Emotion was all over Cathy Starke’s face, tears forming in her eyes, as Sheriff Jimmy Thornton announced Wednesday morning that an arrest had been made in the murder of her 11-year-old granddaughter, McKenzie Sessoms
“There’s no way I can tell you how it’s been,” Starke said as she took the podium at the press conference where a group made up mostly of journalists had gathered along with sheriff’s officials.
“I want to thank all these guys on behalf of McKenzie’s family. They did their job and they did it well.”
Just moments before, Thornton announced that a juvenile was now charged on petition with murder and first degree rape in the Salemburg Elementary student’s death.
He would not release the young man’s age or any further details about any possible relationship between the suspect and the young girl.
“Unfortunately, I cannot release specifics of the investigation due to the integrity of impending legal proceedings and the fact that my detectives are still conducting investigative work related to the case,” the sheriff stressed.
He and Capt. Julian Carr did acknowledge that it was possible that the juvenile could be tried as an adult, noting that a final decision on that would be determined after careful consultation with District Attorney Ernie Lee.
“More than likely it will be in criminal court,” Carr said.
The 11-year-old was found dead in her Hairr Drive home early Friday morning, Sept. 6, 2013, and since that time all officers would say about the incident was that her death was suspicious. In mid-September, detectives did go so far as to reveal that the child’s death was a homicide, but few other details have surfaced since that time.
On Wednesday, the barest of details about the case and the juvenile in custody were released.
Thornton said the nightmare began for the family on Sept. 6, when the child’s body was discovered, and has continued for the eight months since the investigation began. “This case has been emotionally challenging for the family. I cannot fathom the emotional strain that they have endured, searching for answers.”
He addressed the long, arduous investigation and the tight-lipped approach officers took as the case unfolded, saying that it was necessary because of the sensitive nature of the incident and the desire not to compromise the case.
“We have been tight-lipped throughout the investigation to ensure that the integrity of the investigation was not comprised, especially since there were juveniles involved,” Thornton stressed. “Our goal was to ensure that we identified the proper suspect and collected evidence sufficient to ensure conviction in a criminal case.”
He said during the eight-month long probe, investigators had conducted numerous interviews, as well as collected and processed evidence to include DNA. “This was further compounded by a potential suspect pool of over a dozen people.”
All those factors, he said, played into the time it took to wrap up the case.
Thornton acknowledged that any time there was a murder, particularly involving young people, there was a public expectation for a speedy arrest, but he said there were times when that just could not happen.
“We hope for a speedy arrest in any homicide, too,” Thornton attested, “but that isn’t always the case. Unfortunately, many factors determine the outcome of a case.”
He thanked the family — many who, he said, could not attend the press conference — for their patience, saying in their shoes he wasn’t sure he could have done the same. “I’ve never lost a child so I cannot fathom the emotional stress … I really thank them from the bottom of my heart for their patience.”
Starke said even though she and other family members had been ready for a resolution to the case for a long time, she never had any doubt that investigators would make an arrest.
“I was to the point that I wanted it rushed up, but no, I never had a doubt,” there would be an arrest,” she stressed.
She didn’t express animosity toward the juvenile arrested, but rather stressed that she hoped he realized how his actions had changed so many lives. “I don’t know what made him do it, but I hope he realizes how he messed up his life and what he took from us and McKenzie.”
Starke said it had been more difficult than anyone could imagine since the youngster was killed, but she said the support of family and friends had helped them endure. “That and every prayer that went up. I thank everyone for those prayers,” she said, asking for those prayers to continue.
Thornton offered appreciation, too, to his officers, including Capt. Julian Carr, Detective Chris Godwin and Deputy Andrew Worley — and a cadre of other investigators — for their diligence in working the case. He noted that this had been emotional for them as well.
“I would like to thank my investigators, the State Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Marshall University and several forensic laboratories for their work in this case. We have utilized in-state and out-of-state resources for forensic testing and consultation. This has been a team effort from the beginning and I am pleased that we have been able to bring closure.”
Before closing the conference, Thornton urged everyone to remember the family as they continued to deal with the nightmare and loss of such a young child.
“I ask that you keep McKenzie and her family in your thoughts and prayers,” he said.