Community 'devastated' by outcome of search for Mariah Woods
Posted December 4, 2017 10:47 a.m. EST
Updated July 13, 2018 1:40 p.m. EDT
Jacksonville, N.C. — A judge on Monday set the next court appearance for Earl Kimrey, the man accused of concealing the death of 3-year-old Mariah Woods.
32-year-old Kimrey will appear in court again on Dec. 18.
He was arrested late Friday and charged with concealing a death, obstruction of justice, second-degree burglary, larceny and possession of stolen property. He is being held in the Onslow County Detention Center on a $1 million bond.
Many heart-broken community members were in the courtroom as Kimrey went before a judge.
"This whole community has been on pins and needles hoping we would find her alive, and Saturday when (the news) broke, it devastated a lot of us," said Tisha Christy, a neighbor.
Onslow County Sheriff Hans Miller says their goal is to figure out exactly what happened to Mariah.
"As we go on, just this little girl, Mariah, she's on our mind, because that's who we're working for. We work for the victim," he said.
Mariah weighed heavy on the minds of so many in the community, including Shannon Graves and her 4-year-old son, Gavin.
"I would hope that someone would care like that for my child if something like that was to ever happen. I can't imagine the pain the family must feel," Graves said.
Discovering Mariah's body
Authorities found remains Saturday evening they believe to be Mariah Woods, according to the Onslow County Sheriff's Office.
Miller said investigators recovered a body around 5:30 p.m. Saturday in Shelter Creek along Shaw Highway in Pender County.
A positive confirmation of an identity will be made by the medical examiner's office.
The Fayetteville Police Department Dive Team discovered the child's body.
In a press conference Saturday afternoon, FBI officials called the search for the child, who had been missing since Nov. 26, a "homicide investigation."
"I'm very saddened to report to you that we have recovered what we believe are the remains of little Mariah Woods," Miller said. "We were all hoping for a better outcome."
Search teams expanded the search for the missing Onslow County girl to neighboring Pender County half a day after authorities arrested her mother's boyfriend in connection to her disappearance.
District Attorney Ernie Lee called the search an extremely challenging and emotional week.
"This investigation continues," he said. "We'll be waiting for the results of the medical examiner's report and making some decisions at that time."
Mother's boyfriend charged
Investigators did not say what led them to suspect Kimrey or what evidence they have that Mariah is dead.
The arrest warrant issued for Kimrey said he obstructed justice by "removing Mariah Woods' body from the scene of her death and did conceal Mariah Woods' death and body, knowing that Mariah Woods died from unnatural causes. The defendant acted with deceit and intent to fraud."
Kimrey "secretly disposed of the dead child's body," the warrant said.
State records show Kimrey had previously been charged with a series of lower-level crimes dating back to 2005. Kimrey's previous charges include larceny, assault and drunk and disorderly conduct, according to the state's online records.
Kimrey is a graduate of Orange High School in Hillsborough.
Community in mourning
Since the news of Mariah's death, a memorial with flowers and stuffed animals from community members has been started near her home, at 2404 Dawson Cabin Road in Jacksonville.
Angela Wiles, who started the memorial, said she felt compelled to start the memorial so that the community would focus on memorial instead of the suspect arrested for her death.
"I was kind of struggling with the sign and the wood, and a gentleman stopped and asked if I needed help, and that meant a lot of me too," said Wiles. "The whole community is really coming together. It's about her. Justice for her and bringing her back home."
As the memorial grew, many in the community were still searching for answers in Mariah's death.
"I'm hurt. Everybody is hurt around here. I called the aunt yesterday and they were in tears. Grandma is crying," said resident Corey Humphrey
Community members of all ages came to honor and memorialize the little girl. People gathered in prayer for hours Saturday night.
"I was sad for her," 7-year-old Kiera Ezel said. "I wanted to bring her two gifts."
Another little girl showed up with her family to place a tiara on the sign, because "Mariah looked like a princess" in the pictures shared with the news.
"It's impacting our children," community member Anna Rust said. "Something so tragic has impacted our own children that are still here with us. We just have to hold onto our kids and watch over them."
"My daughter wanted to give Mariah one of her own teddy bears just to show her that we love her," said Megan James, who has a three-year-old like Mariah.
Some who helped search for Mariah earlier in the week came to the growing memorial Sunday to pay their respects.
"My main concern was hoping to bring this little girl home. Honestly, I only went out there because I hoped someone would do the same for me if it was my child," said Joann Kasper. "Whoever is involved in the crime, whoever did this to her, justice needs to be served for them, for her, so that she can rest peacefully."
As investigators continue to gather evidence in the case, people in the community are leaning on one another for support.
"I was actually quite surprised at how many people around the community came together, but it's good to know that we're all here for each other when something happens," Kasper said.
Mariah's parents are divorced, and her father, Alex Woods, said that while his daughter had been living with her mother, his week had been "like hell, like a nightmare."
Agencies involved in the case included the Onslow County Sheriff's Office, the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office, the Pender County Sheriff's Office, the Fayetteville Police Department Dive Team, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the State Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
An FBI spokesperson said Sunday that the case is now a state homicide investigation and the agency will no longer be involved.