BREMERTON, Wash.—After dinner on Saturday night, the parents of six-year-old Jenise Paulette Wright say their daughter went safely to bed. In the morning, however, that bed was empty and more than 48 hours later their first grader is still missing. As dog teams scoured the Washington state mobile home park where she lived, police searched cars and checked identification at the entrance to the community. But on Tuesday the entrance was closed completely to non-residents and the FBI stepped in to take over the search.
“This is heartwrenching. Our hearts just go out for this little girl, and were going to do everything we can to find her,” Kitsap County Steve Boyer told reporters Tuesday. “We’re going to hope for the very best.”
Investigators are going door to door, asking to search every trailer and out-building in the mobile home park, and were halfway done with the sweep by Tuesday afternoon. They said they would request search warrants for all who don’t comply voluntarily.
Authorities also requested surveillance video and assigned sheriff’s deputies to call and question all registered sex offenders in the area. “My mind is still spinning,” James Wright, the little girl’s father, told NBC affiliate KING-5 as the search began to widen. “It’s just completely unclear, just a bad day gone wrong.”
The case has elicited an outpouring of sympathy and support, with neighbors searching through the night after they heard James calling his daughter’s name in the dark. But on Tuesday, after both parents faced increased scrutiny from law enforcement—including lie detector tests and a search of their tiny cream-colored home—the normally friendly, tight-knit neighborhood started to wonder: had the Wrights done all they could to keep their daughter safe?
They didn't call 911 until 24 hours after she was missing, telling law enforcement that she had wandered off before. Even in a community of unlocked doors, where kids roam in friendly packs, that struck some residents as odd.
“I wouldn't let my six year run around by herself and she has been doing it since she was 3-years-old,” said Phyllis Tindall, 76, who lives a few houses from the Wrights and has grandkids in the community.
She says the neighborhood is safe and family-friendly. Her daughter, who manages the complex, runs background checks on all new owners. But at the same time, she added, the Wrights seemed to feel safer than most modern parents and seemed to allow their daughter to walk freely.
Tindall says she woke up one morning a couple years ago to find the then 4-year-old Jenise standing on her lawn in nothing but a man’s shirt. Another neighbor, 25-year-old David Pfister, recalls seeing Jenise walking around barefoot from early in the morning until late at night.
"That doesn't seem right for a six year old," he said.
While many people in the neighborhood were used to watching out for the inquisitive little girl, they also worried that one day the child would run into the wrong person. By Tuesday neighbors had begun to fear that day had come.
In a brief statement to reports, Kitsap county deputy Scott Wilson said there was no evidence the girl was snatched from her bedroom. But some witnesses have told police they saw Jenise in the complex on Sunday, raising the possibility that she was taken while outside.
“If someone pulled up with a chocolate or a puppy, she would come over to them and she would probably get in the car," said Tindall. "She is just such an outgoing girl, she would go with anyone.”
Jenise's parents have not officially been named suspects, but state child welfare workers decided to remove two other children — an 8-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl — in the aftermath of her disappearance.
The circumstances of the loss has sent a wave of concern through the family. “It’s pretty hard to take,” says Herman Almojera, Jenise’s uncle. “I would not let my child roam that freely.”
While he said he’s been unable to reach Jenise’s mother, he spoke to her grandfather and grandmother. They were on vacation in New Mexico when they heard the news, and they canceled the rest of their trip. “My brother is pretty darned worried,” he said, adding that he could hear Jenise’s grandmother sobbing in the background of the call. “We’re all praying,” he said. “I ask the creator to help us out.”
The neighbors, for their part, are also still taking off work and using lunch hours to aid the search, said Susan Williams, 67, who has lived in the community for more than 20 years. The neighborhood feels like a family, she said.
“It has hit us hard.”