Marquail Johnson

Updated Aug 16, 2013 at 3:03 PM, Peoria News Journal

A major investigation is underway to determine whether the discovery of an 8-year-old missing autistic boy’s body Thursday morning was the result of a tragic accident or foul play. Marquail Johnson was reported missing after he was last seen by his mother about 7:45 p.m. Wednesday playing near his home, 810 S. Western Ave. A relative saw him between 8:15 and 8:30 p.m. in the alley behind 740 S. Western Ave.

A major investigation is underway to determine whether the discovery of an 8-year-old missing autistic boy’s body Thursday morning was the result of a tragic accident or foul play.

Marquail Johnson was reported missing after he was last seen by his mother about 7:45 p.m. Wednesday playing near his home, 810 S. Western Ave. A relative saw him between 8:15 and 8:30 p.m. in the alley behind 740 S. Western Ave.

At 10 p.m., the boy was reported missing to police as a possible abduction.

About 8 a.m. Thursday, the boy’s body was found inside an older model refrigerator with a door that latches closed from the outside behind the relative’s house at 740 S. Western Ave. The appliance was unplugged and upright near the back door of the home.

Three houses and an empty lot separate the boy’s home from the spot where the body was found.

A woman who identified herself as a close friend of Marquail’s mother described him as “just a regular kid who was out playing” Wednesday night.

“He was a good kid. He was a child of God,” Sandra Carter said as she sat on a South Western Avenue curb while police worked across the street. “He was ready to start school, just in a couple of days.”

She added: “This is crazy.”

Authorities shut down traffic in the 700 and 800 blocks of South Western Avenue as they investigated. A chain link fence was covered with a white sheet at the rear of the home where a deputy coroner eventually removed the body, and crime scene technicians handed off several brown paper bags of evidence.

As the coroner’s van backed up to the fence and a stretcher was unloaded, a woman collapsed in the street and loudly wailed. Several people rushed to help her and led her back to the home of the missing boy, where a crowd had gathered.

Peoria County Coroner Johnna Ingersoll said Marquail was pronounced dead at 8:27 a.m. and that his body had no outward signs of injury. An autopsy performed Thursday night determined Marquail likely died of suffocation. The autopsy did not find any evidence of trauma.

District 150 Superintendent Grenita Lathan said the district’s pupil support team would be at Trewyn School on Thursday, where teachers gathered for staff development after a rally in the morning. A teacher at the school mourned the death and its timing.

“The staff is torn up,” a Trewyn teacher said as the district’s annual back-to-school rally at Bradley University ended. “What a way to start the school year.”

Peoria police described a man who may have been seen with Marquail before he disappeared as an “older” white male, 5-feet-8-inches to 5-feet-10-inches tall, with a medium build, gray hair and beard, wearing a yellow shirt and blue pants.

By Thursday afternoon, that subject was described by police as a person still wanted for questioning who should be stopped if seen in the area of South Peoria where the boy disappeared but whom officers did not yet have probable cause to arrest.

Authorities labeled the inquiry a “suspicious death investigation.” One complicating factor in determining the nature of the death is the state of the body: the boy was unclothed inside the appliance when he was found.

Lisa Gerontes-Bowe, president of the Peoria Chapter of the Autism Society of America, said the boy’s developmental condition could have played a role in either scenario. Autistic children sometimes wander and disrobe for comfort, but also could be lured away by someone who knows their condition.

“People with autism sometimes have a tough time tolerating clothing; they have sensory issues,” Gerontes-Bowe said. “It’s very typical for kids with autism to wander. They don’t understand the danger.”

About half of autistic children are prone to wander, according to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics. Wandering has led to the deaths of more than 60 children across the country in the last four years, according to a recent analysis by The Associated Press and autism advocacy groups.

Matt Buedel can be reached at 686-3154 or mbuedel@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @JournoBuedel. Pam Adams contributed to this story.

Posted Nov 14, 2013 at 6:42 PM

PEORIA — The death of an 8-year-old boy who was found inside a refrigerator in August was ruled a homicide at an inquest Thursday.

A coroner’s jury deliberated more than 30 minutes before handing down the ruling in the death of Marquail Johnson, who was found Aug. 15 inside a refrigerator behind 740 S. Western Ave.

The boy was last seen by his mother about 8 p.m. Aug. 14 while playing with his cousins at a vacant lot at 810 S. Western Ave. and was reported missing to police at 10 p.m. After more than 50 police officers searched the neighborhood, the boy was found the next morning behind his aunt’s house, inside an unplugged, older model refrigerator with a door that latches closed from the outside. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

The jury at the Peoria County Coroner’s Office heard testimony from Peoria police Detective Amanda Chalus on the pertinent findings of the investigation so far.

Chalus said it still is unclear how Johnson ended up inside the refrigerator and how long he was inside. The body was discovered by the homeowner while officers were inside of the residence conducting their second search of the home, according to Chalus.

Through interviews, investigators determined that kids in the neighborhood did not play in that house’s backyard, which was surrounded by a chain-link fence and could only be accessed by the back door of the home.

The boy’s body was nude when discovered, with the rest of his clothes inside the refrigerator. An autopsy performed by Peoria County Coroner Johnna Ingersoll found no physical or sexual trauma to the body, and suffocation was determined as the cause of death. Chalus said the refrigerator door was free-standing, meaning it would not shut on its own, but could be pulled shut from the inside.

No latent fingerprints could be found inside the refrigerator or on the door handle, only smudge marks unusable as evidence, according to Chalus.

Though Marquail’s mother, Shinta Johnson, told police Marquail was autistic, investigators could not confirm that diagnosis nor find any prescriptions for autism medication, according to testimony from Chalus.

Also, Shinta Johnson had told police she was working during the day before coming home at 3 p.m. Aug. 14, but investigators found she had not worked that day after contacting her place of employment, said Chalus.

Johnson’s family was not present for the inquest.

Marquail’s 6-year-old cousin told Peoria police a man who may have been seen with Marquail before he disappeared was as an “older” white male, 5 feet, 8 inches to 5 feet, 10 inches tall, wearing a yellow shirt and blue pants. When detectives interviewed the cousin, he said the man appeared to be the father of a girl who went to his school, but that man was later ruled out as a suspect, according to Chalus.

The investigation into Johnson’s death continues. The outcome of the inquest does not affect the investigation, only the prosecution if a suspect is arrested and brought to trial.

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