Investigators desperate for clues in the disappearance of Cassandra “Cassie” Emerson posted a $5,000 reward Tuesday for information about the 12-year-old’s whereabouts.
The girl disappeared shortly before a Friday morning fire destroyed the mobile home she shared with her mother on the outskirts of this town 70 miles north of Spokane.
Authorities found the body of 29-year-old Marlene Emerson in the wreckage. Initial autopsy results are inconclusive, but detectives think she may have been murdered and her daughter kidnapped.
Federal and local investigators have been searching nonstop for Cassie since the fire, convinced she’s in danger because she holds the key to her mother’s death, Stevens County Sheriff Craig Thayer said Tuesday.
“The missing child is our top priority right now, even over the criminal investigation into her mother’s death,” Thayer said.
Detectives have interviewed dozens of people, including the victim’s family and friends, but have no good leads, the sheriff said. No one has been ruled out as a suspect.
“It’s an open investigation at this point,” Thayer said.
The girl’s life has been filled with turmoil, according to court records.
She doesn’t know her father, who abandoned the family early on and hasn’t been heard from since.
In 1990, Emerson - addicted to drugs and alcohol - gave her older sister custody of the girl, documents say.
A year later, Emerson asked a judge for an order prohibiting her sister, Connie Stephens, from seeing the girl.
“Connie has called Cassie her daughter and said I was not her mother,” Emerson wrote in an affidavit.
While Emerson didn’t seek custody of her daughter, she told the judge Stephens wasn’t caring for the girl properly and had a violent temper.
“Cassie is at high risk of physical abuse in such a volatile atmosphere,” Emerson wrote. “Cassie feels like something may happen if she is forced to return, and so do I.”
A judge granted the order, but it expired a year later.
In 1992, Stephens and her mother, Elaine Olson, petitioned the court to give them permanent custody of Cassie. The request was never addressed by a judge, but the girl lived with her aunt and grandmother until March 1996, according to court documents.
In 1995, two Colville residents filed harassment complaints against Stephens, known then as Connie Barnhill. One of the women said Stephens pushed her young son and threatened him.
“I have known Connie for about 8 years and I know and have seen the ‘wrath of Connie,”’ Aleeta Krager wrote to a judge. “She will do whatever it takes to get what she wants. When Connie gets upset and/or angry, she becomes very violent.”
Krager later dropped the complaint, saying she and Stephens had worked out their problems.
Shortly after regaining custody of her daughter in March 1996, Emerson filed for a protection order against her boyfriend. Emerson told a judge James Mills beat her and that she was afraid of him.
“My fear with this protection order is that James will appear to be upset and hurt when he receives it, but I know that he will be really angry and will try to find a way to hurt me when he is released from jail,” she wrote in an affidavit.
The order, which prohibited Mills from coming within 1,000 feet of Emerson or her daughter, was granted in May 1996. It expired 24 days before Emerson died.
Both Emerson and Stephens spent time in jail earlier this year.
In March, Emerson pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree burglary after she and her sister’s husband were charged with breaking into a Kettle Falls tattoo parlor and stealing equipment and supplies.
She spent less than two weeks in jail.
Stephens, who later told police she used the equipment to start her own tattoo business, pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property. As part of her plea bargain, prosecutors dropped a drug charge stemming from a separate incident.
She was released from the Stevens County Jail after serving two months of a 3-month sentence, according to the state Department of Corrections.
Community Corrections Officer Dick Kovarik said he talked to Stephens on June 18 and that she was living in Stevens County. That was his last contact with her, Kovarik said.
Attempts to reach Stephens for comment were unsuccessful Tuesday, as were efforts to contact Olson and Mills.
Anyone with information on the whereabouts of Cassandra “Cassie” Emerson is asked to call the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office at (800) 572-0947 or (509) 684-2555.
The girl is 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighs 95 pounds. She has blond, shoulder-length hair and blue eyes.
Her ears are pierced and she may have a rash on her left hand.
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