Cherish Lily Perrywinkle was only 8 years old when she walked to a McDonald’s restaurant inside a Florida Walmart with her mom and two sisters–and with a man who vowed to help her struggling family. Likely, all the little girl thought about was munching on late-night fast food, but it was the last time anyone would see her alive.
On June 21, 2013, a man approached single, struggling mother, Reyne Perrywinkle, at the Dollar General store on Edgewood Avenue West in Jacksonville. The man, later identified as 56-year-old Donald James Smith, first offered to buy the mom a dress. He then offered to buy her a $100 gift card and somehow convinced her to ride with him to pick up the card at Walmart. Smith drove Reyne and her daughter, Cherish, and her two other little girls to the Walmart off of Lem Turner Road, claiming that his wife would meet them there and help them shop for clothes.
— Aavish Bilal (@aavishbilal) April 3, 2016
At around 11 p.m., Smith’s supposed wife was nowhere to be found. It’s still unclear whether she ever existed. He suggested getting food at the McDonald’s inside the store and asked for Cherish to accompany him and pick out the food she wanted. After 30 minutes passed and her daughter hadn’t returned, Perrywinkle became nervous and called the police.
“I don’t want him to kill her. I don’t want to be one of those parents who go through this.” Perrywinkle told a 911 operator. “I don’t understand why he would leave right now. I already know he’s going to rape her.”
After a lapse in time while discussing strategies to find the little girl, officers began canvassing the area in search of the little girl. They obtained surveillance footage from Walmart and watched Smith exiting the store with Cherish following closely behind. They later identified Smith as a convicted sex offender who had only been out of jail for around three weeks before he preyed upon the Perrywinkle family.
Smith had an extensive criminal record, which included a lewd assault on a child, an attempted abduction on a 13-year-old girl, harassing phone calls to a 9-year-old girl, and an attempted abduction on two teen girls by trying to lure them to his vehicle with pornographic magazines. The 56-year-old’s criminal record dated back to 1977.
At around 9 a.m. the following morning, officers spotted Smith’s van off of I-95 near downtown Jacksonville. As officers approached his vehicle and surrounded him, they noticed Smith, dirty and soaked in water, was wearing the same clothes he had on in the Walmart surveillance footage.
Around the same time, officers received a tip that a “suspicious” van was seen around Broward Road. After utilizing K-9 units, little Cherish’s lifeless body was found in a nearby swampy ditch. She’d been badly beaten, raped, and murdered.
Could Cherish’s Death Have Been Prevented?
According to an internal review by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, there was too much of a lapse in time from the moment the 911 call came to the time that officers began searching. Although the surveillance footage matched Reyne Perrywinkle’s frantic description of what happened, several hours passed before authorities started searching. Initially, they considered it a missing persons case instead of an abduction.
News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith theorized that authorities were slow to take action because of the 911 dispatcher’s description of the call.
“It can’t end well at all, but you can only go by the information that you have and the dispatcher did not inform them that it was an abduction, even though Ms. Perrywinkle was quite clear in stating that her daughter was taken.”
Further, it took a total of six hours before the media was alerted about the case. It took an additional hour after the media alert for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to send out an AMBER Alert.
In this episode of Crime Stories, Nancy Graces speaks with Klaas Kids founder, Mark Klaas, about the grim details of the case and how a flawed AMBER Alert system failed this little girl.
Meanwhile, Smith is behind bars, awaiting trial for Cherish Perrywinkle’s murder. After many delays, his trial is scheduled for February 2018.
[Feature Photo: Handout]