A manhunt is underway for a California man allegedly involved in an 8-year-old girl’s death that Child Protective Services could have prevented, her family says.
Merced Police detectives discovered a child’s dead body Friday (March 11) at Dhante Jackson’s home in Merced, Calif., a police statement said. The Merced County Coroner’s Office is working on identifying the body that is believed to be the remains of Sophia Mason who was reported missing.
Investigators received a tip about where to find Sophia from the girl’s mother, Samantha Johnson, who was already behind bars for suspected child abuse, CBS San Francisco reported. Authorities charged Johnson, 30, and Jackson, her 34-year-old boyfriend, with murder.
Sophia’s family said they alerted Child Protective Services repeatedly about their suspicions that the child’s mother, whom they say suffered from mental illness and drug addiction, was abusing her, CBS San Francisco reported.
Melanie Verlatti said this “unreal” situation makes her feel “devastated, shocked and angry” that her cousin could be alive. She added, “Thinking about how this could have been avoided, and just knowing that it’s terrible, and it’s a tragedy.”
Samantha Johnson was adopted at an early age by Sylvia Johnson, who raised Sophia for most of her life. Sophia, whom the family described as a bubbly and playful girl, had a close relationship with Sylvia Johnson, her adoptive grandmother.
Samantha Johnson, whom the family believed suffered from bipolar disorder, would sporadically show up unannounced over the years to pick up Sophia and take her daughter away from her adoptive grandmother.
She would take Sophia with her throughout the state and stay at various hotels while she was prostituting, the family said. They also suspect that Johnson would drug her daughter to keep the girl sedated so she could engage in illegal activities.
The family said they alerted Child Protective Services about their concerns for Sophia’s well-being, which the authorities dismissed.
“It was countless calls, letters, emails… my cousin who is also Samantha’s sister had sent me documents saying we feel like Sophia’s in an unsafe environment. Her mom’s taken her, we know she’s prostituting, and she has her and she’s in a hotel somewhere, but they would ultimately say ‘well she’s with her mom’” said Verlatti.
Authorities got involved in the fall of 2021 when hospital workers observed bruises and scars on Sophia’s body. Johnson had brought her daughter in for medical treatment after a car accident. But the bruises on her body were inconsistent with a vehicle wreck. When they began asking questions, Johnson fled the hospital with Sophia.
The Hayward Police Department began searching for Sophia on March 8, according to CBS San Francisco. Investigators arrested Johnson on March 10 and questioned her about Sophia’s disappearance. She reportedly gave the police enough information that led them to ask the Merced police to search her boyfriend’s home.
This tragedy could have been avoided, Sophia's family said.
“This system is broken, and this is what happens when kids fall through the cracks in the systems. And this is more than kids who fall through the cracks in the system. This is kids who are poor and kids who are of color,” Verlatti stated.