Questions remain as uncle accused of killing 7-year-old niece appears in court


by staff

Posted on September 11, 2013 at 12:59 PM

(KMOV) – A man authorities said killed his 7-year-old niece who had gone missing from her home in Effingham County, Ill. over the weekend is expected to be charged during an initial court appearance on Wednesday.

Effingham County State’s Attorney Bryan Kibler says he expects to file first-degree murder charges against 22-year-old Justin DeRyke during the 1 p.m. hearing.

Police said Long’s body was found by four search volunteers in an area south of Watson around 7:30 p.m. Monday near the Little Wabash River.

Authorities said the girl’s mother discovered her daughter was missing Sunday after taking a 90-minute nap. When she got up, Willow’s toddler brother pointed at the door.

DeRyke was arrested at 5:55 a.m. Tuesday. No other arrests have been made. 

An autopsy confirmed Long’s identity, but her exact cause of death remains unknown. All indications are it was a homicide, prosecutors said.

Click here to see photos of Willow Long and the scene of her search.

DeRyke’s family said several relatives will be on hand Wednesday to show their support for the murder suspect and victim. Many volunteers who helped with Long’s search efforts are also expected to be on hand.

But several questions remain in the case, mostly centering on DeRyke’s alleged confession of covering up her death.

Long’s grandfather, Dale DeRyke, said his son Justin was playing with Willow in their yard Saturday night when she tripped on a stick that went through her neck. 

“He was scared, He hid her body, he was scared,” Dale DeRyke DeRyke said. 

But even though the family said it was an accident, Dale DeRyke tried to explain why his son is being charged with premeditated murder.

“They have to, I understand. If he would have been smart enough, I don’t want to say smart enough, aware enough to call 9-1-1 or something, then maybe some manslaughter or negligence thing or something,” Dale DeRyke said. “I understand. He wasn’t. It’s his mistake. He realizes that I think. I got to see him today and talk to him. There’s nothing but remorse.”

Authorities said Justin DeRyke never helped in the initial search effort and neighbors also reported a suspicious lack of urgency with him. 

“Yeah I seen them over there drinking beer instead of searching for the little girl,” one neighbor said. That’s very pathetic, it’s awful. If that was my kid, I’d be out there looking 24/7.”