Football coach charged in 10 year-old girl’s death

(AP Photo/The Springfield News-Leader, Dean Curtis)
(AP Photo/The Springfield News-Leader, Dean Curtis)

ST. LOUIS (AP) — A middle-school football coach was charged Wednesday with first-degree murder in the death of a 10-year-old girl in southwest Missouri who was reportedly snatched off a neighborhood street just blocks from her home as several neighbors watched in horror.

Craig Michael Wood, 45, of Springfield also faces kidnapping and armed criminal action charges, according to Greene County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Patterson, who filed the charges late Wednesday afternoon.

Wood is accused of kidnapping fourth-grader Hailey Owens about 5 p.m. Tuesday as she walked to a friend’s house. Wood was arrested inside the truck parked outside his small, single-story home Tuesday night.

A body believed to be that of the missing girl was found Wednesday at a Springfield home owned by Wood.  Official confirmation won’t occur until after an autopsy, but Police Chief Paul Williams said “we have a high degree of confidence” in the preliminary identification.  He did not disclose the child’s cause of death.

Witnesses told investigators that a man in a gold 2008 Ford Ranger pickup truck drove down the street several times before abducting Hailey.

The Springfield School District said Wood is a seventh-grade football coach and teacher’s aide who supervises in-school suspensions at a school for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.  Hailey did not attend that school, and Williams said the two apparently didn’t know each other.

“There’s no connection that we’ve been able to determine at this time between the victim and the suspect,” he said.

Williams said police have no idea of a motive for the killing. He said Wood has not talked to investigators since his arrest.

The chief said that witnesses to the abduction called 911 to report the truck’s license number.  Resident Ricky Riggins told the Springfield News-Leader he chased the fleeing pickup in his car after a neighbor tried to pull the girl away.

“I couldn’t keep up,” Riggins told the newspaper. “He was probably five to six cars ahead of me, it was so fast.”

About 30 Springfield police investigators along with an FBI evidence response team searched the area near Wood’s home Wednesday morning, as well as a nearby coin-operated laundry.

A records search shows Wood had little criminal history. He pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance in 1990 in GreeneCounty and was fined $100. Wood also was convicted in 2001 for illegal taking of wildlife, the News-Leader reported.

Springfield School District Superintendent Norm Ridder said in a statement Wednesday that Wood began working for the district in August 1998 and is a paraprofessional and coach at PleasantViewSchool. Ridder said Wood has been suspended since his arrest.

School spokesman Teresa Bledsoe later said that Wood was initially hired as a temporary employee who worked as a substitute teacher before he was hired full time in 2006. He has coached football at Pleasant View since 1998 and was also an assistant boys’ basketball coach.

“He met all of our qualifications for employment,” Bledsoe said, noting that the Springfield district has a more rigorous background check requirement than state law, with an additional screening designed to detect substantiated allegations of child abuse or neglect as well as any past criminal violations.

Hailey did not attend the school where Wood worked. She was a student at WestportElementary School this year, and was at BowermanElementary School last year.

A candlelight vigil for Hailey is scheduled for Saturday, and a memorial fund has been set up in her name at a local bank.

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Associated Press writers Margaret Stafford in Kansas City, Mo., and Jim Salter and Jim Suhr in St. Louis contributed to this report.

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