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Family of Missing Hayward Girl Devastated After Child's Body Found -- 'This Could Have Been Avoided'

HAYWARD (KPIX) -- Heartbroken family members told KPIX that the tragic death of an eight-year-old Hayward girl who had gone missing could have been avoided if Child Protective Services had heeded repeated warnings about the girl's mother.

Merced Police have issued an arrest warrant for 34-year-old Dhante Jackson, the boyfriend of 30-year-old Hayward mother Samantha Johnson, who is now behind bars.

Both are facing murder charges after investigators found a child's body inside the Central Valley home where authorities believe Samantha and her daughter, Sophia Mason, had been staying.

Since Tuesday, Hayward police have been searching for the missing eight-year-old girl. Family members said Mason was last seen in December. But they have been worried about her well-being for years.

On Friday March 11, Merced Police found a child's body on Barclay Way in Merced. Mason's cousins believe it to be Sophia's.

"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 8-year-old girl who loved her adoptive grandmother, Sylvia Johnson. She raised Mason most of her life.

missing Hayward girl Sophia Mason
Missing Hayward girl Sophia Mason (CBS)

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 this week. During the investigation into her child's disappearance, Samantha led police to her boyfriend's home in Merced.

Jackson went on the run soon after news spread about his home being searched, according to Merced Police. A warrant has been issued for his arrest for the charge of murder. He is known to frequent the Bay Area.

Samantha was already in custody at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin when she was arrested on a murder charge. She will be transferred to the Merced County Jail.

"This system is broken, and this is what happens when kids fall through the cracks in the systems. And this is more than kids who fall through the cracks in the system. This is kids who are poor and kids who are of color," said Verlatti.

In addition to family's concerns, Harris said a Bay Area women's shelter where Samantha and Sophia had been staying also contacted Child Protective Services. They stated that Samantha was starving her child. Ultimately, the family said no action was taken.

"My sister and I are hoping to speak for her in some regard and tell her story because her story was cut short," said Harris. "She turned eight January 1st of this year and it is an absolute tragedy that she didn't get to life a full life. But not only that, as Melanie said, but to bring awareness to the fact that our social services system is overburdened."

The coroner's office is still working to positively identify the child.

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 Refer to case #22-14506

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