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Jacksonville police officers Elaina Gonzales, Charlie Wilkie (and his K-9 parnter, Gator) and Tina Henson were recognized for their work in the Cherish Perrywinkle investigation.
Jax Daily Record Monday, Jun. 23, 201412:00 PM EST

Cherish Perrywinkle's death a year later: 'My God, who does this?'

by: Marilyn Young

Among the prayers said Sunday at Highlands Baptist Church was one for a little girl no one there knew until last year.

A little girl who, for 10 hours, had a city praying a year ago for her safe return.

The church and the little girl will forever be tied together by a crime. A horrible crime.

Cherish Perrywinkle was found June 22, 2013, in a creek behind the Northside church. The 8-year-old girl had been kidnapped, raped and strangled.

The Rev. Art Taylor heard about the gruesome discovery at his church on television that Saturday morning.

He later went to the home of Cherish’s mom, Rayne Perrywinkle, whom he talked to briefly.

“We did what we could do to minister to her as best as we could,” Taylor recalled over the weekend. “We were concerned as a church and wanted to do what we could do.”

He let the grieving mother know the church was there if she needed support. If she needed to talk. If she needed anything.

A few days after the visit, Taylor said, the church hosted a service to remember Cherish’s life and mourn her death. It was standing-room only in the auditorium that seats 500-600 people, he said.

By then, the outside of the white church with the large steeple already was the site of a memorial consisting of balloons, stuffed animals, notes and candles.

Tokens of compassion left by strangers who had waited for her to come home.

Then they grieved for her.

‘My God, who does this? Who does this?’

That Saturday morning in June 2013, Jacksonville police officer Charlie Wilkie and his K-9 partner, Gator, were called to the Northside church.

His hope was to find Cherish alive, he told a state legislative panel in September.

Even as he walked toward the water, he said, he thought he was going to find her. She was going to be conscious. He was going to save her.

“Then you get there and you realize there’s nothing you can do. It’s done. It’s done,” he said.

Wilkie and Gator found Cherish’s partially clothed body tucked under a log in the water.

She was gone.

It was the worst day in his career, he told the panel.

After notifying homicide detectives of his discovery, “I looked up and said, ‘My God, who does this? Who does this? And it’s got to stop.’”

Lawmakers agreed, passing a series of tougher laws dealing with sexual predators and offenders.

Donald Smith, who has been charged in Cherish’s death, had been arrested for preying on children before. He had been out of jail three weeks when Cherish disappeared. Ironically, police had just done an address check at his mother’s house where he lived the morning Cherish was taken.

Spotting the white van

Wilkie was called to the church after two women reported seeing a white van backed up in the woods at the church. Neither knew about Cherish’s disappearance when they first saw the van between 7:30-8 a.m.

When Christina Howard’s mother told her about Cherish’s kidnapping and the white van, she immediately drove back to the church. The van was gone. She called police and waited for them at the church.

When Brenda Fillingim returned to her home about 8:30 a.m., she said she heard about police searching for a white van. She went back to the church, where she saw Howard.

Fillingim last week said at the time she went to a nearby substation and brought officers back to the church with her

Before Wilkie was called to the church, he was one of several officers who had stopped a white van driven by Smith on Interstate 95. Officer Tina Henson had seen the van drive past her as she was working a crash at Dunn Avenue and Interstate 95, not far from Highlands Baptist Church.

Smith was soaking wet, but he attributed that to sweating because he was smoking crack, police said. He denied knowing about Cherish’s disappearance and used an alibi that he had spent the night smoking crack with prostitutes.

Cherish’s final night

When Officer Elaina Gonzales heard the call to be on the lookout for a man named Don who was driving a white van, she began searching records.

She quickly found Smith, then learned he was a sexual offender who recently had been released from jail. She also discovered his mother owned a white van.

It was a quick and critical break.

Not all police response was as impressive. Several officers and other Sheriff’s Office employees were disciplined because of problems with response and communication that night.

The morning after Cherish disappeared, police met with Smith’s mother, Patricia Moore, who said she had taken her son to the Moncrief Road area because he owed a drug dealer $150.

Her son left home about 6:45 p.m. the night Cherish was abducted and she hadn’t heard from him since.

A man who rented a room from Moore said he had helped Smith remove the rear seat from the white van the day before. Smith had said he wanted to put tools in the back.

Police said Smith met Cherish and her family at a Dollar General store, where he offered to buy Rayne Perryinkle a dress at Walmart.

Smith drove the Perrywinkle family to the Walmart on Lem Turner Road where, at about 11 p.m., he said he was going to buy food at the McDonald’s inside the store.

Cherish wanted a cheeseburger and she wanted to go with him.

Together, they walked to the front of the store, then into the parking lot.

For some reason, police said, Smith pulled beside the car of Ashley and Christopher Rozier in the Walmart parking lot and yelled, “We’re going to get cheeseburgers.”

The Roziers didn’t see anyone else in vehicle.

Cherish had vanished.

Then she was gone.

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