One year later: Will there be justice for Shaniya Davis?

November 10, 2010

Five-year-old Shaniya Davis had barely begun to live when she was raped and strangled and her body dumped on the side of a road near the Harnett-Lee county line in November 2009.

But the ramifications of her horrific death continue to reverberate in the community and in the agencies that investigated her case.

A year later, the fallout continues.

Cumberland County’s Department of Social Services, accused of not cooperating with police in the tension-filled days immediately after Shaniya’s disappearance, was the subject of an investigation sought by District Attorney Ed Grannis.

The investigation came to a close in September, and Grannis has decided not to prosecute DSS officials on charges of obstruction of justice.

But the circumstances surrounding Shaniya’s death have led to the resignation of Chet Oehme, chairman of the Social Services Board, and continue to shine a spotlight on Social Services Director Brenda Reid Jackson, who has been at the center of a firestorm of criticism.

Cumberland County commissioners are now considering replacing Oehme with one of their own in an effort to provide better oversight.

A year after Shaniya’s death, one big question remains: Can Social Services, Fayetteville police, the Board of Commissioners and the District Attorney’s Office put aside their differences and work together?

At 6:53 a.m. on Nov. 10, Antoniette Davis called Fayetteville police to say her daughter, Shaniya, was missing from her home in Sleepy Hollow Mobile Home Park.

An Amber Alert went out just after noon for Shaniya, who had last been seen wearing a blue sleep shirt and pink panties.

Davis and her 7-year-old son spent that afternoon at the police station, answering investigators’ questions.

Two days later, police released surveillance video, taken the morning Shaniya was reported missing, showing a man holding her in his arms in front of an elevator at a Sanford hotel. The video was time-stamped 6:11 a.m.

The man in the video was identified as Mario Andrette McNeill, who turned himself in to police Nov. 13 and was charged with kidnapping.

The next day, Shaniya’s mother was charged with human trafficking and prostituting her child, filing a false police report and obstructing justice.

The search continued for Shaniya as law enforcement and dozens of volunteers combed the woods and swamps in the area of southern Lee and northern Harnett counties.

The search ended about 1 p.m. Nov. 16, when Shaniya’s body was found among the thick kudzu vines that covered woods off N.C. 87 near Carolina Trace.

On Nov. 20, McNeill was charged with raping and murdering Shaniya.

Shaniya was buried in Fayetteville Memorial Cemetery on Nov. 22 after a funeral attended by nearly 2,000 people.

By then, the case had become a national story on television news channels. That’s how NBA star Shaquille O’Neal learned of Shaniya’s death. He paid for her funeral.


A week after Shaniya’s abduction, Social Services Director Brenda Reid Jackson met with homicide investigators at the District Attorney’s Office to review what her department knew about Antoniette Davis and her children.

 

The exact nature of the department’s relationship with Davis’ family still isn’t known. Jackson has used state privacy statutes to keep records of the case out of public view.

But one of Shaniya’s uncles, Michael Davis, told reporters that, before Shaniya’s death, the DSS investigated her mother concerning her 7-year-old son.

Shortly after Shaniya died, the co-chairman of a state task force on child fatalities said a team would be sent to Fayetteville to find out when the DSS first made contact with the family, the status of that case at the time of the killing, and whether proper procedures were followed.

Last week, almost a year later, a spokesman for the state task force said no date has been set for the beginning of that review.

Little else about how Social Services handled the case had become public, either, until Grannis held a rare news conference in September.

During the conference, Grannis said police repeatedly had to go to court to force Jackson to give up DSS records that he said eventually proved useful to the murder investigation.

Even with the court orders, Grannis said, the DSS held back records.

The first indication of that came within a day of Shaniya’s disappearance.

A police detective was told by a DSS employee dealing with Shaniya’s brother that “law enforcement is not getting everything, that they are not being told everything and that there is more to this,” Grannis said at his news conference.

After police figured out that an initial batch of records was incomplete and the county supplied a second batch, a DSS employee told a detective that she was being forced to delete all e-mails related to Shaniya’s case, Grannis said.

Grannis decided not to prosecute DSS officials for obstructing justice because, he said, the e-mails weren’t destroyed but printed out and slipped into case files before they were deleted.

That maneuver, Grannis said, was motivated by Jackson’s desire to keep the e-mails away from reporters, who might obtain them under the state public records law. Everything in DSS case files usually is considered a state secret.

Fayetteville Police Chief Tom Bergamine brought the DSS foot-dragging to the attention of Grannis.

In December, Grannis requested that the SBI look into the county’s cooperation with the murder investigation.

The SBI investigation cast a shadow over the DSS for months.

