ST. LOUIS — A southern Illinois man was arrested Tuesday in the killing of a 7-year-old niece who went missing from her home as her mother napped, a prosecutor said.
Effingham County State’s Attorney Bryan Kibler said he expects to press first-degree murder charges today against Justin DeRyke, 22, in the death of Willow Long. Kibler, in a statement, said DeRyke’s first court appearance also was expected that day.
Four of the volunteers who took part in the search for the girl found her body Monday night near their 730-resident village of Watson, where the girl and DeRyke lived. DeRyke was arrested about 6 a.m. Tuesday near the town, about 100 miles northeast of St. Louis.
Kibler said an autopsy Tuesday positively identified the body as Willow, though his statement did not indicate what caused Willow’s death.
The prosecutor said the autopsy’s findings could dictate whether additional charges are filed against DeRyke other than a murder count.
It’s unclear if DeRyke has an attorney, and he doesn’t have a listed home telephone number.
Authorities have said Willow’s mother discovered her red-haired daughter was missing Sunday after taking a 90-minute nap while the girl watched a Disney movie with her 3-year-old brother. The mother said that when she woke up and asked the toddler where Willow had gone, the boy pointed at the door, indicating she had left. The mother then called authorities.
Hundreds of volunteers, some on horseback and others by air, searched for the girl on Monday throughout the largely rural area, fanning out across corn and soybean fields and checking outbuildings for the missing child. The day’s grueling conditions — the heat index in the area hovered near 100 degrees — at times interrupted the search as volunteers sought shade and rehydration.
Messages left Tuesday with Effingham County Sheriff John Monnet and at Willow Long’s home were not returned.