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Past of man suspected of killing southwest Missouri girl holds few clues

Updated: 2014-02-22T00:53:32Z

By GLENN E. RICE and LAURA BAUER

The Kansas City Star

Single. White male. No children.

In those ways, the man prosecutors say abducted and killed a 10-year-old southwest Missouri girl this week and terrified a community fits the profile of predators who commit such crimes.

But not everything about Craig Michael Wood fits the stereotype and studied profile of that type of criminal, according to an extensive study completed in the past decade.

He’s older — the typical age of a child abductor is around 27, nearly 20 years younger than Wood. No one decides at age 45 to step out and grab a child off the street, said a retired FBI criminal profiler. There’s a slow buildup to it, she said.

Wood also reportedly used a gun to kill his victim, while nearly 90 percent do not. And he had steady work for nearly two decades, yet one more anomaly.

From the outside, he was a normal, caring and compassionate man who appeared to be living a normal life. That’s why family and friends are so puzzled, wondering if there’s more about Wood that’s still a mystery.

“There was never ever a side of him that would ever indicate something like this,” said Loren Morris, a friend of Wood’s for 30 years who once played alongside him in a local bluegrass band named Uncle Fudd. “I just can’t describe it. It’s eating all of us up.”

Wood, 45, sits in the Greene County jail, without bond, charged with kidnapping and first-degree murder in the death of Hailey Owens, a fourth-grader known to help her classmates and who loved to dress up. He'll make his first court appearance at 8:30 a.m. Friday.

Prosecutors say Wood — a teacher’s aide in the Springfield School District and middle school football coach — pulled alongside the fourth-grader just before 5 p.m. Tuesday as she walked near her home after visiting a friend.

Witnesses say he grabbed her and threw her in his truck “like a rag doll” and sped away, eluding a neighbor who tried to follow him in his vehicle, according to court records. About 31/2 hours later, police found him at his home across town. Inside that home, officers were hit by a stench of bleach.

Hours later, they found a young girl’s body stuffed in a plastic storage tote. It was Hailey.

One expert sees a message in how the killer disposed of her.

“To victimize a child in such a cold-blooded way and discard her like she was an object — he’s hiding her and he doesn’t want her to be found,” said Mary Ellen O’Toole, a retired profiler who spent more than a decade in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit helping solve high-profile cases and study the killers. “To me, I question whether he has any remorse or feelings for this little girl based on what he did to her.”

That’s why those who know Wood said they struggle to believe he’s capable of this crime. And experts who have studied child killings say there’s reason for that.

Though Wood fits a few broad characteristics, the man who coached middle school boys in football, had strong friendships from high school and remains close with family is not the typical suspect accused of kidnapping and killing a child.

“Most of them exhibit weak social bonds to conventional contexts, relationships, and activities — strong predictors of involvement in crime,” authors wrote in a 2006 study conducted by the Department of Justice and the state attorney general for Washington.

Even though there’s nothing in court records to suggest the suspect had been violent toward children before, there’s a possibility there may be a trail nonetheless, said Kathleen Heide, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida who has done research on offenders who have committed sexual homicides.

“Usually it is not that somebody gets the idea that has never offended before and snatches a child off the street,” Heide said. “Usually there’s a process. That’s what makes this scary.”

Disbelief settles in

Loren Morris’ cellphone rattled with the Amber Alert Tuesday evening. Like everyone in the Springfield area, he learned about Hailey and how a stranger had kidnapped the little girl just a block or two from her home.

Who could do this?

That’s what went through his mind, never thinking that in a few hours police would be in his friend’s driveway arresting him. The man he’d known most his life as a good person from a great family would soon be viewed by most as a monster.

By Wednesday morning, Wood’s name was released as the suspect. But still, friends thought it must be another Craig Wood.

“Honestly, most of us would not believe it was him until we saw the picture,” said Morris, referring to long-time friends and band members.

That suspect in the photo splashed on TV was the same guy who plays mandolin in Uncle Fudd. The guy Morris had just seen a few weeks ago at the band’s practice. And the friend he graduated with from Marshfield High School in 1986.

“He was a fun-loving guy,” said Morris, a former member of Uncle Fudd and whose brother is still part of the band. “There was never anything for us to get upset about. When we’re together we almost always talk music. ... Music and teaching, coaching football, that’s what he loved.”

In December 1992, Wood graduated from then-Southwest Missouri State University with a degree in psychology and minor in criminal justice studies, a university spokeswoman confirmed. He’s been a middle school football coach since 1998 and full-time teacher’s aide in the Springfield district since 2006.

Family friends described his parents as “salt-of-the-earth.” He has one brother who is married with children, but Wood never married and did not have children, friends said.

His parents, Jim and Genie Wood, bred cattle and fox trotter horses on their farm near Ash Grove. Wood has helped them with chores, friends said, and even showed one of their fox trotters at a 2007 competition. He earned fifth place in an amateur division.

The Woods have hired attorneys Dee Wampler and Joseph Passanise to serve as their spokespersons during this process. In a statement released Thursday evening, the attorneys said the Woods are cooperating fully with law enforcement.

“This unexpected incident involving their son, Craig, has been a shock and they are grieving,” the statement read. “They join the rest of the community praying as their hearts pour out to the Owens family.”

Craig Wood’s only criminal history dates back more than a decade. Missouri court records indicate he pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance in 1990. He was convicted in 2001 for killing wildlife out of season.

Court records related to the 1990 conviction reveal Wood acknowledged he had struggled with alcohol in the past, according to reporting by the Springfield News-Leader.

He told officials at a court-ordered drug education program that he had experienced 40 to 50 blackouts by the time he was 22, the paper said.

Friends and family, though, say they never noticed a problem.

“It’s easier to think we saw this coming,” Morris said. “But no, we didn’t. ... All we can think about is the girl and her family. We don’t know the guy who did this. It’s just somebody we don’t know.”

Is there a past?

Only 10 percent of child abduction killers are older than 40, according to the Justice Department study.

So it’s no wonder that police agencies in southwest Missouri wonder if there’s anything else in Wood’s past.

In the hours after Wood’s arrest, Springfield-area police agencies began checking files to see if his name popped up in other investigations or if there were any similar unsolved cases.

“That’s one of the first things I checked, to see if we had anything,” said Ash Grove Cpl. Jacob Marler. “Any prior contacts? But nothing. Cold cases of ours with him as a suspect? No we do not.”

In the 2006 study, almost half of the child killers analyzed had a substantial history of crimes against children before they killed their victim.

Experts say investigators will try to learn if there is something in Wood’s background that hasn’t been revealed yet. They likely will construct a timeline of his activities starting in his teen years, in part to see where he has traveled.

It would be highly unusual for a man his age to commit this impulsive act without having a history of risky behavior, the experts said.

“You don’t have this kind of behavior that you can turn off and on like a light switch,” said O’Toole. “No one just snaps for no reason whatsoever and goes out and kidnaps a 10-year-old girl, takes her somewhere and then kills her. And then they morph back into being a normal, everyday person.

“That doesn’t happen.”

To reach Glenn E. Rice, call 816-234-4341 or send email to grice@kcstar.com. To reach Laura Bauer, call 816-234-4944 or send email to lbauer@kcstar.com.

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