JSO officers responding to Cherish Perrywinkle's murder: 'Protect her, preserve the evidence'

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — From the moment Donald Smith’s van was spotted to when 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle’s body was recovered, present and former Jacksonville Sheriff’s officers told a jury on Monday about the aftermath of the child’s disappearance, leaving some on the panel visibly upset.

During this opening day in the trial of Smith, who's accused of the 2013 kidnapping, rape, and murder of Cherish, prosecutors first called witnesses, including Cherish's mother, to detail the hours leading up to when the girl allegedly followed Smith out of a Northside Walmart, never to be seen alive again. The later batch of witnesses took jurors to the other side -- what happened when the investigation picked up steam.

The first major break came from Officer Tina Henson, who’s been with JSO for 18 years, and was on patrol at the time of this incident. She said her sergeant told her that morning to watch out for Smith’s van in connection to the Amber Alert for Cherish’s disappearance. Henson was working a traffic crash when that vigilance paid off.

“I rolled down my window and I looked back at the citizens, and I told them I’d be back,” Henson said about her actions after she spotted a van matching the description.

The Florida Highway Patrol ultimately resumed that crash investigation while Henson started following the van. She did not engage right away, instead waited for support. That support came from K-9 Officer Charles Wilkie Sr., who was with JSO more than 25 years, but has since moved to Jacksonville Aviation Authority police.

Wilkie said he got notice about the van from dispatch and immediately responded. He was directly involved in stopping the van and taking Smith into custody, including searching Smith. During a pat down, he said he felt Smith’s pants, and it left his hand wet.

“I shouted out ‘My God, she’s in the water,’” Wilkie said.

Wilkie helped clear the van as well, but then got called to the area near a church off Broward and Rutgers roads, where information had led them to believe Cherish may be.

That information had come in the form of two tips: first, a mother and daughter, Marquita and Christina Howard said they noticed the van backed up to the wood line and that it seemed like it could be engaged in something suspicious.

When they got home and learned of the Amber Alert, they immediately returned to the site and saw the van was gone. Similarly, Brenda Fillingim said she also noticed the out of place van, and made the connection when she heard about the Amber Alert shortly after. She said she even encountered the Howards when she too returned to the site, but then drove to a police substation to bring officers back, while Christina called 911.

Wilkie said as soon as he got there, he asked where water was, and got his K-9 Gator to start tracking.

“I knew I needed to get to the creek, and so I knew that if he could find that track, he could take me right where that victim was going to be,” Wilkie said.

Gator quickly went in to the woods and landed Wilkie in an area where he said he could clearly see a path. He then saw Cherish, lying under a fallen tree, covered in various debris.

“Your first reaction is to try to save them. You’re hoping that there’s something you’re going to be able to do that’s gonna save their life,” he said.

But he further testified that he knew immediately that Cherish was gone.

“The only think I could do at that point, you know my mind’s racing about what I can and can’t do in a manner of seconds, and all I could do is just stand by with her and protect her, preserve the evidence, so that one day, whoever did this to her would be held accountable,” Wilkie said.

While Wilkie stood a brief watch until he was relieved, the major work now shifted to crime scene analysts.

Detective Kimberly Long is one of the members of the Crime Scene Unit. She’s been with JSO for almost 25 years, more than 17 of which have been spent in that unit. While Long’s first response was to the van, where she helped take photos and seal it up for transport, the majority of her testimony was spent walking the jury through crime scene photos from where Cherish’s remains were found.

The testimony included describing not only the tire tracks in the area and the broken branches that marked a path, but where the body itself was located. Long said the body was under a fallen tree, covered by grass, several pieces of asphalt, and a branch.

“Clearly, I mean this is asphalt, this is rock. This is not going to float on top of her body. It would have had to have been placed on top of the body when she was placed in the water?” asked Assistant State Attorney Mark Caliel.

“That’s correct,” Long answered, further expanding that it appeared there was an attempt to hide Cherish’s body.

She said she took many DNA swabs to examine for touch DNA, because there were obvious signs Cherish had suffered asphyxia by strangulation, which could mean DNA was left behind by the suspect. She also spoke about some of the physical injuries she could see on Cherish, although the medical examiner was expected to further testify about that.

Cross examination was brief overall, with the defense questioning Henson about the shift she had worked, specific instructions she received on what to look for, and proximity of the various scenes.

Questions to Wilkie looked largely at Smith’s mannerisms as he was being taken in to custody. Wilkie said Smith made somewhat “flamboyant” gestures that Wilkie hadn’t seen in all of his experience, both while putting his hands out of the window when he was first stopped, and then after dropping his shirt following police command so they could see if Smith was armed.

There were 12 witnesses called overall Monday, in addition to opening statements by both parties. WOKV and Action News Jax continue to follow the testimony, and will update you as the trial moves forward.