BREMERTON — The investigation into the disappearance of Jenise Wright shifted to a criminal probe Thursday after a body believed to be that of the 6-year-old was discovered near her home.
Although formal identification by the Kitsap County coroner isn’t expected until Friday, detectives said Jenise’s parents had been notified of the discovery and grief counseling was being arranged for the family.
An autopsy Friday will determine how the girl died, said Scott Wilson, a spokesman for the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office.
Wilson did not release detailed information about the location or condition of the girl’s body, but said during a media briefing Thursday, “we suspect that she just did not go off by herself and fall into some bushes and die.”
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He said a suspect has not been identified, but that is now the focus of the local, state and federal law-enforcement officers who have been working the case since Monday.
The incident commander, Detective Lt. Earl Smith of the Sheriff’s Office, said the body was discovered in a wooded area that had been searched earlier in the week. He said it was found as searchers began honing in on smaller and smaller areas.
“That’s why we search again and again and again,” said Wilson.
Frank Montoya Jr., special agent in charge of the FBI Seattle office, said the girl’s body was discovered by his office’s Evidence Research Team with the assistance of K-9 units.
Jenise, who was to have started first grade next month, was last seen at about 10 p.m. Saturday when she went to bed in her home in the Steele Creek Mobile Home Park in unincorporated Kitsap County.
Her parents noticed she was gone Sunday morning, but were not initially alarmed because Jenise was known to wander freely around the park and find playmates, Wilson said.
Her parents began to worry about 8:30 p.m. Sunday and went door to door looking for her, he said. The Sheriff’s Office was alerted about an hour and a half later.
Wilson said Thursday there were no signs of forced entry at the girl’s home, and no indication she was taken from her room.
On Wednesday, when the focus was still on trying to find the girl, Wilson sought to deflect mounting criticism of the girl’s mother and father and their parenting choices.
He acknowledged the delay in contacting law enforcement seemed unusual but said the family lived unconventionally.
For example, he said, all the Wright children who were living in the home at the time were sharing one bedroom.
Child-welfare workers on Monday removed two children from the home.
Wilson also said earlier this week that investigators were aware that Jenise’s father had a criminal history but did not believe it was connected with the girl’s disappearance.
According to court records, James Wright was charged with first-degree child molestation in February 2000 for allegedly touching an 8-year-old girl inappropriately after a New Year’s Eve celebration.
Court records show Wright was additionally charged with third-degree child molestation six months later after a 15-year-old girl who was baby-sitting the 8-year-old girl during the New Year’s Eve party said Wright touched her breasts and put his hands down her pants, according to the records.
Wright pleaded guilty in December 2001 to a misdemeanor assault charge related to the older girl. He was sentenced to a year in jail, but a judge suspended the entire jail time provided he followed certain conditions.
Jenise’s parents took lie-detector tests Monday, but investigators are not disclosing the results. The family’s home has been searched at least three times by the Washington State Patrol and the FBI.
On Thursday, law-enforcement agents entered the home several times after the body was found, wearing white hazmat protection suits.
Police would not disclose if anything was taken from the home.
Incident commander Smith, noting authorities had received hundreds of tips, called again on the public for assistance.
Investigators are asking residents to call with any information they may have on unusual activity in or around Steele Creek Mobile Home Park from last Friday through Sunday.
“We want to know anything you might have seen or heard this weekend,” he said.
Anyone with possible information is asked to call the FBI tip line at 1-800-CALL-FBI.
Christine Clarridge: firstname.lastname@example.orgInformation from The Associated Press is included in this report.