KC police identify body as missing mother

Update: Police have positively identified the body found Tuesday as Essence Willoughby, the young mother who had disappeared two days before. Her death is being investigated as a homicide. The body was found in the wooded area near Leeds Trafficway and Stadium Drive.

A precocious 3-year-old boy helped find his mother’s body Tuesday in a creek at the bottom of a ravine in Kansas City after he told police he witnessed her death.

The young mother of two had been missing since Sunday morning.

The boy recounted crying and seeing a man hit his mother, Essence Willoughby, 21, then put her in water after they had attended church, police said. Based on the boy’s description of the scene, police searched creeks in wooded areas from Kansas City to Independence. Meanwhile, homicide detectives and relatives drove the boy around to several churches.

He recognized a red one near East 35th Terrace and Stadium Drive and said his mother was in the water nearby, according to a relative.

Police and relatives walked down a ravine and found a body matching Willoughby’s description floating in a creek near Leeds Road and Stadium Drive about 2:40 p.m. Tuesday.

Police had not positively identified the body Tuesday, but relatives told police its clothing matched the clothes last seen on Willoughby.

Investigators said the 3-year-old was “very intelligent” and extremely helpful in the investigation.

A family spokeswoman said Tuesday that the family was avoiding news coverage and staying secluded while awaiting positive identification of the body.

“They want to thank everyone for the calls and prayers,” said Terri Harrison. “They ask that people keep praying. But they don’t have a statement beyond that right now.”

Relatives last saw Willoughby on Sunday morning when they left for church. Willoughby, who lived with her mother and stepfather, planned to attend church services with her sons, ages 2 and 3, and a male friend.

Willoughby called her father Sunday and asked if he could help fix her car that had broken down Saturday. But when her father called back about 2 p.m., she didn’t answer.

No one could reach Willoughby after that. The phone call to her father was the final one made from her phone, a relative said.

About 7 p.m. Sunday, a friend dropped the boys off at a relative’s house in the 5400 block of Wayne Avenue, across the street from Willoughby’s house.

A woman at the relative’s home soon asked the boys where their mother was. The 3-year-old boy gave his disturbing account, the woman said.

The boy’s grandparents weren’t home at the time so the woman kept the boys until about 9:45 p.m., when she saw the grandparents return home.

The grandparents called police early Monday to report their daughter missing. Relatives and friends spent Monday passing out fliers and searching.

After specially trained social workers interviewed the 3-year-old boy Monday, police began their search.

Relatives said they knew something was wrong because Willoughby would not be away from her children that long.

“She loved her kids,” said Sherry Willoughby, the victim’s aunt. “She was never without them.”

Essence Willoughby worked hard to raise her kids and balance her education, relatives said. She graduated from high school, completed a Certified Nursing Assistant program and was enrolled at Metropolitan Community College-Blue River to study criminal justice with two scholarships.

An employee at a store near 55th Street and the Paseo told relatives he saw Willoughby about 10 a.m. Sunday arguing with a man. Police still are looking for anyone who saw Willoughby on Sunday so they can establish her whereabouts before her death. The man last seen with Willoughby did not have a car and Willoughby’s car wasn’t working, so police were trying to determine what vehicle or transportation they were using Sunday.

On Monday afternoon, police arrested the man last seen with Willoughby, but not in connection with her death.

He had been picked up after someone called 911 to report a suspicious man believed to be extremely high on drugs near 39th Street and Park Avenue. The man was wearing scrubs, and the caller wondered if he had escaped from a mental hospital. The man had an outstanding felony warrant for not paying child support and was taken to jail.

Police ask that anyone with information about Willoughby’s death call the TIPS Hotline at 816-474-TIPS (474-8477).