The brother of murdered 7-year-old Willow Long has been taken into protective custody pending an investigation by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, according to an agency spokesman.
Allegations of neglect and abuse were reported to the DCFS hotline last Sunday after Willow went missing, spokesman Dave Clarkin told HLN. On Tuesday, DCFS took protective custody of Willow’s 3-year-old brother.
Clarkin could not discuss details of where the boy is currently, but children in protective custody are generally either placed with other relatives or a foster family.
Clarkin said investigations normally take up to 60 days, but since a death is involved in this case, it could take longer. The agency had received no prior reports of abuse involving the family.
Willow Long was reported missing from her family’s Watson, Illinois, home on the morning of Sunday, September 8. Authorities estimated that close to 2,000 volunteers participated in the ensuing search.
Less than 48 hours later, around 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Willow’s body was found wrapped in a bag submerged in water in a rural area south of Watson. Her uncle, 22-year-old Justin DeRyke, has been charged with her murder.
Willow had lived in the Watson house with her mother, her 3-year-old brother, her grandparents and Justin DeRyke.
According to the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office, Willow’s mother, Ciara DeRyke, called 911 around 10:45 a.m. on September 8 to report that she was missing.
Sheriff John Monnet told reporters DeRyke initially said she had seen Willow earlier that morning watching TV, but she went back to bed around 8:45 a.m. and Willow was gone when she woke up two hours later.
DeRyke reportedly told investigators that she asked her son where Willow was and the boy pointed to the front door. She said she was concerned because Willow had bad eyesight and her glasses had been left behind.
According to court documents, however, authorities now believe nobody saw Willow alive on Sunday at all.
After initial interviews with family members, investigators established that Willow’s mother went to a local bar on the night of September 7 and returned after midnight, a probable cause statement said. During that time, Willow and her brother were alone with Justin DeRyke.
Justin DeRyke was reinterviewed by Illinois State Police at 11:09 p.m. on September 9.
In that interview, DeRyke allegedly told investigators that around 11 p.m. on September 7, when he was walking from the bathroom to his bedroom after watching a pornographic video, Willow tugged on his arm to ask him to watch TV with her. According to the probable cause statement, he said she scratched his skin and made him bleed.
DeRyke allegedly told police he became angry at the sight of blood and yelled at the child. Documents state he then claimed that Willow ran out of the house to get away from him and tripped, falling into a brush pile where the family dumps cat litter and impaling her neck on a stick.
“According to the defendant, he believed he had to end her suffering” after he saw her twitching on the ground, the probable cause statement said.
DeRyke allegedly said he went into his bedroom, picked up a knife, returned to Willow and slit her throat. He told police he then tried to stab her in the heart approximately five times, according to the document.
DeRyke allegedly stated that he wrapped Willow’s body in plastic bags, secured them with duct tape and dumped her in a body of water in a remote location.
An autopsy conducted on Willow after she was found revealed that her throat had been slashed and she had suffered a laceration to her collarbone area. A smaller stab wound had fatally severed her sub-clavicle vein.
The autopsy also noted defensive wounds on Willow’s hands.
Justin DeRyke has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder. He made his first court appearance Wednesday and his bond was set at $5 million.
At a press conference after DeRyke’s court appearance, Effingham County State Attorney Bryan Kibler called the case “maybe one of the most heartbreaking events that ever happened in this county’s history.”
Kibler said the investigation is still ongoing, but investigators are confident no one else was involved in Willow’s death.
Prosecutors intend to present the case to a grand jury on September 18, the day before DeRyke’s next court date.
According to Kibler, the probable cause statement laid out the facts as they are known now and was based on what DeRyke allegedly said happened.
“That is the defendant’s statement,” Kibler said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true, it doesn’t mean it’s false.”
Kibler said it is possible additional charges will be filed against Justin DeRyke.
Debbie DeRyke, Willow’s grandmother, told WXEF that Justin and Willow always got along and she did not know what could have led him to allegedly kill his niece.
“That’s your family. You think you know them,” she said.
However, she said, “We’re not supporting our son.”
Court records show DeRyke submitted a request for a public defender on Monday. According to the Effingham County Public Defender's Office, nobody has been appointed to represent him yet.
After releasing the probable cause statement, Kibler told reporters that the information within it is only an allegation and it is what prosecutors believe they can prove at this time.
“The defendant is presumed innocent of each and every charge against him,” Kibler said.