GLENDALE, Ariz. - It was a heart-twisting and gut-wrenching story, the kind that leaves your stomach upside down for days. It's about a little five-year-old Glendale girl who was gone.
This month, it's been five years since the Valley first learned of Jhessye Shockley. Even today, the mystery of what happened to her body still remains. And even though the case is closed, it's certainly not forgotten.
It was 2011 and Jhessye was stealing the hearts of everyone she encountered. The five-year-old girl from Glendale was pretty in pink and bright and bubbly in blue.
But on Oct. 1 that all changed when her mother, Jerice Hunter, called 911 to say her daughter disappeared.
"It can't be over an hour," Hunter said on the call. "I went to the store and my oldest was watching my kids."
But Jhessye was nowhere to be seen.
So, Glendale police scoured the apartment complex where Jhessye and her family lived, while the community prayed for a miracle.
Hours passed. Days dragged on to weeks. And weeks turned to months, with no sign of the little girl.
Jhessey's mother, Jerice, blamed Glendale police for dragging their feet in the case.
But investigators were busy building a case of their own, zeroing in on a shocking suspect. -- Jhessye's own mother -- who was outraged.
"They refuse to believe that this black woman didn't do nothing to her child," she said at a rally in front of the capitol. "I gotta be guilty, right? If you black, get back. If you white, get right."
Police did not think it was a case about race, but child abuse. They thought Jerice killed her little girl, put her body in a suitcase and threw it away like a piece of trash in a dumpster in Tempe.
Hundreds of people and heavy machinery combed the Butterfield landfill for 96 days, but couldn't find Jhessye. And eventually investigators solemnly conceded they probably never would.
"We did everything humanly possible to try to find her," said an investigator on the case.
Glendale police thought they found the killer. And almost a year after Jhessye disappeared, they arrested her mother on first-degree murder and child abuse charges.
She pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors did not have a body, but they did have a solid case. And had one of Jerice's other children planning to testify against her mother.
"She had seen Jhessye in her mother's closet, with bruises covering her body, her eyes blackened, deprived of food and water," said prosecutor Jeannette Gallagher.
For weeks, prosecutors laid out their case against Jerice. They had evidence of a pool of Jhessey's blood inside Jerice's closet. And they said cadaver dogs found evidence of decomposition in the landfill and dumpster where they thought Jhessye's lifeless body was dumped and even in Jerice's car.
But Jerice's defense team fired back. They dropped not one, but two bombshells, from neighbors who testified in court, but would not go on camera.
One originally told police he saw Jhessye on the same day she disappeared, then changed his story.
"Do you really remember seeing Jhessye on Oct. 11, 2011?" asked defense attorney Candice Shoemaker.
"Not that I remember," said the neighbor. "I really don't."
Another neighbor claimed Jerice didn't kill Jhessye, but instead saw the girl get abducted.
"And the next thing I know, the little girl is put in the car," the neighbor testified. "The woman gets in. The door closes and off they go."
Was Jhessye indeed stolen by a stranger? Or murdered by her own mother? It was now time for a jury to decide.
They deliberated for a total of two and a half days then reached a verdict four long years in the making.
The jury foreman proclaimed in court, "We find the defendant, Jerice Hunter on the charge of Count two, first-degree murder, guilty."
Jerice was calm and emotionless when she heard those words. That infuriated her own family when she was sentenced two months later.
"Your baby is dead. And you don't show no emotion," said an angry Lisa Vance, Jerice's cousin. "I hope you burn in hell."
"I know I've been convicted of a horrible crime," Jerice told the judge minutes later. "A crime which I most definitely did not commit. I besiege you, judge, to bestow a lenient sentence upon me."
But the judge did anything but that, and sentenced Jerice Hunter to life in prison.
Sadly, there's nothing that can bring Jhessye Shockley and her bright smile back to life.
Many wonder, where did her body end up? And will it ever be found? Truthfully, we may never know.
But at the end of this harrowing and heartbreaking case, Jhessye did indeed receive the justice she deserved.
Copyright 2016 KPNX