ORANGE PARK, Fla. — In the days after a 7-year-old vanished on her way home from school, authorities launched a massive manhunt, interviewing all the registered sex offenders in a 5-mile radius.
They found Somer Thompson's body buried among 225 tons of garbage in a Georgia landfill, but no sign of her killer. This week, nearly four months after she died, Clay County Sheriff Rick Beseler announced a person of interest in the case, an unemployed 24-year-old restaurant worker who lived on and off in Somer's neighborhood. Friends and authorities say he kept files of child pornography on his computer.
Authorities have not charged Jarred Mitchell Harrell in Somer's death. Somer's mother, Diena Thompson, was trying not to get her hopes up, her attorney said Friday.
"This has been an emotional roller coaster for her," said attorney Michael Freed. "We want to make sure the ride comes to an end before she reacts."
Harrell was arrested Thursday in Meridian, Miss., where he moved about three weeks ago, and charged with 29 counts of possession of child pornography. He was being held in Mississippi on $1 million bond and Lauderdale County Sheriff Billy Sollie said he did not yet have an attorney.
Harrell's aunt, Kriss Mizelle, said she does not believe he is capable of violence.
"They tried to make it sound like he's some monster, but he's not," said Mizelle, who let Harrell stay with her in Meridian. "I could say all these good things about him, but nobody wants to hear that. They think you're delusional and don't know about his secret life, but he's a good kid."
rovided few details about the case and did not say what evidence makes Harrell a person of interest.
Family friend Rod Buchanan says Harrell lived on and off with his parents at a brick ranch home not far from Somer's.
Buchanan said his own stepson was playing on Harrell's computer last year and found some pornographic pictures. He told the adults in the family, but it was "kinda brushed under the rug," and no one reported it, Buchanan said.
Later that year, Harrell moved in with Buchanan's stepdaughter and her fiance at an apartment a few miles away.
According to both Buchanan and a report from the Clay County sheriff's office, they discovered in August that Harrell was stealing from them and asked him to leave. He left his computer behind, so they turned it on, curious.
"Our kids saw stuff that nobody should ever have to see," said Buchanan, adding that his stepdaughter now wants to talk with a therapist to deal with the trauma of the images of child pornography. Buchanan said it was clear what the files were when they turned on the computer.
Buchanan's wife, a nurse in a neighboring county, asked a deputy what her daughter should do, and they decided she should bring the computer to authorities there.
'I got goosebumps'
urned over to Clay County authorities, but the case was still under investigation when Somer disappeared Oct. 19. After a two-day search, investigators spotted her lifeless legs sticking out of the rubbish at a landfill 50 miles from Orange Park, just over the Georgia line.
That week, Buchanan and his wife passed Harrell's parents' house, noting how close it was to Somer's. The parents had recently moved, but Harrell's car was in the driveway.
"I got goosebumps," Buchanan said.
The Buchanans went straight to Clay deputies and told them about Harrell.
Authorities with the sheriff's office did not immediately respond to questions, including why it took so long to announce Harrell as a person of interest.
But Beseler put out a news release Friday afternoon to address criticism in online forums about why his agency did not arrest Harrell immediately after pornography was discovered. He said such investigations take time and require a painstaking process to link the images back to a suspect.
"To infer that the Harrell child pornography investigation somehow languished is unfair and inaccurate," the statement said.
Freed, Diena Thompson's attorney, said neither she nor her daughter knew Harrell.
Mizelle, Harrell's aunt, said he moved about three weeks ago from Florida to Meridian because he had visited and liked the area. It wasn't clear where he had been before then.
"They made it seem like he ran here to hide, but he was putting in job applications and using his Social Security number," she said.
Harrell was originally from Lucedale, Miss., and was home-schooled before moving to Florida. He worked various jobs, from cooking to retail, Mizelle said. She said authorities also took a computer from her home Thursday.
The house had two snow-covered white hearses in the yard, and Mizelle said they were used for haunted house displays during Halloween.
Looking for closure
jumpy Friday, and 59-year-old Mardi Hemphill carried a pistol in the pocket of her gray sweat shirt.
She said Harrell seemed like a nice guy and that Mizelle and her partner, Larenda Mingledorff, are nice people and respected in the community.
"They wouldn't turn anyone away," she said, adding they had no idea what Harrell had been accused of.
Freed declined to make Diena Thompson available for an interview Friday. But before Harrell was arrested, she talked on ABC's 20/20 about what it would be like to confront her daughter's killer.
"I feel like it'll give me some more closure because I still blame myself, you know? What if I did this? Or what if this could have been done and instead of looking in the mirror and blaming myself, I'm going to have a picture of someone else to blame," she said. "So I just, I want to see this person's face. I, I can't wait to meet him face to face."
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