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Dhante Jackson arrested in murder of 8-year-old Hayward girl Sophia Mason

Raw: Authorities provide details regarding arrest in Sophia Mason murder
Raw: Authorities provide details regarding arrest in Sophia Mason murder 12:53

HAYWARD -- Dhante Jackson, wanted in connection with the March murder of his girlfriend's young daughter Sophia Mason, was arrested Saturday by Merced police.

According to California Attorney General  Rob Bonta, Merced detectives took Jackson in custody while he was hiding in Newark.

"The pain of losing a child is unimaginable — especially when that child was a victim of abuse," Bonta said in a statement. "We grieve with Sophia's family and loved ones, and acknowledge that she should be here with us now — playing, learning, and growing up."

UPDATE: Sophia Mason's family reacts to arrest in her slaying; 'It shouldn't have come to this'

During a Sunday morning press conference, authorities also confirmed that three female acquaintances were also arrested for helping Jackson elude police for six months. 

Police said the three women have been charged with accessory to murder after providing "money, shelter and transportation" to Jackson.

Jackson had been on the run ever since an arrest warrant for murder and child abuse was issued in the days following the discovery Sophia's lifeless body in a bathtub inside his Merced County home.

Sophia mother, Samantha Johnson, was also arrested in the case and remains jailed after pleading not guilty to murder charges.

Samantha Johnson Dhante Jackson Sophia Mason (Merced County DA's Office/Hayward PD)

"While the case is still under investigation, we want to express our deepest gratitude to the Merced Police Department and the California Department of Justice for their tireless work to bring this tragic incident one step closer toward justice being served," the Hayward police department said in a statement. "Our hearts and thoughts remain with the family and loved ones of little Sophia; we cannot imagine your pain as you continue to mourn her loss."

Sophia's body was found on March 11 at Jackson's home, two days after Hayward police detectives asked for the public's help in locating her, saying she was considered at-risk.

Police said family members, who were stunned when her body was discovered, told them the girl was last seen in December. 

"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.

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.

The day before police found the body, the 31-year-old Johnson was arrested on child abuse charges after giving investigators suspicious information regarding her daughter's whereabouts. She eventually gave Hayward police enough information to have them ask Merced police to check out the home on Barclay Way.

The Merced Sun-Star cited court documents saying Johnson told police that Jackson kept the girl in a shed outside his house and physically and sexually abused her. The report said Merced police found Sophia's body in a bathtub inside of a locked bathroom.

The Sun-Star reported Johnson told police that she had given permission to Jackson to "discipline" Sophia, with abuse becoming more severe over time. Johnson told police she did nothing to stop Jackson from abusing the child because she feared him, according to the report.

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