The search for an 8-year-old autistic girl reported missing in Gwinnett County, Georgia, on Sunday has ended with the grim discovery of her body—and murder charges against her mother’s partner.
It is not yet clear what the cause of death was for Nicole Amari Hall, but authorities say her mother’s claim that she had vanished early Sunday was false.
Brittany Nicole Hall and her partner Celeste Owens had been living in a hotel with Hall’s three children and said the girl may have wandered away. Police launched a frantic search effort to find her, telling the public to keep an eye out for a girl fitting her description, in a Tweety Bird jacket and blue and white pajamas.
But on Tuesday morning, the child’s body was found in a forest about 15 miles from the hotel, according to Gwinnett County Police Chief J.D. McClure, who announced the somber end to the search during a press conference.
“It’s extremely painful. It’s extremely painful. We all have family and we recognize the innocence of an 8-year-old child,” McClure told reporters. “Although we can’t bring her back, we can bring those responsible for her death to justice.”
“I can’t speculate on why they reported her as missing. But our investigation revealed Amari was not, in fact, missing. Very early in the investigation, we began to suspect foul play,” he said.
The circumstances of the little girl’s death remain unknown, with an autopsy expected to reveal how exactly she died. Hall’s partner, Owens, was charged on Sunday—before the body was found—with six counts of first-degree cruelty to children and for lying to police. On Tuesday, the charge of murder, concealing a death, and another count of child cruelty was added, according to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.
Hall was taken into custody on Monday and charged with making false statements, falsely reporting a crime, and five counts of first-degree cruelty to children. She is expected to be charged with concealing a body but not with her daughter’s murder, the paper reports.
Hall is said to have immediately raised suspicion when she reported her daughter missing to police. She made the call at 9:15 a.m. and said she had last seen her daughter between midnight and 1 a.m. when she and Celeste went to bed. But authorities say they noticed inconsistencies in her story after police questioned her involvement.
“We compared statements that we had gotten from Brittany Hall and also her partner, Celeste Owens,” McClure told reporters. “We compared those statements and recognized those statements were indeed false.”
Hall’s other children, a 6-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, are in protective custody. It is unclear if the cruelty to children charges also relate to them. McClure said at least some of the charges trace back to an incident at another hotel where the couple lived, but did not elaborate on how they determined that.