The parents of a 3-year-old girl found dead in a canal near her northwestern Wisconsin home last month were charged Friday with felony child neglect after several residents claimed that the girl had been seen wandering unsupervised before and numerous pieces of drug paraphernalia were found at the home.
Thomas Williams, 42, and Jenna Danish, 33, both of Danbury, Wis., were charged in the death of Reena Williams, who was found Aug. 15 after a large-scale search near the family's home, which is surrounded by water and bordered by a canal with a steep bank. Though the bank is located less than 25 yards from the home, there aren't any fences or guard rails. Williams is the caretaker of a dam on the family's premises.
According to criminal complaints filed by the Burnett County district attorney's office, the girl was known to go near the water. In April, she dove into the water behind the house to retrieve her fishing pole and had to be saved by her father, who remarked that she showed no fear of the water.
Burnett County Sheriff Dean Roland said Friday afternoon that he wasn't sure if the couple was still at their home or not. "We don't know where they are," he said.
Left to wander around
According to several residents, it wasn't uncommon for Reena to be seen wandering around away from the house. According to someone who had known the couple for a few months, the girl was often dirty and neglected.
On Aug. 14, a man spotted Reena wandering by herself near a ballfield away from her home. A short time later, a woman spotted Reena walking with a dog on a street about a half-mile away from her house. When the woman took the girl home, nobody appeared to be at the house. When Williams later walked up from the dam, he allegedly didn't seem concerned when the woman told him that she found the girl away from the home. According to the complaints, the woman said Williams seemed incoherent.
When the woman went home, a neighbor said a little girl was missing. She said that she had found the girl, but the neighbor said, "No, she's missing again." When the woman went back to the house, she said, neither Williams nor Danish appeared to be upset or looking for the girl.
Hundreds joined search
Law enforcement's initial search for the girl included rescue personnel, police dogs and a Minnesota State Patrol helicopter with an infrared imaging system. More than 500 people, including hundreds of volunteers, searched throughout the day.
According to the criminal complaints, an acquaintance of Williams' told police that minutes before the girl disappeared, he and Williams had been smoking synthetic marijuana. Danish told someone she had been sleeping at the time. During the search for Reena, police found drug paraphernalia as well as suspected marijuana and synthetic marijuana at the home.
Police also noticed that a sheet was hanging over all of the west-facing windows in the kitchen, completely blocking the view of the canal. According to the complaints, the area, which is where Reena was found dead, would have been "plainly visible" from those windows if they hadn't been covered.
In a later search of the home after the girl's body was recovered, more drug paraphernalia was found. A dog on the property was also determined to be severely neglected.
Sheriff Roland said the parents were cooperative during the extensive search.
Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495 Twitter: @stribnorfleet