It's the heartbreaking story that has parents across America holding their children closer—the kidnapping and murder of 5-year-old Shaniya Davis.
On November 10, Antoinette Davis reported Shaniya missing from her Fayetteville, North Carolina home. Later that morning, a surveillance camera in a hotel 30 miles away showed a man carrying a girl matching Shaniya's description. A hotel worker notified police, but the man and child left by the time authorities arrived. Police identified the man as Mario Andrette McNeill, who has a history of violent crime.
As the investigation continued, hundreds of volunteers joined the search for Shaniya, and her father, Bradley Lockhart, made an emotional plea for his daughter's return.
On November 13, McNeill turned himself in, and police charge him with first-degree kidnapping. The next day, police made a shocking revelation—Davis allegedly sold her daughter as a sex slave. She was arrested and charged with human trafficking and felony child abuse involving prostitution.
On November 16, every parent's worst nightmare came true for Bradley. Shaniya was found dead, her body among deer carcasses near a rural North Carolina highway.
Since the discovery of her body, McNeill has also been charged with first-degree murder and first-degree rape of a child. He has not entered a plea. The state medical examiner's preliminary test results show asphyxiation as the cause of Shaniya's death.
Shaniya's family is now struggling to cope with her senseless death. Shaniya's father, Bradley, says the support he's received—from as far as Iraq—is helping him stay strong. "[I'm] just staying focused on making sure we give Shaniya the best homecoming we can."
Bradley's sister Carey Lockhart-Davis was like a second mother to Shaniya. "I am disgusted but yet in so much pain at this point," she says. "She was such a vibrant child and such an important part of my life and it is hard at this time for me to understand as to why someone would take this sweet blessing away from me."
Bradley says Shaniya was born from a brief relationship with Davis. "Antoinette did care for Shaniya her first year when she was first born. After that, she felt that it was best that Shaniya stayed with me as I was able to provide and give her a better environment," he says. "Any time Antoinette asked to see her, I made arrangements that she was able to spend time with her daughter."
Bradley, a contractor, says he last saw Shaniya on October 2, 2009, just before he had to leave for an out-of-town job. "When he's gone, Shaniya's with me. And on October 9, Antoinette had called me and asked me if she could visit with Shaniya," Carey says. "Shaniya loved her mother very much, and she did want to be with her."
As she had many times before, Carey says she dropped Shaniya off at her mother's house. "I gave her a kiss goodbye and I told her to be a good girl for Aunt Carey," she says. "As she ran off to her mom, she turned back and looked at me and said, 'I love you, Aunt Carey, and I'll see you later.' And that was the last time I've seen Shaniya."
Reports say Child Protective Services was investigating Davis. Other reports say that she may have sold Shaniya into sex trafficking to pay off a drug debt. "I wasn't aware of any drug problem. It never even crossed my mind," he says. "Antoinette never lived in the best neighborhoods, so of course there was always that concern. But I never was concerned of her caring for [Shaniya] as a mother; for the weekends, she would keep her."
There are also reports that relatives had seen cigarette burns on Shaniya's body. "I saw certain things, but they would be things like scrapes on the knees that normal children would receive. ... The cigarette burn that was in question, someone was smoking a cigarette and I was told that Shaniya had walked into the cigarette accidentally," Carey says. "When I questioned Shaniya, she wouldn't really explain things. Shaniya and I's relationship was much different. Our relationship was full of laughter and joy, and a lot of the time that we spent together, it was more playful and learning."
Bradley says he may speak with Davis one day, but not now. "I just think that it's best that we let the justice system take its course," he says. "I try to keep my heart as pure as possible and I'm sure one day I will be able to sit down and talk to her and try to understand what was going through her mind."
When asked what he'd like to see happen to McNeill, Bradley says the outcome is not up to him. "It's in the Lord's hands now, and the justice system's, and he's got to come to grips and repent for his actions," he says. "I know the grace of the Lord and if he's sincere within his heart, he'll be able to move forward with his guilt."
Still, Bradley hopes that Shaniya's story will help keep other children safe. "There's so much to be said about that precious angel. As you can see from the outreach and just the vigils ... she's definitely touched a lot of hearts and she's dug deep inside a lot of people," he says. "I just hope that they've taken some of this joy that she's brought down to them, and some of this hurt, and we can curb it from happening to another child. Get something in place to where the system benefits those who need help, and quit walking away from it."