JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A registered sex offender recently released from jail was charged Saturday with murder in the death of an 8-year-old Florida girl abducted while shopping with her mother.
Donald James Smith of Jacksonville was taken into custody after police cornered his white van on Interstate 95, said Mike Williams, director of investigations at the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.
Authorities had put out an Amber Alert with details of Smith's van early Saturday, hours after receiving a 911 call from Cherish Perrywinkle's mother about the missing girl.
Prior to the alleged abduction Friday night, Smith, 56, befriended Cherish and her mother at a dollar store, and "offered to take them to Wal-Mart and buy her family some clothes," Williams said.
"They appeared to be down on their luck and he could help them out."
After spending a couple hours inside the Wal-Mart together, Smith offered to buy hamburgers and walked with Cherish to the front of the store, Williams said.
Instead of stopping to buy the snack, Smith walked Cherish outside and the two of them got into his van, Williams said.
The girl's mother called 911 when she realized Cherish and Smith were missing. An Amber Alert was issued, and a tip about a suspicious van spotted in the woods near a church led investigators to Cherish's body Saturday morning.
Meanwhile, an officer working at the scene of a traffic crash on Interstate 95 on Saturday morning recognized Smith's van as it drove past her and called it in.
The highway was shut down while other officers pulled Smith over and arrested him. He has not cooperated with investigators, Williams said, and it was not immediately known whether he had an attorney.
Williams declined to answer reporters' questions about how Cherish died or what Smith did in the hours between his disappearance with the girl and his arrest, saying that the investigation remains open.
Smith has been a registered sex offender since a 1993 conviction in Duval County for attempted kidnapping and selling obscene materials. He has been arrested several times since then, most recently in 2009 on a charge of child abuse after making obscene phone calls to a 10-year-old girl, making verbal threats, and impersonating a social worker with the Florida Department of Children and Families who claimed to be investigating the girl's family.
Smith pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges in that case and was released from jail May 31.
Williams said Smith had just met with police Friday morning to comply with a state law that requires sex offenders to verify their address once a year.
In a highly publicized case in 2009, a 7-year-old northeast Florida girl was abducted while she walked home from school. Police later found Somer Thompson's body in a Georgia landfill. A man who lived with his parents in Somer's Orange Park neighborhood pleaded guilty in 2012 to kidnapping, raping and murdering the girl and was sentenced to life in prison.
Somer's mother was quoted by The Florida Times-Union as saying that she was sickened by the news of Cherish's abduction.
"Her (Cherish's mother) nightmare has just begun," Diena Thompson said.
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