MERCED (KPIX 5) -- A body discovered in a Merced home last week has been identified as that of eight-year-old Sophia Mason, a missing Hayward girl whose mother has been arrested for her murder.
The Merced County Sheriff Coroner's Office confirmed on Tuesday what Mason's relatives had feared most ever since her mother, Samantha Johnson, gave Hayward police the information that led to Friday's gruesome discovery. The coroner's office did not reveal the cause of the little girl's death.
Meanwhile, a statewide manhunt continued for 34-year-old Dhante Jackson, Johnson's boyfriend who fled once he heard his Merced home was being searched. Both Johnson and Jackson face murder charges in the young girl's death.
Family members were stunned when the body was discovered.
"Devastated, shocked and angry. Just seems unreal," said Mason's cousin Melanie Verlatti. "Thinking about how this could have been avoided, and just knowing that it's terrible, and it's a tragedy."
Verlatti described Mason as a bubbly and playful girl who loved her adoptive grandmother, Sylvia Johnson. She raised Mason most of her life.
Verlatti's sister Melissa Harris said the child last spoke with Sylvia over the phone two weeks ago.
"[Sylvia] says she was not like herself at all. She seemed very drowsy, as if she were drugged. She couldn't finish her sentences and that caused Sylvia to have a lot of concern," said Harris.
The family said there were several red flags over the years and pleas for help from the authorities and Child Protective Services fell on deaf ears.
"It was countless calls, letters, emails… my cousin who is also Samantha's sister had sent me documents saying we feel like Sophia's in an unsafe environment. Her mom's taken her, we know she's prostituting, and she has her and she's in a hotel somewhere, but they would ultimately say 'well she's with her mom'" said Verlatti.
Samantha was adopted by Sylvia at a young age. The family said she struggled with mental health issues, including bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia. Over the years, Samantha would show up sporadically and take her daughter without warning. She would disappear for weeks and months at a time, and cut off all communication.
"She would take Sophia up and down the coast, Northern California, Southern California, in and out of different hotels, while she was prostituting. Who knows all that she's been exposed to and we've heard that she's drugged her before, so she would go to sleep, and not make noise in a hotel room while her mom is involved in illegal activities," added Verlatti.
There were also signs of physical abuse at the hands of her mother, she said. In the fall of last year, the family said Kaiser Permanente workers began taking photos of the child's scars and bruises, unrelated to the car accident which originally brought her to the hospital. But that's when Samantha fled the hospital with Sophia.
This incident prompted police to issue a warrant for her arrest. Samantha was eventually taken into custody. During the investigation into her child's disappearance, she led police to her boyfriend's home in Merced.
Samantha was already in custody at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin on a child abuse charge. She will be transferred to the Merced County Jail.
The Merced Police Department is asking anyone with any information regarding this incident to contact Detective John Pinnegar at (209)388-7712 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Refer to case #22-14506
for more features.