As a small makeshift memorial filled with stuffed teddy bears and candles line the end of a dirt, trash-filled road surrounded by thick trees, neighbors are reeling after the death of a 3-year-old Florida toddler girl, whose suspected murderer had been under state social workers’ radar for numerous years.
NWF Daily News reports that authorities found the body of 3-year-old Crestview toddler, Adelynn Merrell, in the woods on Nov. 10, not far from her home at 4700 Bobolink Way. Police arrested the toddler’s mother, Destinee J. Merrel, 23, and the Merrel’s boyfriend, Cory M. Hagwell, 29, and charged them in connection with the death.
According to the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, Merrel called 911 on Nov. 10 and reported her little girl missing at around 12:15 p.m. The officer who responded to the scene noted that Merrel seemed calm and without emotion as she described what her daughter was wearing when she disappeared. After officers continued to question Merrel, she reportedly gave up her story on the disappearance and admitted her live-in boyfriend killed the little girl.
“Adelynn is dead and Cory took her into the woods.”
Authorities later found the fully clothed toddler wrapped in a pink blanket in a rural wooded area off of Palmetto Avenue. An autopsy later revealed Adelynn died from blunt force trauma after someone hit her in the back of the head, cracking her skull.
Detectives reported that Merrel gave two different accounts of what happened. She allegedly first said she heard the little girl calling out from her room and said Hagwell went to room and yelled at the girl. Merrel said she heard a loud thump, followed by a door shutting, and assumed that the Adelynn listened to Hagwell. She said she later found the girl dead, and made up a “kidnapping story” with Hagwell after he dumped the child’s body in the woods.
Later, however, after the initial interview with authorities, Merrel’s story changed. She said Hagwell spanked the child as punishment on Nov. 9, then locked her inside a closet for getting out of her carseat without asking. Merrel said on Nov. 10, Hagwell took her to another closet, and she heard a loud thump before two doors slammed. She claimed she found her daughter dead later in the morning.
When detectives questioned Hagwell, he admitted that he was “implementing corporal punishment” on Adelynn when she slipped and hit her chin on a bathtub and never regained consciousness. When authorities questioned a little boy in the home, the child said he witnessed Hagwell kick Adelynn while she played in a room. The child said pointed to his cheek and said Adelynn had “an owie.”
“Everyone was eating hamburgers but Adelynn didn’t get to eat because she was in the bathtub,” the little boy said.
The child said he later saw Adelynn laying on the floor of a closet, not moving or talking.
According to court records obtained by NFW Daily News, the Florida Department of Children and Family (DCF) had at least two previous reports on file against Hagwell. The first report, stemming from a Nov. 25, 2009 incident, read that Hagwell and an unknown woman had been reported in regards to their then-newborn baby. The report redacted exactly what happened, but indicated that DCF decided against “judicial action” and decided against taking the baby from the home. The couple agreed to in-home parenting classes.
— Bob Heist (@bobheistNWFDN) November 15, 2017
On Sept. 1, 2017, another report was filed with DCF, this time against Hagwell and Merell. According to documents, Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office deputy reported the incident to DCF after the suspects reportedly locked Adelynn and her 5-year-old brother inside a room and left them at home alone while they drove their 1-year-old child around in a car “to soothe him.”
The little boy managed to break out of the bedroom window. He ran to a neighbor’s house for help, while Adelynn stayed in the room, “crying and screaming.” An investigator with DCF interviewed the pair and wrote that he found them “very upset and remorseful.”
“Collaterals with the family of Cory Hagwell believe that they are doing well and do not feel that they would ever place the children into danger knowingly,” the case worker wrote in the report. “Both appear to be very loving to the children even though Cory is not the biological father of the children. Neighbor collateral have no further concerns since the initial incident.”
Subsequently, the state closed the investigation on Oct. 23. Less than a month later, Adelynn was dead.
Police allege Hagwell kicked the little girl in the back of the head as punishment before locking her inside a closet.
Merrel is facing one count of aggravated child abuse, one count of accessory to murder after the fact, and three counts of child neglect. Hagwell is facing first degree premeditated murder and aggravated child abuse. Both suspects remain behind bars without bail. Their next scheduled court appearance is on Dec. 20.
Check back with CrimeOnline as additional details become available.
[Feature Photo: Family Handout]