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Heartbroken Massachusetts mom begs for justice in teen daughter's mysterious death

Mikayla Miller was found dead April 18 in a wooded area near her apartment. Authorities have yet to declare how she died.

A heartbroken Massachusetts woman who said the investigation into her daughter's death last month has been riddled with flaws pleaded with investigators Thursday to treat the situation as they would if the victim were one of their own children.

"What I want is for the criminal justice system to work," said Calvina Strothers, the mother of Mikayla Miller. Strothers said police and prosecutors looking into the circumstances of her daughter's death should "work as hard to get justice for Mikayla as they would do for their own child."

IMAGE: Mikayla Miller
Mikayla Miller.Justice for Mikayla Miller

Strothers spoke Thursday afternoon during a vigil in her hometown, Hopkinton, where at least several hundred people remembered Mikayla.

Mikayla, 16, a high school sophomore who had dreams of being a journalist and attending a historically Black college, was found dead by a jogger early April 18 in a wooded area near her apartment. The manner of her death has not been released; police and prosecutors have said she was involved in a fight the day before.

The teen's death has rattled Hopkinton, a town about 35 miles west of Boston best known for hosting runners at the starting line of the Boston Marathon. Critics have said that the investigation by police and the Middlesex County District Attorney's Office has been bungled and that Mikayla's race and sexual orientation have played a role in how the case has been handled.

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan has defended the investigation.

"Let me also speak to the calls and questions that we have appropriately received from concerned citizens regarding the notion that this office has in some way neglected Mikayla's case or, worse, so much worse, is engaged in some sort of cover-up because Mikayla was Black or because she was a member of the LGBTQIA community," Ryan said at a news conference Tuesday. "That is painfully false."

Ryan said Mikayla's death was an "unspeakable tragedy." She described Mikayla as a "beautiful child ... cherished daughter, a gifted student, a talented athlete and a loyal friend."

Hopkinton has more than 18,000 residents, about 84 percent of whom are white. About 2 percent identify as Black, according to preliminary census data.

Mikayla's death has resonated from Massachusetts to Washington, D.C., with some of the state's most influential politicians weighing in. Sen. Elizabeth Warren called for a "thorough and transparent investigation."

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who represents Massachusetts' 7th Congressional District, which includes Boston and some neighboring communities, went a step further, saying there should be an "independent investigation." Pressley also tweeted about Mikayla's college aspirations and fondness for basketball.

"She had so many basketball games, road trips and HBCU homecomings ahead of her," Pressley said.

State Attorney General Maura Healey, who is openly gay, said on Twitter: "My heart breaks for Mikayla Miller's family. Young, LGBTQ girls of color deserve all our love, support and protection."

Ryan told reporters that no conclusion has been made about how Mikayla died. The investigation continues, and the cause and manner of death will be determined by the state medical examiner's office. A spokesman for the office said Thursday that 96 percent of autopsy reports and death certificates, which can include toxicology and other specialized tests, are completed in less than 90 days.

At the media briefing this week, Ryan was asked why Hopkinton police told Mikayla's family that she died by suicide and initially told reporters that the death was not suspicious.

"Very often ... things may appear to be one thing, and then we learn more information," Ryan said.

Ryan said Mikayla was in an altercation April 17 with two other teens, a male and a female. They scuffled at Mikayla's apartment complex, Ryan said. Shortly afterward, Mikayla's mother called Hopkinton police and reported that her daughter had been jumped. Investigators noted the teen's bloody lip, Ryan said.

That night, Mikayla left home between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., according to information retrieved from a health app on her cellphone, Ryan said. The app showed that she walked 1,316 steps.

A jogger found her body at about 7:45 a.m. on April. 18, investigators said.

"That distance of 1,316 steps is approximately the distance between Mikayla's home and the place where her body would subsequently be located," Ryan said.

Ryan said the cellphone and other belongings were found along with Mikayla.

At the rally Thursday, Strothers strongly disputed many of the statements Ryan has made publicly. Strothers said that her daughter was assaulted by five teenagers and that her cellphone was not on before she died, meaning, she said, that investigators only estimated how many steps from her apartment her body was found. Strothers also said investigators have withheld police reports from her.

A spokeswoman for Ryan declined to comment on the allegations late Thursday afternoon.

At the vigil, a tearful Strothers spoke about how she and her daughter were almost inseparable and lamented that she would never get to watch Mikayla celebrate milestones like getting her driver's license, graduating from high school and college and falling in and out of love.

"She was my bright and shining star in this crazy world," Strothers said. "She was a good listener and had a kind heart. And although she was only 16 years old, she gave better advice to others in times of need than I did."