The man believed responsible for the brutal abuse and killing of an 8-year-old East Bay girl, who has been on the run for the last six months, has been arrested along with several women who have been helping him hide.
34-year-old Dhante Jackson has been wanted since the grisly discovery in March of the remains of 8-year-old Sophia Mason at his home in Merced. Sophia's family had not heard from her or seen her in several months, after her mother, 30-year-old Samantha Johnson, came to take her away last year.
Johnson was arrested in March and has admitted to authorities that Sophia had been forced to live in her own feces in a metal shed behind Jackson's Merced home, as "punishment." And she said that an autopsy would likely reveal that Sophia had been physically and sexually abused.
With a history of drug abuse and what her family says is a diminished intellecutal capacity, Johnson had largely been out of the child's life since she was born. When she suddenly reappeared in town and took the child away to live with her in 2021, Sophia's aunt, Emerald Johnson, and her grandmother both filed reports with child protective services in Alameda County, worried about her welfare.
As we learned in June via investigative reporting by Bay Area News Group, there were eight separate reports filed with Alameda County's Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) regarding the possible neglect and abuse of the eight-year-old. But in all cases, determinations were made that she should continue living in her mother's custody.
Family members became most alarmed when Johnson reappeared in early March saying she had given the child away. A missing-persons report filed March 8 and questioning of Johnson by police ultimately led to the discovery of her remains on March 11.
Jackson fled the home when he learned that police were coming to search it, and as we learn via Merced police following his Saturday arrest, he remained on the lam with the help of three women, who have also been arrested on charges of accessory to murder after the fact.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta joined Merced police at a news conference Sunday to announce the arrests.
Jackson was located and arrested in the East Bay city of Newark on Sunday, and booked into jail in Merced County. Also arrested were Deburqa Johnson of San Jose, Lorona Larkins of Merced, and Mayra Gutierrez of Newark, who are all said to have provided Jackson with money, shelter, and transportation these last six months.
As NBC Bay Area reports, Merced police reiterated details in the case at Sunday's news conference — but one new detail was that the girl's body had been decomposing in a bathtub for about a month before she was found. Police earlier said that incense and a powerful exhaust fan were employed in the bathroom to try to mask the stench.
"The coroner determined that the death was a homicide and noted that Sophia’s body was malnourished," aid Lt. Joe Perez of the Merced Police Department, per NBC Bay Area. "In my 20 years in law enforcement, this case is the most disturbing and horrific I’ve seen."
Perez further added, "To know what that poor little angel went through by the hands of pure evil breaks my heart."
Jackson allegedly tried fleeing to Southern California but came to the Bay Area instead, as the Mercury News reports.
The child's aunt, Emerald Johnson, told the paper that it was "disgusting" that anyone would help a man accused of these heinous crimes.
"I was shocked, but definitely relieved,” Johnson said to the Mercury News, regarding Jackson's arrest. "It felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I couldn’t even stop crying."
Saying that the case made him "damn angry," Bonta made clear at the news conference that the suspects in the case will face severe penalties. "We shouldn’t be here — little Sophia should still be alive today,” Bonta said, per the Mercury News. “She should be playing. She should be learning. She should be growing up. She should be pursuing and chasing her dreams. Those accused of her murder must pay a steep price for their abhorrent crimes."
A cousin of the child, Melissa Harris, tells NBC Bay Area, regarding Alameda County DFCS's failures, "What they said to us, and to our family is that there was, it was unfounded. All of the complaints, even Sophia’s complaints were unfounded. And now that she's dead, I hope they can see that every single complaint was founded."