Monsters Are Real

A dress.

That’s what a mother wanted for her daughter.

Then a stranger offered to help.

That’s how it happened. A mother was drawn into thinking that accepting gifts from a stranger was OK. An 8-year-old went alone with that man without complaint.

Because her mother had taught her it was safe.

Just a few hours earlier the night of June 21, she had accompanied her mother in this stranger’s car from Dollar General to Walmart.

How desperate Rayne Perrywinkle must have been to hear the promise of a $100 Walmart gift card from Donald James Smith, a 56-year-old stranger who knew how to spot her vulnerabilities, and decide to trust him.

She wanted to buy Cherish a new dress to wear on the plane to visit the girl’s father in California “so she could feel beautiful,” Ann Dugger, executive director of the Justice Coalition, told The Florida Times-Union. Dugger is a victim’s rights advocate who is helping the mother.

“She was trying to make sure her child was presentable, her child looked good to see her daddy,” Dugger said. “You don’t have the money. You don’t have the wherewithal, and somebody comes up and offers to help.”

Times are tough. For some folks, it always has been, and it’s not getting easier. Even for those of us on better financial footing, $100 is a lot of money.

That’s all it took for a mother to ignore what had to be dozens of alarms ringing in her head. Never talk to strangers. Never accept gifts from strangers. If it’s too good to be true, it is.

Because the stranger could be someone like Smith, who had just been released from jail May 31 after a long history of crimes against children that goes back to 1977. His record includes impersonating a Department of Children and Families officer by making obscene and threatening phone calls to a 9-year-old girl and repeated attempts to lure young girls into his van.

Smith was arrested the morning of June 22 after a police officer working a traffic accident on Interstate 95 spotted a white van matching the description of the vehicle Smith was said to be driving. Several officers surrounded the van and took Smith into custody. His clothes were wet and dirty.

About the same time, police received a call about a suspicious van on Broward Road earlier that day.

Cherish’s body was found near a creek off Broward Road around the area of Highlands Baptist Church.

Smith was charged with kidnapping and murder and denied bail.

We have been fed a steady diet of stranger danger. But a 2000 report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs says that more than 75 percent of kidnappings are committed by family members or acquaintances of the child. To most parents, that is unthinkable, although that fact probably fuels a healthy mistrust of anyone, even acquaintances, around our children.

“In national surveys conducted in recent years, three out of four parents say they fear that their child will be kidnapped by a stranger,” writes Barry Glassner in his book “The Culture of Fear.” “They harbor this anxiety, no doubt, because they keep hearing frightening statistics and stories about perverts snatching children off the street.”

In October 2009, we all worried after 7-year-old Somer Thompson disappeared during her walk home from Grove Park Elementary School in Orange Park. Then we grieved with her family when her body was found in a Georgia landfill two days later. Jarred Harrell confessed and pleaded guilty to the abduction and murder of Somer in February 2012.

When 8-year-old Maddie Clifton disappeared in November 1998, the community joined in the search for her. The search ended a week later when a neighbor found Maddie’s body hidden inside her 14-year-old son’s waterbed.

Joshua Phillips claimed he accidentally struck Maddie with a baseball bat. When she screamed, he panicked and dragged her into his room, strangled her with a phone cord, and stabbed her. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Neither of these incidents was committed by a “stranger,” but by someone the child knew, someone from the neighborhood. In Somer’s case, by someone who had a large white dog she liked to stop and pet on her way home from school.

For Cherish, it was a man her mother said she could accompany to the front of a Walmart to get a McDonald’s hamburger late on a Friday night.

Our thoughts wander to the terror of Cherish’s last hours as she realized she wasn’t going to get a hamburger, wasn’t going back to her mother, wasn’t with a nice man who was going to buy her a new dress. It’s the nightmare that loops in the heads of all parents. The reason we never take our eyes off our children, not even for a minute.

Why did this mother allow Cherish out of her sight? Did the pressure and desperation of wanting to provide for her child as a divorced mother cloud her judgment? Her decisions have been dissected and judged by every parent out there, many of us who cannot fairly walk in her shoes and don’t yet have all the relevant information.

But our thoughts go to this mother, who is living a nightmare that will not end, even with the conviction of the person who killed her daughter. And to Cherish’s father, Billy Jarreau, who never got to pick up his daughter from the airport in California.

If Cherish’s siblings, 4 and 5, ever ask their mother about whether monsters are real, how can she reassure them?

When Harrell was arrested in Meridian, Miss., police informed him about his links to Somer and asked him to rate himself on a scale of one to 10 — 10 being a monster.

“I am going to be a 10.”