St. Louis, Mo. — A middle-school football coach has been jailed on suspicion of first-degree murder in the abduction and death of a 10-year-old girl in southwest Missouri, police said Wednesday.
A body believed to be that of Hailey Owens was found Wednesday at a Springfield home owned by the suspect, Police Chief Paul Williams said at a news conference. Official confirmation won’t occur until after an autopsy, but the chief said police “have a high degree of confidence” in the preliminary identification. He did not disclose the child’s cause of death.
Police say Craig Michael Wood, 45, is jailed on suspicion of first-degree murder but formal charges have not been filed. The Greene County prosecutor is reviewing the case and scheduled a news conference for late Wednesday afternoon.
Hailey was walking to a friend’s home in Springfield just before 5 p.m. Tuesday. Witnesses told investigators that a man in a gold 2008 Ford Ranger pickup truck drove down the street several times before abducting the child, who was just several blocks from her own home.
Wood was arrested late Tuesday inside the truck parked outside his small, single-story home.
The Springfield School District said Wood is a seventh-grade football coach and teacher’s aide who supervises in-school suspensions at a school for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Hailey did not attend that school, and Williams said the two apparently didn’t know each other.
“There’s no connection that we’ve been able to determine at this time between the victim and the suspect,” he said.
Williams said police have no idea of a motive for the killing. He said Wood has not talked to investigators since his arrest.
The chief said that witnesses to the abduction called 911 to report the truck’s license number. Resident Ricky Riggins told the Springfield News-Leader he chased the fleeing pickup in his car after a neighbor tried to pull the girl away.
“I couldn’t keep up,” Riggins told the newspaper. “He was probably five to six cars ahead of me. ... It was so fast.”
About 30 Springfield police investigators along with an FBI evidence response team searched the area near Wood’s home Wednesday morning, as well as a nearby coin-operated laundry.
A records search shows Wood had little criminal history. He pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance in 1990 in Greene County and was fined $100. Wood also was convicted in 2001 for illegal taking of wildlife, the News-Leader reported.
Springfield School District Superintendent Norm Ridder said in a statement Wednesday that Wood began working for the district in August 1998 and is a paraprofessional and coach at Pleasant View School. Ridder said Wood has been suspended since his arrest.
School spokesman Teresa Bledsoe later said that Wood was initially hired as a temporary employee who worked as a substitute teacher before he was hired full time in 2006. He has coached football at Pleasant View since 1998 and was also an assistant boys’ basketball coach.
“He met all of our qualifications for employment,” Bledsoe said, noting that the Springfield district has a more rigorous background check requirement than state law, with an additional screening designed to detect substantiated allegations of child abuse or neglect as well as any past criminal violations.
Hailey did not attend the school where Wood worked. She was a student at Westport Elementary School this year, and was at Bowerman Elementary School last year. Springfield, with 162,000 residents, is Missouri’s third-largest city.
“Students and staff at three of our schools are coping with this situation,” Ridder said.
Additional counselors and police were on hand at all three schools, and the district planned to release more information to parents later Wednesday.
A candlelight vigil for Hailey is scheduled for Saturday, and a memorial fund has been set up in her name at a local bank.