SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) – A middle-school football coach accused of kidnapping and killing a 10-year-old girl is scheduled to make his first court appearance on Friday, as her southwest Missouri community struggles with a mix of anger and memories of a vivacious, trusting little girl.
Craig Michael Wood, 45, is accused of snatching Hailey Owens as she walked home from her best friend’s house Tuesday evening in Springfield. Neighbors said they watched in horror as Hailey, just two blocks from her home, was pulled into a pickup truck that quickly sped away.
Her body, with a gunshot wound to the head, was found in Wood’s basement. Wood is charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping and armed criminal action.
Community members were trying Thursday to make sense of the brutal crime, their memories of the bubbly fourth grader now mixed with shock and anger. Family and friends were remembering Hailey for her cheery disposition, a child who loved to laugh, smile and dance.
“She was pure gold,” said her aunt, Sara Wells.
Gary Tew, principal at Westport Elementary School, said Hailey was a “happy-go-lucky kiddo” who made sure new students felt welcome and belonged to an afterschool club that taught character lessons through a local church. He said he last saw her on Valentine’s Day, recalling her enthusiastic dancing at a class party.
Thousands are expected to attend a candlelight vigil in her honor Saturday night.
Public anger is palpable in Springfield, about 160 miles southeast of Kansas City, as questions swirled about the suspect’s background and motive. Wood was a 16-year football coach at a middle school who also worked as a substitute teacher and teacher’s aide overseeing suspensions.
Police said they found Wood holding duct tape as he left his father’s pickup truck parked outside his home Tuesday night, just hours after Hailey went missing. Court records indicate the girl’s body was found stuffed in two trash bags inside plastic storage containers in the basement of Wood’s home, which was damp with bleach – presumably used to clean the crime scene.
“I’m furious,” said Jerry Tiffany, a retired construction worker who stood outside the Greene County courthouse on Thursday holding a handmade sign that read, “Child killer. Hang ‘em.”
“I’ve been up all night, with tears in my eyes,” he said. “Kids can’t even go out and play anymore.”
At least three people told police they saw Hailey as she was pulled inside a pickup truck that had driven back and forth several times down the street before the driver stopped to ask the girl for directions. One homeowner gave chase on foot, and another followed the fleeing truck in his own car.
Law enforcement officials and family members said that despite Wood’s status as a school employee, he and Hailey apparently didn’t know each other. Hailey’s home and Westport Elementary are on the city’s west side, while Wood worked at Pleasant View School, which is 12 miles away north of Springfield, and lived on the city’s east side.
Springfield School District officials have said their employment screening process found no warning signs when hiring Wood, first as a temporary employee in 1998 and then full time eight years later.