Jackson wrote Grannis in March, seeking an update on what the SBI had found. When Grannis ignored the letter, the county Social Services Board sent another one in August.

Jackson, who had been briefed on the SBI’s preliminary results by a bureau agent, believed the DSS would be cleared.

Grannis finally responded to the DSS letters in September.

Instead of exonerating the DSS, however, Grannis told Oehme, then the Social Services Board chairman, that he was dissatisfied with the SBI report. Grannis asked Sheriff Moose Butler to take a second look at the report.

Butler’s internal-affairs investigators spent less than two weeks on the case.

On Sept. 30, Grannis called his news conference at Butler’s office.

“To say we were not happy with the quality of the SBI report would be an understatement,” Grannis told reporters. “In my 40 years, I’ve never seen anything from the SBI that bothered me this much.”

Grannis, who is retiring at the end of the year, recounted how an SBI agent told his aides that Jackson said a Fayetteville police officer attempted to break into the DSS building on Ramsey Street. She later changed that account, saying a newspaper reporter had tried to break in, Grannis said.

The district attorney was skeptical. The Social Services Board later issued a statement in which Jackson “unequivocally” denied saying any such thing. “This incident never occurred,” the statement read.

On Oct. 8, the board called Jackson in for a closed-door chat. Emerging from the private meeting, the board issued a statement of support for Jackson. It noted she now is meeting regularly with Bergamine, the police chief.

A few days after the board’s statement, Oehme submitted his resignation, effective immediately.

Last week, Oehme said he wasn’t interested in talking about Shaniya’s case in any depth.

“I feel that Social Services did what they were supposed to do,” Oehme said. “And we’re just waiting for the outcome of the perpetrator and the mother.”

Shaniya’s father, Bradley Wayne Lockhart, still is angry at how DSS handled the investigation.

“I’m angry with DSS for withholding information that could have prevented all this,” Lockhart said in a telephone interview from Georgia, where he now lives.

Lockhart said no one from DSS contacted him after police searched Davis’ home in July and found drugs.

“Why couldn’t they call me and tell me they had raided the house and she (Davis) was under investigation?” Lockhart said.

He said he also was upset that Oehme referred to him as a “deadbeat” in his October resignation letter.

But Lockhart said he isn’t dwelling on his anger. Instead, he’s trying to channel it into something positive.

“We can spend most of our time finding fault and pointing fingers, but unless we find the root cause and change it, we won’t fix the problem,” he said.

Asked if DSS could have done more to prevent Shaniya’s death, Grannis replied: “I don’t think you can say that.”

He drew a parallel with the 2009 murder of Eve Carson, the UNC student-body president who was slain during a robbery in 2008. One of the men accused in Carson’s death was on parole at the time.

“I think DSS has a monumental task trying to deal with a lot of broken situations,” Grannis said. “They certainly don’t fix them all, and I don’t think the rest of us can.”

A year after Shaniya’s death, her mother and McNeill have yet to be indicted.

Antoniette Davis remains out of jail on $51,000 bail.

Davis was pregnant when she was arrested. She has since given birth, and the child has been put in foster care, a source close to the family said.

McNeill is being held at Central Prison in Raleigh for safekeeping until his trial. No date has been set.

Grannis said the case is in good hands, with a trio of proven deputy assistants to handle the prosecution.

Bergamine would not speak about Shaniya’s case or the department’s relationship with Social Services. But he did issue a statement through department spokesman Dan Grubb.

“Unfortunately,” the statement read, “Police Department personnel cannot comment regarding an ongoing investigation, but we trust and expect that the Fayetteville Police Department and the Department of Social Services will work together in a professional manner as need arises without regard to any individual case.”

In an e-mail last week, Jackson said DSS and police lawyers have begun to work together on court orders for records.

She added: “We continue to extend heartfelt sympathy to the family of Shaniya Davis and our community which was affected by this tragedy.”

Shaniya’s father has started Shaniya Speaks, a nonprofit group that works to raise awareness of sexual crimes against children.

The group’s name represents what Lockhart said he is trying to be: his daughter’s voice.

He plans to attend a memorial service, sponsored by the organization, on Nov. 16 in the parking lot of the Family Dollar store on Murchison Road.

Grannis said he hopes the case serves as a lesson about cooperation between agencies in any investigation involving a child.

“I think we saw in this case how important that can be,” Grannis said. “You would like to think that with everything that occurred in this child’s case, there will be more of an effort in that regard.”

As I and many others feel Shaniya was failed by many from Daddy, “Mommy Dearest”, knowingly family members, county offices, law enforcement, the school district to the neighbors that she was being abuse and did nothing to save her.

Still to this day I cannot fathom how her mother was allowed out on bail – the court system has already failed Shaniya and the trials haven’t even begun.

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