BREMERTON — As another day of searching failed to turn up any sign of 6-year-old Jenise Wright, authorities Wednesday urged the public to suspend passing judgment on the missing girl’s family and focus on her safe return.
“We would ask people to set aside issues about criminal history and parenting choices right now,” Kitsap County sheriff’s spokesman Scott Wilson said. “Let’s find Jenise first and sort the rest later.”
Wilson sought to tamp down growing criticism of Jenise’s parents, who allowed the little girl to wander freely in the family’s East Bremerton-area mobile-home park, and concern that her father’s criminal record may have some bearing on the girl’s disappearance.
Instead, investigators are seeking help from the public in distributing fliers and walking their property lines to seek possible clues to Jenise’s whereabouts. He urged area residents to lift tarps and look in boats, hot tubs and under bushes.
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“We can’t be everywhere,” Wilson said at a news briefing.
Jenise was last seen at about 10 p.m. Saturday, when she went to bed in her home in the Steele Creek Mobile Home Park, a community of freshly painted and well-tended manufactured homes in unincorporated Kitsap County.
Her parents told sheriff’s deputies they noticed she was gone on Sunday morning, but were not initially alarmed because Jenise often left the house to wander the neighborhood and find playmates, Wilson said.
When she failed to appear by 8:30 p.m. Sunday, however, her parents began going door-to-door looking for her, according to Wilson. Police were called about an hour and a half later.
Wilson acknowledged that it sounded strange initially to learn Jenise was missing a full day before police were called. “You have to understand, it’s a different mentality, almost like a tribal community, here,” he said.
“She was, literally, a child of the park and everyone knew her. Because she was so friendly, she would have breakfast with some neighbors here and lunch with others over there.”
Wilson also said that investigators are fully aware of the girl’s father’s criminal history, but do not believe it is connected with the girl’s disappearance.
James Wright was charged with first-degree child molestation in February 2000 for allegedly molesting an 8-year-old girl after a New Year’s Eve celebration, according to court records. The girl told a detective and social worker that he inappropriately touched her, the records say.
More than a year later, in June 2001, the charges were amended to include third-degree child molestation after a 15-year-old girl who was baby-sitting the first girl during New Year’s Eve 2000 said that Wright touched her breasts and put his hands down her pants, according to court documents.
Wright pleaded guilty in December 2001 to a misdemeanor assault charge related to the older girl. It was not immediately clear why the molestation charges were dropped. Wright was sentenced to a year in jail, but a judge suspended the entire jail time provided he followed certain conditions.
Prosecutors in Whatcom County and the Bellingham defense attorney who represented Wright could not be reached for comment.
Wilson said Jenise’s parents, and all of the residents in the 103-unit park, have been cooperative. Investigators completed a “deep canvass” in the complex, searching every home, vehicle, outbuilding and dumpster without having to obtain a single search warrant, he said.
Jenise’s parents took lie-detector tests Monday, but investigators are not disclosing the results. The family’s home also was searched twice, Wilson said.
He said thus far no suspects had been identified, no people had been cleared and no possible outcomes had been eliminated.
“We cannot rule out anything yet,” Wilson said.
Frank Montoya Jr., special agent in charge of the FBI’s Seattle office, said investigators are following up on tips and hoping people will continue to call the FBI phone line at 1-800-CALL-FBI with any information they may have related to the girl’s disappearance.
He said the FBI was working to have billboards with Jenise’s picture and information put up in Washington and Oregon.
Susan Murphy, who works at a Burger King near the girl’s home, said Wednesday FBI agents had recently been in the restaurant.
“They had an unconfirmed tip that she was seen in here on Saturday night with another little girl,” Murphy said.
However, she said, the woman who was working the shift told the FBI she would have noticed any unattended little girls and she did not see Jenise that night.
Murphy said she lives nearby and has a daughter just a few years older than Jenise. On Monday night she talked to her daughter about Jenise and explained that her disappearance is why she won’t let her daughter ride her bike alone.
“People say don’t judge, but I am judging,” she said. “It’s unfathomable to me that you can go 24 hours without knowing where your child is. It’s pretty bizarre and crazy — and scary.”
Information from Seattle Times archives and The Associated Press is included in this story.Christine Clarridge: firstname.lastname@example.org