NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — The teenager charged with killing a 5-year-old girl then dumping her body in a garbage can wasn't around when the little girl's mother dropped her off with a relative while the mother went to work.
Crystal Walker told WIVB-TV that she knew John Freeman as a "mooch" who would frequently come and go from Walker's grandmother's house in Niagara Falls. She asked her grandmother, Sharon Lascelle, not to keep letting him in but she told the television station that Lascelle had a big heart, couldn't say no and would let Freeman sleep at the house when his heat was turned off.
"She's just so welcoming in her home and just trusts everyone," a devastated and tearful Walker said in an interview broadcast Tuesday.
Police say Freeman came to the house sometime Sunday night and, after Lascelle went to bed around 11, killed Isabella Tennant with his bare hands. An autopsy report said she died from an obstructed airway and compression of the neck.
After killing the girl, Freeman enlisted the help of a friend, 18-year-old Tyler Best, to put the body in a garbage bag and dump it in a garbage can a few blocks away. The teens were arrested shortly after Best went to police Monday morning and led them to the garbage can and a trash bag holding Isabella's body. He told them he helped Freeman dispose of the body after Freeman killed her, police said.
Freeman pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder charges and was sent to county jail without bail. Best pleaded not guilty to charges of tampering with evidence and also was returned to jail. Both are due back in court on Sept. 7.
"I just don't want it to be real," Walker said. "I just want her back."
Walker, who works at a sports bar in Niagara Falls, says she wishes her grandmother had just told Isabella to come to bed when the older woman did. And, while she knows Lascelle was responsible for her daughter's safety, she doesn't blame her for the girl's death.
"I can't," she said. "It wasn't her fault because she trusted this kid."
For Freeman, though, Walker held nothing but scorn and anger.
"I don't understand. He could have left her in the basement and made it look like she fell," she said, her face contorting and her voice breaking through the tears. "But instead, he took her little body three streets away and put her in a garbage can. I mean, who does that?"
Police said they believe Freeman killed Isabella in the house, but they haven't detailed the attack.
In a statement issued to the media, Michael Tennant said: "Isabella was loved deeply by her daddy Mike and his fiancee Maria. Isabella enjoyed spending time with her cousins and family. Anybody who knew Isabella always saw her warm beautiful smile. The Tennant family appreciates your thoughts and prayers at this time of grieving."
At a news conference Monday afternoon, Niagara Falls Chief Detective William Thompson said the girl was injured but there was no indication of sexual abuse. County Coroner Cindy-Lou Joyce also said there was no sign of sexual abuse.
"As far as we know, he was a trusted family friend," Thompson said. "It's a terrible crime. It tears at your heart."
Of Best going to police, Thompson said, "I imagine it was his conscience."
Freeman and Best were in custody and couldn't be reached for comment. Their home phone numbers weren't listed.
The teenagers, dressed in blue jumpsuits and handcuffed, were in court for just six minutes and each said only one word, answering "no" when Niagara Falls City Court Judge Angelo Morinello asked if they were students. Eleven members of Isabella's family and 11 supporters of Freeman filled the courtroom. There were no confrontations in or outside the court.
Robert Viola, the lawyer representing Freeman, said he met with the boy for a few minutes Monday and asked the judge to reserve his right to seek a hearing to see if Freeman is competent to stand trial. He also asked the judge to seal any statements Freeman gave to police. The judge agreed to both requests.
Viola did not return a call seeking comment.
Best was represented by Rodney Giove. A phone call to his law firm went unanswered Tuesday.
Niagara County District Attorney Michael Violante has not returned repeated calls seeking comment since Monday afternoon.
Crystal Walker said her only child was very energetic and loving and looking forward to starting kindergarten.
She was so excited," she told the TV station. "We just got all the shopping done, she filled her book bag; it's in her room.
"Her lunchbox is in the fridge," she said, pausing as emotion caught up to her quavering voice. "She already packed a lunch and it doesn't even start for two weeks."
Information from: WIVB-TV, http://www.wivb.com