until after Jahessye disappeared, said that he's been searching the girl's neighborhood and passing out fliers for a few hours every day on his motorized scooter.
"I've got very little confidence in the police, mostly because they have no logical place to look," he said. "I don't see how she could be in this area and not be found at this point."
He said that
he doesn't think the police department has been racially biased, adding that it conducted an "aggressive" search of the neighborhood.
"I don't think it makes a difference whether she's white, black or green. If there's no leads, there's no leads," he said. "Sometimes it's a dead end."
EXPERTS WEIGH IN ON THE CASE
Dr. Sharon Bramlett-Soloman, a professor at ASU's Walter Cronkite School said she is not surprised that the case has not gone national. She said race, social status, and a parent's criminal past all are factors in why media loses interest in stories. She said that had this been a white child even this would have been considered differently.
Former police sergeant and child advocate Paul Penzone agrees those factors can play a role in the visibility of a case but isn't sure if that is the case in this situation.
Penzone has already tried pitching the story to CNN's Nancy Grace. He said a lot of times it might just be the timing of a story and whether there are several similar stories that are already being covered by a given show.
"I hope no one criticizes this family for feeling this way," he said. "Because what they are doing is making sure you don't lose sight of the fact that this little girl is missing."