Crime

Man accused of killing Ja’Naya Thompson, 5, gets mental evaluation

Regius Nelson prays at a trailer on Whitney Drive in Gulfport on July 18, 2014, where the body of 5-year-old Ja’Naya Thompson was found the day before.
Regius Nelson prays at a trailer on Whitney Drive in Gulfport on July 18, 2014, where the body of 5-year-old Ja’Naya Thompson was found the day before. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com File

A psychiatric evaluation is underway pending trial for the man accused in the kidnapping, sexual assault and killing of 5-year-old Ja’Naya Thompson.

Alberto Julio Garcia is set for trial Oct. 10 on a capital murder charge.

Ja’Naya, a frilly girl with bright eyes and a big smile, was reported missing from The Palms apartments complex in Gulfport the night of July 16, 2014. She was found dead the next morning, hanging by two socks in the bathroom of a vacant mobile home on nearby Whitney Drive.

An autopsy showed she was sexually assaulted and died of asphyxiation by strangulation the night she went missing.

Gulfport police identified Garcia, 31, and Julian Casper Gray III, 33, as persons of interest. Both men were living at The Palms. Gray was arrested on unrelated crimes but police have said he remains a person of interest.

In a status hearing Monday in Harrison County Circuit Court, a public defender told Judge Lisa Dodson that Garcia’s psychiatric evaluation has not yet been completed, Assistant District Attorney Crosby Parker said.

Garcia is originally from Miami. He was working for a food export/import business at the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport and reportedly had lived in Harrison County about six months.

Garcia had been treated at a children’s psychiatric hospital when he was 8 and had issues handled in a youth court, according to prior court testimony. He also had lived in North Carolina.

‘Everyone’s child’

Ja’Naya, nicknamed “Nae-Nae,” lived with her family in a ground-floor apartment on Klein Road across from Bel-Aire Elementary School. She had just completed a Head Start program at the Isiah Fredricks Community Center and would have attended Bel-Aire in a few weeks.

Ja’Naya had been playing just outside the sliding-glass door of the apartment before her mother reported her missing. Gulfport police called in the FBI and other first responders and alerted the media. Soon, people who didn’t even know the family showed up and volunteered to help search for her.

She was wearing a black Hello Kitty shirt and white sweatpants with rainbows on them when she disappeared. Her hair was in a pony tail.

The next day, about 12 hours later, a tracking dog alerted on an unoccupied trailer behind the apartment complex. The dog recognized Ja’Naya’s scent from a piece of clothing. A crowd gathered on Whitney Drive, and included her relatives and strangers who did not know the family but were moved by the tragedy.

Ja-Naya’s disappearance and death enraged residents of the coastal communities and beyond.

Mayor Billy Hewes referred to her as “everybody’s child.”

Hundreds of people who didn’t know Ja’Naya attended the visitation before her funeral service.

Gulfport Police Chief Leonard Papania called in the FBI for help just after Ja’Naya disappeared.

Forensic evidence in the case was later sent to the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia.

Charges soon filed

Police identified Garcia and Gray as persons of interest, and arrested each of them within a day or two of the killing.

Police first arrested Garcia on a burglary charge. He’s accused of breaking into the vacant mobile home four days before Ja’Naya was killed.

Garcia was later arrested on a capital murder charge. Capital murder is a crime committed during the act of another felony. It is punishable by death or life without parole.

The burglary charge is “outstanding,” ADA Crosby Parker said. That charge is not being prosecuted at this time, but could likely be covered in the capital murder trial.

Police arrested Gray on two charges of sexual battery and rape involving a woman’s complaint from an alleged incident three months before Ja’Naya’s kidnapping. Police searched his apartment after a woman reported he had sexually assaulted her. Police said they found child pornography in his apartment. They added child exploitation charges.

Garcia made statements to police implicating Gray as the abductor, and Garcia admitted he sexually abused Ja’Naya and helped hang her, according to previous testimony.

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