Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Quick-Acting Officers Honored; on Patrol Elsewhere, One Pored over Files That Led to Arrest in Death of 9-Year-Old

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Quick-Acting Officers Honored; on Patrol Elsewhere, One Pored over Files That Led to Arrest in Death of 9-Year-Old

Article excerpt

Byline: Dana Treen

As sketchy information flowed from the scene the night Cherish Perrywinkle died, Elaina Gonzales was across town in her patrol car cracking the case by following a trail through jail and vehicle records that led to a suspect.

On that June night last year, the 14-year veteran of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office was working in a different part of the city than the team that was searching for the 8-year-old. Over her radio, Gonzales could hear descriptions of a possible abductor named "Don."

Poring through jail records, she found Donald James Smith, a 57-year-old sex offender recently released from incarceration. She later discovered he had access to a white van that looked like one in surveillance photos from the Lem Turner Drive Walmart where Cherish was last seen.

It was key information that helped police issue an alert with photos.

Smith was apprehended the next morning, not long before Cherish's body was found behind a Northside church in a wooded creek area. The van belonged to his mother.

Smith is charged with murder, kidnapping and sexual battery in the case and is awaiting trial.

Thursday, Sheriff John Rutherford said Gonzales had earned the Sheriff's Office January Officer of the Month award for the critical leads she developed. She and two other officers, as well as three others who reported seeing what turned out to be Smith's van, were all recognized for roles they played.

The case could have dragged on, Rutherford said, and Cherish's body never found.

In addition to Gonzales' top officer award, Officers Tina Henson and Charlie Wilkie were awarded commendations. Jacksonville residents Brenda Fillingim, Christina Howard and Jerome Bruton reported seeing Smith's van behind the church. They earned the appreciation of the department, Rutherford said.

The officers were not available for interviews because the case has not gone to trial, the Sheriff's Office said.

Lt. Rob Schoonover, then the leader of the Sheriff's Office homicide unit, said photos of Smith and other men named Don who fit the profile were shown to Cherish's mother, Rayne Perrywinkle. …

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