MERCED, Calif. (TCD) -- A 34-year-old wanted man who allegedly abused, sexually assaulted, and killed an 8-year-old girl earlier this year was located and taken into custody following a monthslong manhunt.
According to a statement, on Saturday, Sept. 10, law enforcement officials from the Merced Police Department, Merced Area Gang and Narcotics Enforcement Team, and the Department of Justice’s Special Operations Unit arrested Dhante Jackson in Newark, California, on charges of murder and child abuse in connection with the death of Sophia Mason.
Merced Police also said they apprehended Jackson after six months of searching for him. Several of his alleged accomplices were also arrested for accessory to murder because police allege they "assisted Jackson while he was on the run by providing him with shelter and financial support."
Sophia’s family members reported her missing to Hayward Police March 8 but noted they had not seen her since December 2021. On March 11, Merced Police announced they were searching for Sophia, whom they described as an "at-risk missing juvenile."
According to Merced Police, detectives spoke with Sophia’s mother and Jackson’s girlfriend, Samantha Johnson, who was in custody at the Santa Rita Jail on child abuse charges. Johnson reportedly led detectives to a residence on Barclay Way, where they found Sophia deceased inside. Johnson was then arrested for murder and was transferred to the Merced County Jail.
According to NBC Bay Area, Sophia had been dead for about a month by the time police found her, and the autopsy showed she had signs of malnourishment. The coroner reportedly determined her manner of death was homicide.
Merced Police Department Lt. Joe Perez said in a press conference, "In my 20 years in law enforcement, this case is the most disturbing and horrific I’ve seen."
The Mercury News reports police found the young girl’s decomposing body in a bathtub. Sophia reportedly told Alameda County social workers on two separate occasions that she had been abused by her mother, which allegedly included choking and burning her.
Sophia’s grandmother filed a legal claim against Alameda County, alleging there were 33 times social workers neglected to help the girl, such as failing to conduct interviews after suspected incidents and not informing law enforcement about suspected child abuse.
According to the Merced Sun-Star, Sophia’s mother reportedly gave Jackson permission to "discipline" the girl. Johnson allegedly knew Jackson abused her daughter but did not stop him.
On Feb. 10, Johnson allegedly took Sophia out of the shed where she stayed and brought her inside to take a shower because she was reportedly covered in fecal matter. Johnson reportedly told police Jackson was in the bathroom with Sophia and she heard a "thud." Jackson reportedly told Johnson that Sophia wanted to be left alone, but the girl was nowhere to be found.
Jackson allegedly told Johnson that Sophia "does not want to be with you and does not want to be your daughter anymore."
She searched for Sophia for two weeks but then stopped.
Johnson and Jackson are both in custody at the Merced County Jail on charges of first-degree murder and willful harm or injury to a child.
Merced Police said the lead detective on the case, John Pinnegar, announced his retirement during a press conference this week. He reportedly waited to retire "because he wanted to see the case through until the end."