Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

September 10, 2013

UPDATE: Community grieving death of Willow Long

Jackson Adams
Effingham Daily News

EFFINGHAM — After more than 30 hours of searching, a body, now identified as the missing 7-year-old Willow Long, was found Monday evening.

Volunteers found the body at around 7:30 p.m. south of Watson. Searches conducted Sunday and Monday had mostly focused on the area railroad tracks near Long's home at 104 Circle Drive in Watson and the farmland north of the home.

An autopsy was conducted by forensic pathologist Dr. John A. Heidingsfelder. The autopsy ruled the cause of death as a homicide.

At 5:55 a.m. Tuesday Illinois State Police Investigations agents placed Justin DeRyke, 22, of Watson, under arrest for the murder of Long. DeRyke is Long's maternal uncle. DeRyke will appear in court for a probable cause hearing Wednesday at 1 p.m.

Long was reported missing Sunday after the mother said she awoke at 10:45 a.m. from a nap to find her gone. Her 3-year-old son pointed to the door, indicating she had left.

With a body found and an arrest issued, the volunteers — who numbered in the hundreds — community members and law enforcement departments now have a chance to rest and deal with the tragedy.

"We're heartbroken," said Matt Kulesza, Watson Fire Protection District Chief and one of the first responders said. "What a disbelief that anyone would do this in this area."

Kulesza said the members of his department are hoping to get rest after two days of near constant, sweltering searches.

"We've been running on very minimal sleep," he said. "We're just trying to get our heads on straight."

Many community members seem to be at something of a loss in explaining the tragedy of Long's death. With so many coming out to volunteer to search and so many others impacted by her loss, many are trying to put context to the tragedy.

"She's a little girl and she's innocent," said Shannon Neal of Watson. "No one deserves any of this."

Effingham Unit 40 Superintendent Mark Doan said his office is trying to find a way to deal with the tragedy and how Long's death will impact staff district wide, as well as students and teachers at South Side School, which Long attended.

“We have a crisis team in place and have for the last couple of days,” he said.

Doan said the office is also trying to find an age-appropriate way to talk to students of all ages about what has happened in the last few days.

Kulesza said reminding everyone who Long was will be a common conversation in the community

"It's not just the kids she knew and it's not just the kids in school," he said. "This hits everybody."

A candlelight vigil will be held for Long at 7 p.m. today at Watson Civic Center. Those attending are asked to wear purple and bring a candle. A donation will be taken and given to Long's father, who does not live in the area, for funeral and travel expenses.