McKenzie Sessoms was an average 11-year-old girl who liked to ride horses and four-wheelers and spend time with friends, her grandmother said during a press conference earlier this week. She wanted to be a nurse or a teacher, a young girl with a brillant smile and her whole life ahead of her.
“She was just a normal 11-year-old,” Cathy Starke said Wednesday as she spoke briefly with a gathered group of mostly journalists and Sampson sheriff’s officials, there for the announcement that a juvenile had been arrested and charged with the youngster’s murder and rape.
“McKenzie had her whole life to make those plans,” Starke attested, pain evident in her eyes as she tried to fight back tears.
All that came to an end on Sept. 6, 2013, when the Salemburg Elementary student was found dead in her Hairr Lane home, lying on the couch where she had been sleeping each night while renovations were being made to her bedroom.
While sheriff’s officials remained tight-lipped about the case and the juvenile now charged with the murder, Sampson County Medical Examiner Dr. Carl Barr went on record with his findings late Wednesday afternoon, saying an autopsy performed on the child indicated that she had most likely been smothered.
“Several factors led me to this conclusion,” Dr. Barr said. “They were striking kinds of findings, like the discoloration in her face and multiple areas of hemorrhaging, petechial hemorrhaging (a form of mild hemorrhage which causes distinctive markings known as petechiae). It leads me to believe she was smothered, probably by a pillow that was found adjacent to her head.”
Findings, he added, did not lead him to believe there had been any “manual throttling.”
Barr confirmed that the youngster was found lying on the couch in the trailer she shared with her father and brothers, a place, he said, where she usually slept. “At least, as I understand it, that’s where she was sleeping while her bedroom was being renovated.”
Dr. Barr also confirmed that the autopsy showed evidence of sexual assault, a fact which bears out the rape charge leveled against the juvenile this week. “There was trauma,” the medical examiner confirmed.
Sheriff’s officials have never released any details about the cause of the youngsters death during the course of the eight-month long investigation, something Sheriff Jimmy Thornton said was important as they worked through the collection of evidence, completed interviews and weeded through a suspect pool of over a dozen people.
“We have been tight-lipped throughout this investigation to ensure that the integrity of the investigation was not compromised,” the sheriff said, noting that was particularly important because of the juveniles involved.
Even Wednesday during the press conference, only the barest of details were provided about the case and the juvenile now in custody.
That juvenile, who reportedly turned 15 Thursday, was not identified by sheriff’s officials Wednesday, and while some media outlets have discovered and reported his name, The Independent has chosen not to identify him unless he is bound over to criminal court to be tried as an adult.
According to Detective Chris Godwin, it is possible that will happen. “More than likely it will be bound over to criminal court,” he said during the press conference. Thornton added the final determination would be made after consultation with District Attorney Ernie Lee.
The 15-year-old was taken into custody Tuesday in Franklin County where he had moved to live with his mother. In September, he reportedly resided in Salemburg with his father and grandfather, next door to the Sessom’s residence.
On Wednesday, Thornton urged residents to continue praying for McKenzie’s family and those impacted by the nightmare which unfolded with the 11-year-old’s death last September.
Starke, who lives between Salemburg and Autryville, said her family’s pain was still razor sharp, but this week’s arrest would provide some closure even if it didn’t dull the raw emotions they all still shared.
She praised the Sheriff’s Department and its investigators, saying they had done a “good job” during the course of the investigation, and even though she and the family had been ready for a resolution to the case for a long time she never doubted an arrest would be made.
“I was to the point that I wanted it rushed up, but no, I never had a doubt” there would be an arrest.
Thornton acknowledged the lengthy investigation, realizing, he said, that the public expected a speedy arrest.
“We hope for a speedy arrest in any homicide, too,” the sheriff attested, “but that isn’t always the case. Unfortunately, many factors determine the outcome of a case.