Suspect held in Hailey Owens’ death as Springfield, Mo., mourns a tragedy close to home

The last image most of Hailey Owens’ classmates will have of her is of a smiling, laughing girl dancing at Friday’s Valentine party.

After the treats and the passing out of holiday cards, Hailey’s fourth-grade teacher put on some music. And the parent helpers — including Hailey’s mother — got to see the kids go at it.

“They got to shake their groove thing, and Hailey was in the midst of it all,” said Gary Tew, principal of Westport Elementary School in Springfield. “That’s what the kids are going to remember about her. And her mom got to see her in that light, too.”

Days after that party, and after news hit Tuesday night that 10-year-old Hailey had been abducted near her home, students learned that their outgoing friend — the girl known to help kindergartners hang up their coats in the morning — had been murdered.

“It has completely shocked this community,” said Joe Bridges, a Springfield resident who has helped organize a weekend vigil in the little girl’s memory. “People can’t believe this would happen. It’s just the fact that she wasn’t far from her home, then instantly, poof, she’s gone.”

On Wednesday, a middle school football coach was charged with Hailey’s murder. According to court documents, Craig Michael Wood, 45, of Springfield, is accused of snatching Hailey from the street and, in front of witnesses, throwing her into his pickup truck.

Early Wednesday morning, investigators discovered Hailey’s body in Wood’s house. According to court documents, she had been shot at the base of her skull, and there appeared to be ligature marks on her arms.

Investigators found a .22-caliber shell casing in the basement, the documents said.

The body was found inside two trash bags and inside a plastic storage tote in the basement, which smelled strongly of bleach. The floor was wet, and there were bottles of bleach in the basement.

Wood was charged Wednesday with first-degree murder, armed criminal action and child kidnapping. He is being held without bond in the Greene County jail. His first court appearance could be today.

First-degree murder carries a possible death penalty.

“This case is still under investigation,” Greene County Prosecutor Dan Patterson said Wednesday. “We just have very preliminary facts at this point. We will consult with the police department and also consult with the family before we make that decision.”

Hailey’s family and friends could only reel at her disappearance.

“All I can say right now is I miss her and I love her,” her father, Markus Owens, told a Springfield television station.

Several counselors were at Hailey’s school Wednesday morning, as well as another school she attended last year and at Pleasant View Middle School, where Wood was a coach and paraprofessional.

Monday was a holiday and Hailey had been off sick on Tuesday, so her classmates had not seen her since the Valentine’s Day party. And though she had been at Westport for only a little more than a year, she had made a big impression on students and teachers.

“She was a really caring person,” Tew said. “If a new student came into the classroom, Hailey would be the one to say, ‘Hey, come over to my team.’ She would take care of others.”

News of Wood’s arrest shocked family and friends. He apparently never married and did not have children. A friend who met Wood at his parents’ home said he was nice and polite.

A co-worker at Pleasant View said Wood, in addition to coaching football, supervised students each day in the in-school suspension room. Nothing stood out as different about Wood except for his long hair, which contrasted with the appearance of other school employees, the co-worker said.

School spokeswoman Teresa Bledsoe said Wood was initially hired as a temporary employee who worked as a substitute teacher before he was hired full time in 2006. He has coached football since 1998 and was also an assistant boys’ basketball coach.

But Wood didn’t socialize with his neighbors, according to Dena Atchley, who lives five houses away from him.

Atchley saw him drive his truck to work every morning, passing her teenage daughter who was walking to her bus stop. Wood never approached her daughter or spoke to Atchley.

His arrest unsettled neighbors, Atchley said.

Missouri court records indicate Wood pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance in 1990. He was also convicted in 2001 for the illegal taking of wildlife.

Wood’s father, Jim Wood of Ash Grove, Mo., said he spoke with his son Tuesday night but would not say whether it was before the arrest or give details about their conversation.

“I can tell you it is just a tragedy,” Jim Wood said. “We’re stunned, for everybody who knows him.”

Hailey was abducted shortly before 5 p.m. Tuesday in the 3200 block of West Lombard Street, not far from her home. Authorities think she was walking from a friend’s house.

Carlos and Michelle Edwards were in their garage and saw what happened.

They told police a girl was walking along the street when a man in a pickup truck asked her for directions. The girl turned to walk away but the man called her to him. When the girl took one or two steps closer, the man grabbed her and threw her into the truck “like a rag doll,” Michelle Edwards told police. The truck sped away.

Michelle Edwards was able to get the truck’s license plate number, and they both gave police a description of the man. A couple of witnesses chased on foot. Another one got into a car and tried to follow but lost the truck.

Police issued a news release about the abduction and posted information on social media, including details about the victim, the suspect and the suspect’s vehicle. Police also sent information to the Missouri Highway Patrol. An Amber Alert was issued shortly after 7 p.m.

Police tracked the license plate to Jim Wood in Ash Grove, who told them his son drove that vehicle. Police were watching his home at 1538 E. Stanford St. in Springfield when Craig Wood pulled into the driveway about 8:30 p.m.

According to court documents, Wood threw a roll of duct tape into the bed of the truck when he saw officers. Wood matched the witnesses’ description and was taken in for questioning. The documents say he initially told police he went straight home from work but later said he drove around for a while. He denied having contact with Hailey.

Police checked Wood’s house for signs of Hailey and smelled bleach. After obtaining a search warrant they found her body.

Authorities also searched the Dutch Maid Laundry in Springfield.

Attendant Tressa Brown arrived at work about 7 a.m. Wednesday and said police and agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation were inside the laundromat. She said Wood is believed to have used one washer and two dryers Tuesday evening.

“They took all of his laundry,” Brown said of authorities. “They took at least five bags of laundry.”

About three and a half hours passed between Hailey’s abduction and Wood’s arrest.

Prosecutor Patterson praised the actions of the witnesses and the work of law enforcement.

“To locate this suspect, this offender, within just over three hours is a remarkable response,” Patterson said. “It is a tragedy that it was not quick enough to save Hailey, but I don’t believe there’s anything else they could have done in this case to have done that. We are fortunate that through all their actions, however, we were able to capture him and he will be brought to justice.”

Already, more than 1,000 people have reached out through social media saying they want to attend Saturday night’s candlelight march organized by Bridges, owner of JBE Entertainment. The march down Commercial Street begins at 8 p.m.

As a single father of a 7-year-old boy, Bridges said he felt compelled to do something.

A national campaign hit social media Wednesday afternoon to honor Hailey with lit porch lights. By Wednesday night, lights were on in her memory from Joplin, Monett and Platte City to parts of Nebraska, Ohio and Florida.

“Lights on in Higginsville, MO,” wrote one woman on the Porch Lights for Hailey Owens Facebook page. “Praying for peace and comfort for this family Rest In Peace sweet angel.”

Said another:

“Porch light on in Carpio, North Dakota . prayers for the family.”

Related stories from Kansas City Star